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Rinella v. City of Chicago

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

December 14, 2016

JOSEPH RINELLA, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF CHICAGO and CHARLES WAGNER, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER

          Andrea R Wood United States District Judge.

         This case concerns allegations of various workplace hostilities in the City of Chicago's Bureau of Forestry. Plaintiff Joseph Rinella, a tree-trimmer employed by Defendant City of Chicago (“City”), alleges that his supervisor, Defendant Charles Wagner, subjected him to verbal and psychological abuse and improper employment-related retaliation. Accordingly, Rinella has sued Wagner pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for allegedly retaliating against him for exercising his First Amendment rights and for violations of the Equal Protection Clause.[1] Rinella also asserts claims against the City and Wagner under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., and 42 U.S.C. § 1981 (“Section 1981”). Rinella additionally alleges that the City violated the consent decree it entered into in the litigation Shakman v. Democratic Organization of Cook County, Case No. 69-cv-02145 (N.D. Ill.). Finally, Rinella brings Illinois state law claims against the City for retaliation and against Wagner for intentional infliction of emotional distress. Before the Court is Defendants' motion to dismiss all of Rinella's claims under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). For reasons discussed below, the Court grants Defendants' motion in part and denies it in part.

         BACKGROUND[2]

         Plaintiff Joseph Rinella is a tree trimmer working in the City's Department of Streets and Sanitation, Bureau of Forestry (“Forestry”). (Compl. ¶¶ 8, 50, Dkt. No. 1.) Rinella has been with Forestry since 1996 and for years worked under several supervisors without incident. (Id. ¶¶ 5, 11.) Then, in early 2014, Wagner became “General Superintendent” in Forestry, which was a supervisory role over Rinella. (Id. ¶¶ 6, 12.) Since then, according to Rinella, “Wagner has been verbally and psychologically abusive towards [him].” (Id. ¶ 14.) Specifically, Rinella alleges that Wagner used profanity, engaged in “harassment and bullying, ” “yelled, screamed, and cursed at [Rinella], ” and “threatened to send [Rinella] to Gary, Indiana.” (Id. ¶¶ 16-19, 21, 23-25.) Rinella also claims that on several occasions Wagner called him a “rat, ” complaining about the fact that Rinella reported occurrences to his union. (Id. ¶ 16.)

         On August 24, 2015, Rinella complained to the City's Department of Human Resources that Wagner had violated the City's policy against violence in the workplace. (Id. ¶ 27.) The Department of Human Resources informed him that it could not open an investigation because Wagner's conduct did not constitute violence in the workplace per the City's policy. (Id. ¶ 28.) On September 12, 2015, Rinella “submitted a grievance to [the City] concerning Wagner's hostile and abusive working environment.” (Id. ¶¶ 29-30.) In that grievance, Rinella stated that he “had been harassed by Wagner due in large part to [his] affiliation with union Laborer's Local 1001 and because of prior complaints regarding Wagner.” (Id. ¶ 30.) Rinella also noted that Wagner had mistreated other employees and that the mistreatment had led two of the other employees to retire early. (Id. ¶ 31.) This grievance was also denied by the City. (Id. ¶ 33.)

         Rinella alleges that he then suffered retaliation, specifically in the form of his failure to obtain promotions within Forestry, due to his filing of these complaints. Beginning in September 2015, seven jobs-three supervisor positions and four training agent positions-opened up in Forestry. (Id. ¶ 35.) The application process for the training agent positions consisted of three parts: a written test, a hands-on test, and an interview. (Id. ¶ 39.) Rinella passed the written test and the hands-on test, but he does not believe that he passed the verbal interview. (Id. ¶¶ 41-42.) According to Rinella, Wagner had “effective” control over the hiring process and refused to hire Rinella because of the complaints Rinella filed against Wagner and Rinella's “political affiliations.” (Id. ¶ 43.) Rinella further alleges that he should have been hired as a training agent based on his qualifications and seniority. (Id. ¶ 51.)

         In addition, Rinella states that the application process for the supervisor position was composed of an essay question and an interview. (Id. ¶ 40.) But Rinella provides no detail about his application for the supervisor positions; indeed, he does not even allege that he actually applied for these positions. He does allege, however, that Wagner picked friends for these supervisor roles over more qualified individuals. (Id. ¶ 74.)

         DISCUSSION

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a) requires that a complaint contain a short plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief. Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a). To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the short plain statement must overcome two hurdles. First, the complaint's factual allegations must be enough to give the defendant fair notice of the claim and the grounds upon which it rests. Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). Second, the complaint must contain sufficient allegations based on more than speculation to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face. Id. This pleading standard does not necessarily require a complaint to contain “detailed factual allegations.” Id. (citing Sanjuan v. Am. Bd. of Psychiatry and Neurology, Inc., 40 F.3d 247, 251 (7th Cir. 1994)). Rather, “[a] claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009).

         As mentioned above, Rinella brings claims for First Amendment retaliation against Wagner (Count I); violations of the Shakman consent decree against Wagner and the City (Count III); and unlawful retaliation under Title VII and Section 1981 against Wagner and the City (Counts IV and V, respectively). Rinella also brings Illinois state law claims for unlawful retaliation under the Illinois Whistleblower Act, 740 ILCS 174/10, against the City (Count VI); intentional infliction of emotional distress against Wagner (Count VII); and indemnity and respondeat superior liability against the City (Counts VIII and IX, respectively). The Court addresses these claims in turn.

         I. First Amendment Retaliation Claim

         The First Amendment protects freedom of speech and expressive conduct, and generally prevents the government from proscribing such activities. RAV v. City of St. Paul, Minn., 505 U.S. 377, 382 (1992). “The Supreme Court has made clear that public employees do not surrender all of their First Amendment rights by reason of their employment. Rather, the First Amendment protects a public employee's right, in certain circumstances, to speak as a citizen addressing matters of public concern.” Morales v. Jones, 494 F.3d 590, 595 (7th Cir. 2007). “In such circumstances, an employer may not retaliate against an employee for engaging in protected speech.” Sigsworth v. City of Aurora, Ill., 487 F.3d 506, 509 (7th Cir. 2007). To prevail on a claim of retaliation under the First Amendment, a plaintiff must establish that: (1) she engaged in a protected activity; (2) she suffered a deprivation likely to prevent future protected activities; and (3) there was a causal connection between the two. See Watkins v. Kasper, 599 F.3d 791, 794 (7th Cir. 2010).

         Defendants here contend that Rinella's claim must be dismissed because he did not engage in any activity protected by the First Amendment. To show that his public-employee speech is protected, “the employee must establish that [he] spoke as a citizen on a matter of public concern.” Kubiak v. City of Chicago, 810 F.3d 476, 481 (7th Cir. 2016) (citing Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410, 418 (2006)). “[T]he threshold inquiry is whether the employee was speaking as a citizen; only then do we inquire into the content of the speech [to determine if the speech related to a matter of public concern].” Spiegla v. Hull, 481 F.3d 961, 965 (7th Cir. 2007) (citation omitted). “[P]ublic employees speaking ‘pursuant to their official duties' are speaking as employees, not citizens, and thus are not protected by the First Amendment regardless of the content of their speech.” Id. (citing Garcetti, 547 U.S. at 410). “The Supreme Court has defined ‘public concern' to mean ‘legitimate news interest, ' or ‘a subject of general interest and of value and concern to the public at the time of publication.'” Kubiak, 810 F.3d at 482-83 (internal citations omitted). “Whether an employee's speech addresses a matter of public concern must be determined by the content, form, and context of a given statement . . . .” Id. at 483 (citing Connick v. Myers, 461 U.S. 138, 147-48 (1983)).

         Defendants argue that Rinella's speech was not protected by the First Amendment because he was speaking in his capacity as a public employee and not a private citizen. But Rinella alleges that one of the reasons Wagner harassed him and refused to promote him was due to his affiliation with his union and participation in union activities. (Compl. ¶¶ 16, 30, 75, Dkt. No. 1.) In particular, Rinella claims that Wagner frequently and derogatorily voiced his objection to the fact that Rinella reported to his union what was going on at Forestry. (Id. ¶ 16.) When Rinella was communicating with his union about his workplace, he was speaking as a private citizen. Swetlik v. Crawford, 738 F.3d 818, 826 (7th Cir. 2013) (holding that statements “made in [] capacity as a union member” are not part of official duties and thus made in capacity as private citizen); see also Shefcik v. Vill. of ...


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