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Corcoran v. City of Chicago

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

March 23, 2015



ANDREA R. WOOD, District Judge.

Plaintiff Brian Corcoran is a police officer employed by Defendant City of Chicago ("the City"). Corcoran sued the City alleging that he was subjected to retaliatory harassment by his superiors after he reported hearing one of his supervising sergeants use a racial slur in reference to a fellow officer. Corcoran claimed that this harassment violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. After a two-week trial, a jury returned a verdict in his favor and awarded him $134, 000 in compensatory damages. Now before the Court is the City's post-trial motion pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b) for judgment as a matter of law. (Dkt. No. 168.) For the reasons detailed below, the City's motion is denied.


In April 2009, Corcoran and Alvin Campbell were officers of the Chicago Police Department assigned to the Department's 18th District. One of their shift supervisors was Sergeant Kelly Braithwaite. Corcoran and Braithwaite are Caucasian; Campbell is African-American. At trial, Corcoran testified that, on April 11, 2009, he heard Braithwaite refer to Campbell using a racial slur along with the words "fat" and "lazy" as Campbell walked by them at the District station. (Corcoran Test. 1140, 1142, Dkt. No. 180.) According to Corcoran, he informed Campbell about Brathwaite's comment the next day. ( Id. at 1144.) Two days later, on April 13, 2009, Campbell reported the alleged comment to Braithwaite's superior, Captain Randy Zawis. (Campbell Test. 544, Dkt. No. 177.) Campbell also told Zawis that Corcoran was the source of the information. ( Id. ) Zawis immediately initiated the Department's formal complaint review process, which triggered an internal investigation of the allegation. (Zawis Test. 108-10, Dkt. No. 175.) Braithwaite denied making the alleged statement and the Department's independent review authority ultimately found that there was insufficient evidence to prove or disprove the allegation. (Braithwaite Test. 302, 305, Dkt. No. 176.)

Corcoran testified at trial that he began to be harassed immediately after reporting Braithwaite's slur. ( See, e.g., Corcoran Test. 1146, 1149, 1152, 1157-58, 1164-65, 1167, 1169, 1172, 1176, 1187, 1201, 1215-16, Dkt. No. 180.) He claimed that he was assigned to a beat known as the "punishment car" ( Id. at 1172); that he and anyone assigned to the "punishment car" along with him were subjected to heightened supervision and additional work restrictions that no other officers in the District were required to endure ( Id. at 1149, 1157-58, 1164-65, 1167, 1170); and that he received unwarranted discipline and counseling ( Id. at 1191).

At the conclusion of Corcoran's case-in-chief, the City moved for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(a). That motion was denied. The jury subsequently returned a verdict in Corcoran's favor and awarded him $134, 000 in compensatory damages.[1] The City now renews its motion for a judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Rule 50(b). The motion raises two arguments. First, the City contends that the retaliation of which Corcoran complains did not constitute a materially adverse employment action within the meaning of Title VII. Second, the City argues that Corcoran did not engage in activity protected by Title VII. Both arguments fail.


I. Standard of Review

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50 allows a district court to enter judgment as a matter of law against a party who has been fully heard at trial if "a reasonable jury would not have a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find for the party on that issue." Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a)(1); see also Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., 530 U.S. 133, 149 (2000). In deciding a Rule 50 motion, a district court should review all of the evidence in the record but nonetheless draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party. Reeves, 530 U.S. at 150. The district court also must refrain from making credibility determinations or weighing the evidence, as "[c]redibility determinations, the weighing of the evidence, and the drawing of legitimate inferences from the facts are jury functions, not those of a judge." Id. Put another way, "the court should give credence to the evidence favoring the nonmovant as well as that evidence supporting the moving party that is uncontradicted and unimpeached, at least to the extent that evidence comes from disinterested witnesses." Id.

II. The City's Materially Adverse Employment Actions

Corcoran's complaint sought relief under Title VII, which makes it unlawful to discriminate against an employee "because he has opposed any practice made an unlawful employment practice by this subchapter, or because he has made a charge, testified, assisted, or participated in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under this subchapter." 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a). The City correctly notes that Title VII's prohibition of retaliation against protected activity extends only to employer actions that are "materially adverse." Lapka v. Chertoff, 517 F.3d 974, 985 (7th Cir. 2008). An employment action is materially adverse if it might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination. Id. at 986. In this case, the City argues that the retaliatory actions about which Corcoran complains cannot be considered materially adverse actions as a matter of law.

Several of the job changes Corcoran identified as retaliatory relate to his reassignment to a specific beat at approximately the time he informed Campbell of Braithwaite's slur. The beat was confined to two buildings in the Cabrini Green housing complex. Although the City presented evidence that the reassignment decision was made earlier, the parties stipulated that Corcoran's first day on the beat, identified within the District as #1822F, was April 16, 2009. Corcoran testified that the beat came to be known within the District as the "punishment car." (Corcoran Test. 1172, Dkt. No. 180.) Other officers confirmed the use of this label to characterize the beat. (Braithwaite Test. 307, Dkt. No. 176; Dinwiddie Test. 411, Dkt. No. 176; Martin Test. 464, Dkt. No. 176.)

Corcoran also testified that his superiors imposed ever-increasing restrictions on his activities in patrolling the #1822F beat. He said that he was required to get permission from a supervisor to get gas or a car wash for his patrol car, a requirement he had never seen imposed before. (Corcoran Test. 1170-71, Dkt. No. 180.) He further testified that he was initially told that he was to be stationed in his patrol car between the two buildings, later told that he was to be inside the buildings, and then told that he was to walk up and down the seven flights of stairs in each building every hour. ( Id. at 1148-49, 1159, 1161-62.) Corcoran asserted that the patrol car was taken away from the beat altogether during the summer of 2009 and that he and any partner assigned to the beat with him had to walk from the district station to the post for each shift during that period. ( Id. at 1167-68.)

According to Corcoran, his supervisors came to check on him during his shift several times daily. ( Id. at 1164-65, 1172.) He said that the restrictions and scrutiny he faced on beat #1822F were greater than those imposed on other officers. ( Id. at 1170.) The testimony of other officers supported this view. (Zawis Test. 269, Dkt. No. 175; Dinwiddie Test. 405-06, Dkt. No. 176; Greenup Test. 746, Dkt. No. 177.) One officer even sought reassignment from partnership with ...

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