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Watkins v. Learn IT Systems

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

September 20, 2016

MICHAEL WATKINS, Plaintiff,
v.
LEARN IT SYSTEMS, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          John Z. Lee United, States District Judge

         Plaintiff Michael Watkins claims that his former employer, Defendant Learn It Systems (“LIS”), terminated his employment because of his race in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. LIS has moved for summary judgment [32]. For the reasons given below, the Court grants the motion.

         Factual Background

         LIS is a company that provides educational services to low-income children and children with special needs. See Def.'s SOF ¶ 1, ECF No. 33. During the 2012- 2013 school year, LIS contracted with schools in Illinois to provide Supplemental Education Services, a tutoring program, to qualifying students. See Id. ¶¶ 7-8. LIS employed two Supplemental Education Services teams in Illinois. See Id. ¶ 12. Each team was led by an Area Manager and staffed by two Program Managers. See id.

         Watkins, an African-American man, applied for a Program Manager position with LIS in early August of 2012. See Am. Compl. ¶ 1; Def.'s SOF ¶ 4. Program Managers' responsibilities included delivering tablets and Wi-Fi cards to students, monitoring each student's progress, communicating with parents and students about uncompleted lessons, retrieving tablets, and providing technical support. See Id. ¶¶ 25-28. Some of these obligations required visiting students' homes. See id.

         After Watkins applied, one of the two Illinois Area Managers, Trisha Irvin, an African-American woman, interviewed him and emailed her supervisor in Miami, Christian Ruiz, to express her strong approval of Watkins for the position. See Def.'s SOF ¶¶ 4, 13, 18, 59. Irvin then hired Watkins for her team, and his employment began August 28, 2012. See Def.'s SOF ¶¶ 4, 13. Irvin also hired another African-American man, Kendall Berry, to fill the second Program Manager position on her team. Id. ¶ 13.

         The other Illinois team was led by Area Manager Marlon Orozco, a Hispanic man. Id. ¶ 14. His two Program Managers were Ruby Magdaleno, a Hispanic woman, and Aaron Jenkins, an African-American man. Id.

         The two Area Managers, Irvin and Orozco, decided between them which districts their teams would service. Id. ¶ 21. Irvin selected the City of East St. Louis and some Southside schools in the Chicago Public Schools (“CPS”) system. See Id. ¶¶ 9, 22-23. Orozco selected other Southside CPS schools as well as schools on the Westside of Chicago and in the Chicago suburbs. Pl.'s Resp. Def.'s SOF ¶ 57.

         LIS's contracts with CPS and East St. Louis required services to be provided to students outside of school hours. See Def.'s SOF ¶¶ 10-11. In his deposition for this case, Watkins testified that working evening hours in the neighborhoods he serviced was dangerous because of high rates of crime. See Id. ¶ 33, 48, 56, 58-65. He also testified that Orozco's team did not have to work late hours in dangerous areas like East St. Louis. See Id. ¶¶ 6, 48, 57-58, 60-61; Pl.'s SOAF ¶¶ 26, 28-31. He did not know what kind of hours Orozco's team worked, but he believed that none of the areas that team serviced were as crime-ridden as East St. Louis. See Pl.'s Ex. 1, Watkins Dep. at 215-18. That said, Watkins has not identified any objective evidence that the areas he serviced were more dangerous than the areas Orozco's team serviced, although he testified that he did report his safety fears to Irvin. Pl.'s SOAF ¶ 27; Pl.'s Ex. 1, Watkins Dep. at 52, 209. In response, Irvin relayed to him that her boss, Ruiz, had said, “Hey, I don't care. Dangerous or not, get it done. Do it.” Pl.'s Ex. 1, Watkins Dep. at 210; see also Def.'s SOF ¶¶ 59-60.

         During the first two months of Watkins's employment with LIS, Irvin twice thanked him via email for his contributions to the team. See Pl.'s SOAF ¶ 22; Pl.'s Ex. 6, 10/26/12 Email of Irvin to Watkins; Pl.'s Ex. 7, 9/29/12 Email of Irvin to Watkins. By November, however, Irvin had begun sending emails to Watkins describing problems with his performance and asking him to make improvements.[1]See Def.'s SOF ¶¶ 36-39; Def.'s Ex. 11, 11/3/12 Email of Irvin to Watkins; Def.'s Ex. 12, 1/22/13 Email of Irvin to Watkins; Def.'s Ex. 13, 2/13/13 Email of Irvin to Watkins; Def.'s Ex. 14, 2/13/13 Email of Irvin to Watkins.

         In late February 2013, about six months after Watkins was hired, Irvin presented him with a Corrective Action Plan. See Def.'s SOF ¶ 16; Def.'s Ex. 15, Corrective Action Plan. Chequita Whitaker, the Operations Manager for LIS's Illinois office, attended the meeting during which the plan was presented to Watkins. See Def.'s SOF ¶ 16; Def.'s Ex. 15, Corrective Action Plan.

         Irvin asked Watkins to sign the plan, but he refused. See Def.'s SOF ¶¶ 40- 41; Def.'s Ex. 15, Corrective Action Plan; Pl.'s SOAF ¶¶ 23-24. According to Whitaker, Watkins also called the plan “bullshit” and crumpled it up. Def.'s Ex. 9, Whitaker Dep. at 52. Watkins denies the profanity and the crumpling, but he admits that he refused to sign. Pl.'s Resp. Def.'s SOF ¶¶ 42-43.

         Following the meeting, Irvin sent an email to LIS's Human Resources Manager, Erica Rivas, informing her that Watkins had refused to sign the Corrective Action Plan. Def.'s SOF ¶ 43; Def.'s Ex. 16, 2/25/13 Email of Irvin to Rivas. In an affidavit, Rivas recounts that, “after Ms. Irvin reported that Mr. Watkins had refused to sign his Corrective Action Plan, ” Irvin “decided to terminate him and recommended termination to me, as HR manager.” Def.'s Ex. 10, Rivas Aff. ¶¶ 2-3. Whitaker similarly attests that Irvin said she “wanted [Watkins] gone” because “she just felt he wasn't pulling his weight.” Def.'s Ex. 9, Whitaker Dep. at 34-35.

         A few days after Watkins's refusal to sign the Corrective Action Plan, LIS terminated his employment. See Def.'s SOF ¶¶ 35, 44. The termination took place during a meeting attended by Irvin and Orozco, with Ruiz and Rivas participating by phone. See Def.'s SOF ¶ 44; Pl.'s Ex. 1, Watkins Dep. at 206. Watkins testified that Irvin and Rivas were the ones who “did the talking, ” explaining to him simply, “‘We feel that we're not gonna need your services any longer.'” Pl.'s Ex. 1, Watkins Dep. at 206.

         Sometime after Watkins was fired, both Irvin and Ruiz were fired as well. Def.'s SOAF ¶¶ 2-3. Neither of them was deposed for this case.

         Legal Standard

         “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). The Court gives “the non-moving party the benefit of conflicts in the evidence and reasonable inferences that could be drawn from ...


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