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Hillmann v. City of Chicago

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit.

August 23, 2016

Robert P. Hillmann, Plaintiff-Appellee/ Cross-Appellant,
City of Chicago, Defendant-Appellant/ Cross-Appellee.

          Argued September 17, 2015

         Appeals from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 04 C 6671 - Ruben Castillo, Chief Judge.

          Before Flaum, Manion, and Sykes, Circuit Judges.

          Sykes, Circuit Judge.

         For nearly three decades, Robert Hillmann worked for the City of Chicago in its Department of Streets and Sanitation. In July 2002 the City eliminated his position in a citywide reduction in force ("RIF"). Two years later he sued the City alleging that he was targeted for inclusion in the RIF because he asserted his rights under the Illinois Workers' Compensation Act ("IWCA"), 820 III. Comp. Stat. 305/1 et seq., and the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101 et seq.

         This long-running case twice proceeded to trial. In the first trial, a jury found for the City on the IWCA retaliatory-discharge claim. For reasons not entirely clear to us, the ADA claim was tried to the court at the same time. But the judge died before issuing a decision, and a successor judge ordered a new trial on both claims based on an evidentiary error. The second trial yielded a split result. The jury found in Hillmann's favor on the IWCA claim and returned a seven-figure damages verdict. The judge found for the City on the ADA claim.

         Both sides appealed. The City contends that the judge's new-trial order was improper and asks us to reinstate the first jury's verdict. Alternatively, the City argues that the IWCA claim fails as a matter of law because Hillmann produced no evidence of causation. As a fallback argument, the City seeks a new trial limited to damages. Hillmann's cross-appeal asks us to reverse the judge's bench decision rejecting his ADA claim.

         We decline the City's invitation to second-guess the successor judge's decision to order a new trial. The first judge had excused two of the City's managerial employees from testifying based on their invocation of the Fifth Amendment; the second judge reasonably questioned the breadth of that ruling. Regardless, we agree with the City on the merits: Neither of these claims should have been tried. To prevail on his claim that he was discharged for exercising his rights under the IWCA, Hillmann needed to prove causation. At a minimum this required proof that the relevant decisionmaker knew about his workers' compensation claim. But no evidence suggests that the RIF decision-maker knew about Hillmann's claim. The ADA claim likewise fails for lack of proof of causation. Hillmann has no evidence that the City withheld merit raises or targeted him for the RIF based on his request for an ADA accommodation. The City is entitled to judgment across the board.

         I. Background

         Hillmann began working for the City of Chicago's Parks District in 1973. About five years later he moved to a job as a truck driver in the City's Department of Streets and Sanitation. In 1984 he developed cervical radiculopathy, a work-related injury that caused pain, weakness, limited mobility, and loss of sensation in his right arm. In 1995 he entered into an accommodation agreement with the City that allowed him to avoid repetitive work with his injured right arm. As part of this agreement, Hillmann was reassigned to the position of chief timekeeper in the Bureau of Electricity, a division of the Streets and Sanitation Department. He never performed all of the timekeeping duties required by the job description, but he performed the essential functions and did other tasks as directed by his supervisor.

         Hillmann's supervisor during this time was Deputy Commissioner Jim Heffernan. In May 2000 Heffernan was reassigned to a different post and Bart Vittori was temporarily assigned to run the Bureau. Vittori gave Hillmann additional duties that required repetitive use of his injured right arm, but Hillmann did not immediately inform Vittori of his physical restrictions. Instead, he went to Heffernan and Hugh Donlan, the Bureau's personnel liaison to the Department. Heffernan told Hillmann that he was no longer in charge and couldn't help. For the next two months, Hillmann performed the additional tasks Vittori assigned to him, exacerbating his condition.

         On July 1, for the first time in his career, Hillmann did not receive a merit raise. On August 8 Hillmann finally went to Vittori and told him that he could not physically perform the additional duties he was assigned. In response Vittori reassigned a supervising timekeeper to other responsibilities and assigned the supervisor's duties to Hillmann. About ten days passed before this shift of responsibilities could be accomplished, however, so Hillmann reported for work but performed no tasks.

         On August 15 Hillmann's attorney sent a letter to Barbara Smith in the City's Corporation Counsel's office requesting that Hillmann's 1995 accommodation agreement be honored. The next day Smith discussed the matter with Catharine Hennessey, the Department's labor-relations liaison. In response Hennessey instructed Donlan to write a new job description for Hillmann. The first paragraph of the description covered the duties Hillmann had performed as chief timekeeper; the second paragraph covered the reassigned duties of a supervising timekeeper. This paragraph also anticipated the Department's planned implementation of the Kronos computerized payroll system. Hillmann testified that the second paragraph of his new job description included tasks that he could not physically perform.

         On August 16 Brian Murphy replaced Heffernan as Deputy Commissioner. In that role Murphy was responsible for supervising all Bureau of Electricity employees. Murphy's direct supervisor was John Sullivan, the Managing Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Streets and Sanitation.

         On August 23 Hennessey instructed Hillmann to report for a fitness-for-duty medical examination to reassess the question of his accommodation. During this time, Hillmann also saw his own physician, who noted that his condition had worsened. On September 1 Hillmann was transferred to the Construction Division of the Bureau of Electricity where he was assigned to answer phones. That same day Hillmann filed a workers' compensation claim with the Illinois Industrial Commission. On October 1 another merit raise was denied. On October 7 he was again transferred within the Bureau, this time to the Transportation Division, where he was assigned to answer phones.

         Throughout the late summer and fall, Hillmann continued to see his treating physician and was examined by medical professionals in connection with his workers' compensation claim. On December 21 Hillmann received a letter signed by Hennessey and delivered by Donlan acknowledging his inability to perform the tasks in his new job description and advising him that "the most viable option for you is to apply for a Leave of Absence[] and to return to work when your physical condition allows you to perform the duties of your job title." The letter also suggested that Hillmann could "request a Work Evaluation from the Department of Personnel to determine if your physical restrictions will allow you to perform in some other capacity in another job ...

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