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Williams v. Safer Foundation

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

October 10, 2014

LAKESHA WILLIAMS, Plaintiff,
v.
SAFER FOUNDATION, an Illinois not-for-profit corporation, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

[SHEILA FINNEGAN, District Judge.

Plaintiff Lakesha Williams filed a two-count complaint charging her former employer, Safer Foundation, an Illinois not-for-profit corporation, with (1) subjecting her to a hostile work environment due to sexually harassing statements by her supervisor, and (2) retaliating against her for complaining about her supervisor's conduct, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., as amended by the Civil Rights Act of 1991.

The parties consented to the jurisdiction of the United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). Defendant has now filed a motion for summary judgment on both counts of Plaintiff's complaint. For the reasons set forth below, the Court grants Defendant's motion for summary judgment on both of Plaintiff's claims.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND[1]

A. The Parties

Defendant is a not-for-profit corporation that houses, educates and provides job training to criminal offenders until their release from incarceration, and locates employment opportunities for them following their release. (Doc. 44 ¶ 1). Defendant operates a correctional facility on behalf of the Illinois Department of Corrections called, "Crossroads Adult Transition Center" ("Center"). ( Id. at ¶¶ 1-2). Plaintiff was employed by Defendant as a Re-Entry Specialist in the "Halfway Back Program" at the Center, from August 20, 2007 until her termination on May 2, 2008. ( Id. at ¶ 2). In that position, Plaintiff monitored the whereabouts and movements of the offenders at the Center, and reported to supervisors Ronald Burge ("Burge") and Phyllis Veal ("Veal"). ( Id. at ¶¶ 2, 4; Doc. 49, at ¶ 1).

B. February 8, 2008 and February 9, 2008 Incidents at the Center

On February 8, 2008, Plaintiff was working in an office at the Center where Burge and a male co-worker, C.W. 1, were talking. (Doc. 44 ¶ 4). Plaintiff overheard Burge accuse C.W. 1 of dating a female co-worker, C.W. 2. ( Id. ). C.W. 1 denied that he was dating C.W. 2. ( Id. ). Burge then stated to C.W. 1, "You weren't acting like that when you had your dick in [C.W. 2's] mouth last night." ( Id. ). C.W. 1 responded to Burge by laughing. ( Id. ). Plaintiff "kind of felt offended" by the comments, and stated to Burge, "Now, you could have kept that to yourself." ( Id. ). Burge left the room after this conversation, and both Burge and Plaintiff completed their shifts for the day without further incident. ( Id. ).

The next day, February 9, 2008, Plaintiff was again working at the Center when a male friend dropped off a lunch and some medication for her. (Doc. 44 ¶ 5). After the friend left, Plaintiff, Burge and another female co-worker, C.W. 3, began a conversation. ( Id.; Doc. 49 ¶ 3). Burge said to C.W. 3 that Plaintiff had been acting "funny" when her friend was at the Center, and Plaintiff stated that she "was not." ( Id. ). Burge then told Plaintiff that her friend had been "acting like a cat piss[ing] and mark[ing] his territory." ( Id. ). Burge further stated he was going to make Plaintiff's friend "real mad" the next time her friend visited the Center, by telling her friend that Plaintiff "is acting funny, " and that she "wasn't acting that way when I had my dick in her mouth last night." ( Id. ). Plaintiff, surprised by the comment, asked Burge, "What did you say?" ( Id. ). Burge responded, "that's what I'm going to do, " and repeated that the next time Plaintiff's friend visited, he would say that Plaintiff "[is] acting funny now, but she wasn't acting funny when I had my dick in her mouth." ( Id .; see also Doc. 49 ¶ 6; Doc. 49-2 at 30).[2] Burge then left the room. (Doc. 44 ¶ 5).

Plaintiff had hurt feelings as a result of Burge's comments, and telephoned Burge later that day to ask "why he said what he said." ( Id. at ¶ 6). Burge denied making the comments, wished Plaintiff a good evening, and hung up on her. ( Id. ). Plaintiff then finished her shift for the day. ( Id. ).

C. Plaintiff's Complaints to Human Resources and Defendant's Investigation

On February 11, 2008, Plaintiff complained to Burge's direct supervisor, Earl Carr ("Carr"), regarding Burge's behavior. (Doc. 44 ¶ 8). The next day, February 12, 2008, Plaintiff also complained of Burge's behavior to Marketer Ash ("Ash"), Defendant's Human Resources Manager. ( Id. ). Plaintiff was instructed to put her complaints in writing, so she drafted an Incident Report, dated February 13, 2008, setting forth a description of the February 8 and 9, 2008 incidents. (Doc. 49 ¶ 2; Doc. 49-3, at 7). In the Incident Report, Plaintiff named herself and Burge as the staff involved in the incidents, and C.W. 1 and C.W. 3 as witnesses. ( Id. ). Human Resources Manager Ash then conducted at internal investigation, which included interviewing Plaintiff, Burge, C.W. 1, and C.W. 3, on February 21, 2008. (Doc. 44 ¶ 9; Doc. 49 ¶ 7; Doc. 49-3, at 18-19). In the interviews, C.W. 3 corroborated Plaintiff's version of the February 9, 2008 conversation, but C.W. 1 did not corroborate Plaintiff's version of the February 8, 2008 conversation, and Burge denied making any lewd remarks in either conversation. ( Id. ).

On February 29, 2008, Defendant held a meeting for all staff working in the Halfway Back Program. (Doc. 44 ¶ 11; Doc. 49 ¶ 9). Shortly after this meeting began, Burge expelled Plaintiff from the meeting, and she later complained to Supervisor Carr about being expelled. (Doc. 44 ¶¶ 11-12; Doc. 49 ¶ 9). Defendant alleges that Supervisor Carr questioned Burge, Veal and other staff at the meeting regarding the incident, and they stated Plaintiff was expelled for using vulgar, inappropriate language and being repeatedly disruptive. (Doc. 44 ¶¶ 11-12; Id. at 30-31). Defendant also alleges that Plaintiff was given a written warning regarding her conduct at the meeting, and submitted a document dated March 10, 2008 purporting to be the warning. (Doc. 44 ¶ 12; Id. at 33). Plaintiff, on the other hand, denies that she used any vulgar or inappropriate language, or was otherwise disruptive in the meeting, alleges that she was expelled from the meeting after helping a late arrival "find his place, " and does not recall receiving any written warning for her conduct. (Doc. 49 ¶ 9; Pl's Resp. to Def.'s L.R. 56.1 Statement of Material Facts, Doc. 49, at ¶ 12). For purposes of this motion, the Court accepts Plaintiff's version of events.

In early March 2008, Human Resources Manager Ash completed her memorandum regarding the investigation into Plaintiff's complaints. (Doc. 44 ¶ 9; Doc. 49-3, at 18-19). At that time, Ash disclosed to Plaintiff that the investigation produced inconclusive evidence, and advised Plaintiff that she should move on. ( Id .; see also Doc. 49 ¶ 8).

D. March 2008 Shift Change and Plaintiff's Attendance Issues

Under Defendant's absence policies, employees were limited to a certain number of excused absences. (Doc. 49 ¶10; Doc. 53 ¶ 10). Re-Entry Specialist staff ("RES staff"), including Plaintiff, were also not allowed to use a sick day "in conjunction with" (that is, immediately before or after) a scheduled day off. (Doc. 44 ¶ 15). However, Defendant sometimes allowed RES staff to take time off in addition to their personal days, such as for a medical reason or funeral, or due to car problems, subject to a supervisor's approval. (Doc. 53 ¶ 10; Doc. 49-4, at 34-35; Doc. 49-5, at 41).

Plaintiff accumulated one sick day per month while employed with Defendant, and was permitted to use her sick days following a 90 day probation period. (Doc. 44 ¶ 15). From her August 20, 2007 start date through and including March 9, 2008, a period of about six and a half months, Plaintiff called in sick ten times, including twice in conjunction with a scheduled day off. ( Id. ¶¶ 17-18). Four of those absences occurred in early March 2008, on March 5th, 6th, 8th and 9th. ( Id. ).

Around the time that Plaintiff was calling in sick in early March 2008, Defendant rotated the shifts of all RES staff at the Center, which operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. (Doc. 44 at ¶¶ 13-14). RES staff shifts are rotated every three to six months, at the direction of Defendant's vice president. ( Id. ). Prior to the shift change, Plaintiff complained to Veal that she needed more time to plan for the upcoming shift change, and stated she felt stressed about it, and about her job. ( Id. ). As a result, on March 10, 2008, Veal granted Plaintiff an additional week, until March 17, 2008, for her shift change to take effect, and referred her to the Employee Assistance Program for help dealing with the shift change and to improve her job performance. ( Id. ). Two days later, on March 12, 2008, Veal verbally warned Plaintiff that she had exhausted all of her available sick days. ( Id. at ¶ 19). Nevertheless, the next day, March 13, 2008, Plaintiff called in sick again. ( Id. at ¶ 20).

Following Plaintiff's absence, Veal issued Plaintiff a written warning, dated March 13, 2008, on behalf of herself, and Supervisors Carr and Burges. (Doc. 44 ¶ 19; see also id. at 36). The warning states that Plaintiff called in sick but had no sick time available, advises that her unavailability for work affected the Center's operational needs, and summarizes some of Defendant's policies regarding attendance issues. ( Id. at 36). It further states that Plaintiff had missed a mandatory meeting on March 13, 2008, and that future incidents of a similar nature would result in suspensions and "progressive disciplinary actions up to and including termination." ( Id. ).

Plaintiff received the March 13, 2008 written warning on March 14, 2008, but then called in sick about a week later, on March 20, 2008, in conjunction with a scheduled day off. ( Id. at ¶¶ 19-20). On March 22, 2008, Defendant alleges that it issued another warning to Plaintiff regarding her absences, which again stated that further incidents would result in "progressive disciplinary actions up to and including termination." (Doc. 44 ¶ 21). Defendant submitted a document purporting to be the warning, which contains a notation stating Plaintiff refused to sign it. ( Id. at 38). Plaintiff denies that she received that warning, and this Court will assume that she did not receive it. (Pl's Resp. to Def.'s L.R. 56.1 Statement of Material Facts, Doc. 49, at ¶ 21).

Plaintiff then called in sick again on March 24, 2008, and was allegedly issued another written warning, dated March 31, 2008. ( Id. at ¶¶ 22-23). The warning states that Plaintiff would be required to bring in a doctor's statement when she calls in sick, and Plaintiff produced a doctor's statement for the March 24, 2008 sick day. ( Id. at 39; Pl's Resp. to Def.'s L.R. 56.1 Statement of Material Facts, Doc. 49., at ¶ 24). Plaintiff admitted in a deposition that she signed the March 31, 2008 warning on April 1, 2008, although she also testified that she did not remember receiving it, and now denies receiving it. (Pl's Resp. to Def.'s L.R. 56.1 Statement of Material Facts, Doc. 49, at ¶ 21; Doc. 44, at 39).

E. Plaintiff's First EEOC Charge of Discrimination and Additional Absences

On April 3, 2008, Plaintiff filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") against Defendant, stating that she had been subject to sexual harassment, complained about the harassment, and was disciplined in ...


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