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Williams v. Office of Chief Judge of Cook County

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

May 21, 2015



JORGE L. ALONSO, District Judge.

Before the Court are two motions: (1) plaintiff's motion for summary judgment of liability on Count III of the Second Amended Complaint; and (2) defendants' motion for summary judgment. For the reasons explained below, plaintiff's motion is denied and defendants' motion is granted.


Plaintiff, Paula Y. Williams, sues the Office of the Chief Judge of Cook County, Illinois (the "Office") and Michael Rohan, who was the Director of Court Services and Chief Executive Officer of the Office's Juvenile Probation Department, for breach of contract, estoppel, retaliatory discharge for exercising rights under the Illinois Workers' Compensation Act (the "IWCA"), violation of the Illinois Whistleblower Act, and unlawful race discrimination and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 42 U.S.C. ยงยง 1981 and 1983. Williams worked in the Juvenile Probation Department from November 1995 until her employment was terminated in late August 2011.

Plaintiff moves for summary judgment of liability on Count III, her IWCA claim against the Office. Defendants move for summary judgment on all eight counts of the Second Amended Complaint.


A. Summary Judgment Standards

"The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). In considering such a motion, the Court construes the evidence and all inferences that reasonably can be drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. See Kvapil v. Chippewa Cnty., Wis., 752 F.3d 708, 712 (7th Cir. 2014). "Summary judgment should be denied if the dispute is genuine': if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.'" Talanda v. KFC Nat'l Mgmt. Co., 140 F.3d 1090, 1095 (7th Cir. 1998) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)); see also Bunn v. Khoury Enters., Inc., 753 F.3d 676, 681-82 (7th Cir. 2014). The court will enter summary judgment against a party who does not "come forward with evidence that would reasonably permit the finder of fact to find in [its] favor on a material question." Modrowski v. Pigatto, 712 F.3d 1166, 1167 (7th Cir. 2013).

B. Facts

The following relevant facts are undisputed except where noted.[1] Plaintiff Williams is an African-American woman who was formerly employed as a probation officer in the Office's Juvenile Probation Department. Her job duties included interviewing juveniles charged with crimes, visiting their homes and schools, referring them to social services, and attending court hearings. Plaintiff and the five other probation officers in her unit, who are all African-American, reported to Michael Willis, who is also African-American. Prior to her termination, plaintiff had been in the same unit for more than fifteen years.

The Office has more than two thousand employees and has seven departments, one of which is the Juvenile Department, that report to the Chief Judge. The Juvenile Department has approximately five hundred employees. At all relevant times, defendant Michael Rohan was its director. He was responsible for reviewing and approving all decisions relating to the termination of any employee in the Juvenile Department, and his decisions were subject to review by the Office. Rohan worked with Bruce Wisniewski, the head of Human Resources for the Office, when issues arose regarding employees' conduct.

The Court will review the relevant facts in chronological order.

Plaintiff's Conversation with Georganne Struss and Robin Petchenik

Plaintiff's version of this conversation is as follows. On December 4, 2008, plaintiff was walking by the office of Robin Petchenik, a co-worker who is Caucasian, where Petchenik was talking with Georganne Struss, another co-worker who is Caucasian. Plaintiff did not work with either of the women on a daily basis, nor was she supervised by either. Petchenik beckoned plaintiff over, so plaintiff went into Petchenik's office and joined their conversation. Plaintiff asked Struss, "Where have you been? I haven't seen you." Struss replied, "I'm in Maywood." Plaintiff asked how Struss liked Maywood, and Struss replied, "Oh, it's okay. When you go black, you never go back, and when you're white, you're always right." (R. 103-2, Dep. of Paula Williams 59-60.) Plaintiff was offended and did not respond; she simply walked out of the office. ( Id. 60-61.) Prior to the incident, plaintiff and Struss had been "cordial co-workers, " and neither Struss nor Petchenik had said anything like that to plaintiff before. ( Id. 53, 62.)

Struss and Petchenik tell the story differently. According to them, they were socializing in Petchenik's office when plaintiff came into the office of her own accord and joined their conversation. (R. 103-8, Dep. of Robin Petchenik 87-88; R. 103-7, Dep. of Georganne Struss 55.) Plaintiff mentioned that she had not seen Struss in a long time, (Petchenik Dep. 18, 58; Struss Dep. 26), and Struss said that she had been transferred to Maywood, (Struss Dep. 26). Plaintiff told Struss that she looked good, like she had lost weight, (Petchenik Dep. 18, 58; Struss Dep. 26), and asked what she was doing, (Struss Dep. 26). Struss replied that she was wearing all black and "once you wear black, you don't (or, "never, " according to Petchenik) go back." (Struss Dep. 26; Petchenik Dep. 18-19, 58.) Williams laughed and walked out of the office. (Struss Dep. 26, 37-38; Petchenik Dep. 19, 58.) Petchenik denies that Struss said, "when you're white, you're always right, " or anything similar to that phrase. (Petchenik Dep. 63.)[2]

On December 8, 2008, plaintiff wrote a memorandum about the conversation to Charles Young, who was the Deputy Director of the Juvenile Probation Department. (R. 103-6, Dep. of Charles Young 4.) The subject was "Racial intimidation in the workplace, " and the memorandum stated as follows:

This is to memorialize the comments made to me in the late afternoon, of December 4, 2008 in the office of [Supervising Probation Officer] Robin Petchenik. The other officer is [Probation Officer] Georgann[e] Struss. The statement made to me by both was "When you go black you never go back and when you are white, you are always right." In no way did it seem harmless. I interpreted it with the same venomous tone that I can only remember seeing on the television when Klu [sic] Klux Klan meetings were shown. I turned away and left that office wondering, why would they make that statement to me?

(R. 103-22.) When asked at her deposition why she had attributed the alleged statement to both Struss and Petchenik, plaintiff said that "even though... the words came out of Georganne Struss's mouth, Robin called me over there to her office and that is why I'm attributing it to both of them because I felt as though Robin called me so I could hear what Georganne had to say." (Williams Dep. 65.)

On December 10, 2010, Rohan sent Williams a memorandum acknowledging receipt of her memorandum. Rohan's memo stated as follows:

I am in receipt of your memorandum of December 8, 2008, which addresses serious concerns regarding inappropriate language of co-workers in the work place. Please note that our department does not condone such behavior and these comments appear out of character for the individuals that you attribute them to. I have requested that Charles Young contact you immediately to ascertain additional facts so that he might initiate an investigatory meeting involving the two officers that you alleged to have made these comments.
Please accept my apology on behalf of the department for the behavior as described in this memorandum.

(R. 103-23.)

Plaintiff claims that in December 2008 at the Probation Department's holiday party, Rohan approached her at the punch bowl in front of Lavatte [Powell], who was serving punch, "put his hand on [plaintiff's] shoulder, " and "instructed [plaintiff] not to mention" her December 8 memorandum "to anyone outside of the building." (Williams Dep. 82.) Rohan does not recall any such discussion and does not recall if he even attended the party. (R. 103-4, Dep. of Michael Rohan 80-81.) Powell, who is a clerk in the Juvenile Probation Department, states in an affidavit that she remembers serving punch at the holiday party, but never saw or overheard Williams and Rohan speaking to each other at that event or anywhere else. (R. 103-24.)

Charles Young investigated the December 4 incident by meeting with Williams and Rose Golden, who was the Director of Human Resources for the Juvenile Probation Department. (Young Dep. 23-26; Williams Dep. 66-68.) They discussed what had happened, and plaintiff said she had "felt threatened." (Young Dep. 26.) Young also interviewed Struss and Petchenik separately to hear their version of events. ( Id. 27-31.) They said that the conversation had been about clothes, not race. ( Id. 47.) Young was unable to reach any conclusion about whose account of the conversation was accurate. ( Id. 31.) The timing of these interviews is disputed. Plaintiff says that Young and Golden did not interview her until somewhere between March and May 2009. (Williams Dep. 66-67.) Golden could not recall the order of the interviews, but remembered that they took place within "days" of Rohan's December 10 memorandum. (R. 103-3, Dep. of Rose Marie Golden 64-67.) Young testified that he first met with Williams and then with Struss and Petchenik separately. (Young Dep. 22-24.)

Young met with Rohan and Golden to discuss the matter. ( Id. 32.) Young summarized what Williams, Struss, and Petchenik had told him. ( Id. 34-35; Rohan Dep. 72.) Young, Rohan, and Golden decided that Struss and Petchenik "would be admonished as far as being careful what they say." (Young Dep. 36.) Young and Golden met with Struss and Petchenik individually to tell them to be careful with what they say in conversation. ( Id. 37.) Struss and Petchenik were verbally admonished but not formally disciplined, and nothing concerning the matter was put into Struss or Petchenik's personnel files. (Golden Dep. 69-70.) Documents concerning plaintiff's complaint were placed in her personnel file. ( Id. ) At some point a year or more later, Young created a memorandum summarizing his investigation when he realized that he had neglected to create one in 2008. (Young Dep. 50-53.)

Plaintiff's Complaint to the Office of Inspector General

In March 2010, plaintiff made a complaint to the Office of Inspector General[3] ("OIG") about a supervisor in the Juvenile Probation Department who, according to plaintiff, was making telephone calls about union matters during work hours. (Williams Dep. 21-23; 26.) The Office investigated the matter, and the supervisor was ultimately disciplined by receiving a "short suspension." (Rohan Dep. 88, 90, 120.) Rohan was not involved in the investigation or privy to the specifics, but became aware at some point that Williams was the one who had made the complaint. ( Id. 89.)

Plaintiff's Injury and Termination

On May 27, 2010, Williams reported that her arm and shoulder had been injured at work that day when a co-worker, Anthony Jordan, "yanked" a door open from one side while plaintiff had been holding the door handle and about to enter from the other side. (R. 103-14, Employee's Accident Report.) Shortly thereafter, Williams took medical leave, filed a workers' compensation claim, and began receiving temporary total disability ("TTD") benefits. On June 10, 2010, Rose Golden sent plaintiff a letter confirming plaintiff's medical leave status and Golden's receipt of plaintiff's physician's documentation and instructing plaintiff to let Golden know once plaintiff was able to determine her return date. (R. 103-16.) The letter also stated that prior to her return, plaintiff would have to request a Return to Work certification from the County Medical Office and provide the medical office with a diagnostic report and release to return to work from plaintiff's personal physician. ( Id. )

On December 20, 2010, Dr. William A. Heller conducted an Independent Medical Evaluation ("IME") of Williams and prepared a report. (R. 103-17.) In his report, Dr. Heller diagnosed Williams with a "right shoulder strain" and stated that further treatment of Williams's injury was neither "reasonable" nor "necessary" and that Williams was capable of returning to her regular work duties. ( Id. 3-4.) Evidently, no one in the Juvenile Probation Department, Office of the Chief Judge, or other division of Cook County took any action on the IME report until June 2011, when Jason Henschel, a claims adjuster for the Cook County Department of Risk Management, [4] began reviewing Williams's workers' compensation claim file. (R. 103-13, Dep. of Jason Henschel 21.) After Henschel reviewed Williams's file, including the IME report, he brought the report to Rose Golden's attention. ( Id. 34, 38.) In an e-mail dated July 22, 2011, Henschel told Golden: "Per IME report, [employee] is able to work full duty. We need to get her over to the Medical Unit for work clearance. Then once cleared by the Medical Unit, I can terminate her TTD benefits. Can we talk on [M]onday? Thanks." (R. 104-3, Henschel Dep., Ex. 6.) Henschel cannot recall whether they talked that Monday (or at all) about Williams's case. (Henschel Dep. 38.)

On July 26, 2011, Golden sent plaintiff a letter stating as follows:

On July 25, 2011, I received a copy of an Independent Medical Exam report dated 12-20-10 indicating that you were cleared to return to work full duty. Based on that report it is our interpretation that you should have returned to work by now.
You are required to report to work on Tuesday August 2, 2011. You are directed to report to the Human Resources Section on the 8th floor at 8:30 A.M.
Prior to your return, you will be required to report to the County Medical Office at 118 N. Clark Street, Room 849, Chicago, to request a Return to Work Certification. It is necessary that you provide the medical office a diagnostic report and release to return to work (including restrictions, if any) from your personal physician. (See attached Hours of Operation and Return to Work Instructions)
As a reminder, failure to return to work will constitute an implied resignation. According to Article V, Section 4 (B) of your union contract "Termination is immediate and implied upon the occurrence of one of the following:... (2) Failure to report to work at the termination of leave of absence or vacation, unless the employee has an explanation acceptable to the Employer for such failure to report to work."
Please contact me immediately if you have any questions regarding this directive.

(R. 104-18.) It is undisputed that after Golden sent this letter, Williams did not contact Golden or anyone else in the Juvenile Probation Department during July or August 2011.[5] (Williams Dep. 37-42.)

On August 1, 2011, Williams did report to the Cook County Medical Office for a return-to-work evaluation. There, Dr. Joan Mankowski, an attending physician employed by Cook County, evaluated Williams. (R. 103-12, Dep. of Joan Mankowski 4-5.) According to the "Physician's Approval to Return to Work" ("RTW") form that the medical staff completed that day based on Dr. Mankowski's notes, Dr. Mankowski concluded that Williams was able to return to work on August 2, 2011. (R. 103-12, Mankowski Dep. 29-30 & Ex. 4.) The RTW form states: "IT IS IN MY OPINION THAT THE PHYSICAL CONDITION OF [PAULA WILLIAMS] IS SUCH THAT HE OR SHE CAN RETURN TO WORK AUGUST 2, 2011. I HAVE ADVISED HIM/HER TO REPORT TO HIS/HER PERSONNEL DEPARTMENT AT THIS TIME." ( Id. Ex. 4.) The RTW form ...

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