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Hopkins v. Board of Education of City of Chicago

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

November 14, 2014

JERONNA HOPKINS, Plaintiff,
v.
THE BOARD OF EDUCATION OF THE CITY OF CHICAGO, Defendant

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For Jeronna Hopkins, Plaintiff: Steven A Wade, LEAD ATTORNEY, Anesi, Ozmon, Rodin, Novak & Kohen, Ltd., Chicago, IL.

For The Board of Education of the City of Chicago, Defendant: Lucille A Blackburn, LEAD ATTORNEY, Board of Educaion of the City of Chicago, Chicago, IL; Richard Seth Shippee, LEAD ATTORNEY, Chicago Board of Education, Law Department, Chicago, IL; Sabrina Louise Haake, Law Department, Chicago Board of Education, Chicago, IL; Susan Margaret O'Keefe, Chicago Board of Education, Chicago, IL.

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MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

John J. Tharp, Jr., United States District Judge.

Plaintiff Jeronna Hopkins is a teacher at Portage Park Elementary School, employed by the Defendant, The Board of Education of the City of Chicago (" Board" ). Hopkins, an African American, alleges that the Board has harassed her and discriminated against her because of her race. Further, Hopkins alleges that the Board has retaliated against her for filing complaints of racial discrimination with both the Board's Equal Opportunity Compliance Office (" EOCO" ) and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (" EEOC" ). After discovery, the Board moves for summary judgment on both counts. Because Hopkins has failed to adduce evidence sufficient to support a jury verdict in her favor, the Board's motion is granted.

BACKGROUND[1]

Jeronna Hopkins has been employed as a teacher at Portage Park Elementary School since 2000. In December 2006, at a work-sponsored party at Bernie's Pub, Hopkins had a verbal altercation with another teacher, Edwina Klein. Hopkins alleges that Klein made racist comments directed at Hopkins. Hopkins reported the incident to Mark Berman, the school principal. Berman apparently tried to referee the dispute, but did not formally reprimand Klein at the time and did not discipline her in any way until after the Board's Law Department had recommended that Klein be disciplined.

On January 30, 2007, the Board's Area Instruction Officer (" AIO" ), Janice Rosales, performed a regularly scheduled walk-through at Portage Park Elementary School. That morning, Principal Berman arranged for a meeting so that teachers could meet the AIO. Believing the meeting to be optional,[2] Hopkins chose not to

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attend this meeting. During the walk-through that day, Rosales observed several teachers, including Hopkins, in their respective classrooms. Rosales observed that the state of Hopkins' classroom indicated that she was not complying with several of the Board's recommended teaching methodologies, and spoke with Berman afterwards about the classroom deficiencies.[3]

Two days later, on February 1, 2007, Berman gave Hopkins a cautionary notice, citing Rosales' observations and further alleging that Hopkins had failed to submit lesson plans, failed to follow the school-wide math program, failed to attend staff meetings, and failed to display current student work in her classroom. Hopkins reacted with anger at the notice,[4] which she contends was an act of retaliation for reporting the Bernie's Pub incident.

Later that month, Hopkins filed a formal complaint (the " 2007 Charge" ) both with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (" EEOC" ) and with the Board's Equal Opportunity Compliance Office (" EOCO" )--against both Klein (for allegedly making racist comments at Bernie's Pub) and Berman (for allegedly failing to discipline Klein). After an investigation, the EOCO found that Berman had acted improperly in his handling of the incident and the complaint, and recommended that Berman be disciplined. Despite this recommendation, the Board's Law Department ultimately decided not to discipline Berman.

Hopkins alleges that after her EOCO complaint resulted in the EOCO recommending discipline against Berman, Berman engaged in a " campaign of retaliatory harassment." Pl.'s Resp., Dkt. 55, at 13. Specifically, Hopkins alleges that Berman denied Hopkins' multiple requests to change grade levels, denied her request for a position supervising the after-school chess program, and would not appoint her to the non-paid role of instructional team leader for the third-grade teachers. Berman also lowered Hopkins' performance rating in 2009, from " superior" to " excellent," [5] an action that Hopkins contends was retaliatory rather than related to her performance. Hopkins also alleges that Berman made Hopkins appear to be a worse teacher than she was by openly badmouthing her to parents and other teachers. Hopkins also alleges that her students were disadvantaged unfairly in a school-wide " new reader" contest to prevent one of her students from winning.

Hopkins filed another EEOC charge in August 2009 (the " 2009 Charge" ). In that charge, she claimed that in retaliation for

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the filing of the 2007 Charge, the Board had subjected her to " different terms and conditions of employment," to include lowering her performance evaluation in 2009. Hopkins also listed the " Latest" date of retaliation in March 2009 but--unlike in 2007--did not check the " Continuing Action" box.

Ultimately, Hopkins settled both of her EEOC charges with the Board in March 2010. The settlement agreement " resolves charge numbers: 440-2007-04488 and 440-2009-06390," and provides, in relevant part, that the claimant " agrees not to institute a lawsuit with respect to the above referenced charge" in exchange for Berman changing her 2008 evaluation from " excellent" to " superior." Def.'s Statement of Uncontested Facts (" Def.'s SOF" ), Dkt. 50, at ¶ 66; Pl.'s Resp. to DSOF, Dkt. 94, at ¶ 66.

In addition to the alleged campaign of harassment by Berman, Hopkins also alleges that a wide-reaching campaign of harassment by parents of her students created a hostile work environment. It is undisputed that parents submitted complaints--in person, through telephone calls, and through written letters--about Hopkins' style of classroom discipline and treatment of her students. Over several years, the parents of at least 24 different children sent in letters requesting that their children be removed from Hopkins' class.[6] Most of these requests were accommodated, and Hopkins' class size would shrink throughout the school year until she ended each school year with a smaller class size than other teachers in her grade.

In one particular instance, in September 2010, the grandmother of one of Hopkins' students accused Hopkins of intentionally pulling a chair out from under her grandchild, causing the child to fall to the floor and suffer bruises from the impact. Upon learning of this incident, Berman started the process for a formal investigation involving the Department of Children and Family Services (" DCFS" ) and the Board's Law Department, which initially found that Hopkins had engaged in improper corporal punishment warranting a five-day suspension. Hopkins appealed, and on appeal the Board determined that while Hopkins did not deliberately use force against the student, Hopkins had still acted improperly by engaging in verbally abusive conduct towards her students. The suspension was reduced to two days without pay, and Hopkins served this suspension in September 2011.

In another episode during the same school year, a dispute arose between Hopkins and the mother of one of her students, so Hopkins requested that the student be transferred out of her classroom. Berman declined the request, and the relationship between Hopkins and the student's mother deteriorated further. In June 2011, during the last week of the school year, Berman changed his mind and transferred the student out of Hopkins' class. When Berman and the student's mother arrived in Hopkins' classroom to retrieve the student's belongings, Hopkins and the mother engaged in an in-classroom altercation severe enough to warrant the intervention of the school's security guard. Hopkins alleges that during the altercation, Berman

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stood by while the irate parent threw cookies at Hopkins.

After Berman retired in 2012, Maureen Ready replaced him as principal at Portage Park Elementary. Ready has also received several parental complaints about Hopkins, and reprimanded Hopkins twice for improper disciplinary techniques.

DISCUSSION

I. The Relevant Time Period

Before turning to the merits of the parties' arguments, the Court must first decide the threshold issue of which facts may be considered for the purposes of this motion. The Amended Complaint alleges two counts--racial discrimination and retaliation--each in violation of both Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (" Title VII" ) and 42 U.S.C. § 1981 (" § 1981" ). To the extent that the Amended Complaint alleges harassment as part of a hostile work environment, that claim would also be governed by Title VII and § 1981. Although the substantive analyses for both Title VII and § 1981 involve substantial " overlap," CBOCS ...


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