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Robinson v. City of Evanston

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

June 5, 2017



          SARA L.ELLIS, United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Suzette Robinson, the former Director of Public Works for the City of Evanston (the “City”), brings claims against Defendant Walter Bobkiewicz, the Evanston City Manager, and Defendants Grant Farrar and Jennifer Lin, both City employees, for their roles in discriminating and retaliating against her during her employment with the City. Robinson alleges that Farrar and Lin violated 42 U.S.C. § 1981 when they retaliated against her for filing discrimination complaints. Farrar and Lin move to dismiss the sole count against them in Robinson's second amended complaint, Count V, for failure to state a claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Previously, in her first amended complaint [13], Robinson alleged that Farrar and Lin violated 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and the Illinois Human Rights Act, 775 Ill. Comp. Stat. 5/6-101. The Court dismissed those counts for failure to state a claim [36]. Because Robinson's second amended complaint sufficiently alleges all elements required to state a claim for § 1981 retaliation, the Court denies Farrar and Lin's motion to dismiss Count V [41].

         BACKGROUND [1]

         Robinson, an African American woman, was the Director of Public Works for the City from March 2010 until August 21, 2015. While in this position, she oversaw five divisions, which employed more than 100 people, and she reported directly to Bobkiewicz, the City Manager. In May 2014, Robinson completed a performance evaluation of Bobkiewicz, and she noted her belief that Bobkiewicz treats members of the City's African American community and its African American employees poorly. Bobkiewicz learned of Robinson's comments in August 2014.

         In the fall of 2014, Bobkiewicz reprimanded Robinson publicly in front of other department employees and falsely told at least two of Robinson's subordinates that Robinson was seeking to leave her position in order to undermine her authority. In response, Robinson filed a Healthy Work Environment Complaint (“HWE Complaint”) against Bobkiewicz. Marty Lyons, Assistant City Manager, investigated the HWE Complaint and sustained three of the five complaints against Bobkiewicz. The City's Mayor subsequently issued a written reprimand to Bobkiewicz. After Robinson filed the HWE Complaint, Bobkiewicz reassigned some of Robinson's duties to other members of the staff.

         During a January 2015 meeting, Bobkiewicz solicited negative comments about one of the City's African American aldermen, but did not allow Robinson to discuss issues regarding non-African American aldermen. Also in January 2015, Bobkiewicz repeated a phrase he had used previously: “we are going to make sure we have the right people in the right seats on the bus.” Doc. 37 ¶ 27. Robinson believed her concerns regarding Bobkiewicz's discriminatory and retaliatory conduct were not resolved and, on March 4, 2015, she sent a written demand letter to the City describing her concerns about Bobkiewicz's disparate treatment of African American employees. Farrar, Corporation Counsel/City Attorney, responded and asked Robinson to submit a detailed settlement demand, which she did on March 30, 2015. In this demand letter, Robinson stated that if her demands were not satisfied, she would file a discrimination charge against the City. On April 14, 2015, Farrar responded on behalf of the City stating that the City would not resolve her demands unless she left her job with the City. He noted in the letter that Robinson was the subject of numerous HWE Complaints herself and threatened to try the case in the press if Robinson filed a charge. A little over a week later on April 23, 2015, Robinson, through her attorney, responded to the letter stating that she would proceed with filing her discrimination charge, and she filed a charge on April 30, 2015 with the IDHR, alleging retaliation and discrimination.

         After Robinson notified Farrar that she would be filing a charge, Farrar and Lin, the Human Resources Division Manager for the City, set out to fabricate HWE Complaints against Robinson. Farrar directed Lin to conduct interviews with City employees to uncover unfavorable information about Robinson. Lin conducted these interviews between April 27 and May 5, 2015. During the interviews, Lin sought only negative information about Robinson and dismissed any positive information received regarding Robinson. The interviews undermined Robinson's authority over employees who reported to her and damaged her professional reputation as a senior manager and director. Lin documented the interviews in a memorandum to Lyons and Farrar on May 8, 2015, concluding that Robinson created an unhealthy work environment. Lin's memorandum recommended that “immediate action be taken to remedy these issues.” Doc. 37 ¶ 39.

         On May 12, 2015, Bobkiewicz announced that Lyons and another white male city employee would conduct an examination of the Public Works and Utilities Departments and he expected that this examination would lead to the elimination of both departments. As part of this examination, Bobkiewicz changed Robinson's reporting structure and directed her to report directly to Lyons. Lyons removed Robinson's decision-making authority and ordered the employees who directly reported to Robinson to instead report to him.

         On August 21, 2015, Lyons informed Robinson that her employment was terminated but did not provide her a reason for the termination. The same day, Robinson received a letter from Bobkiewicz stating that the City planned to combine the Public Works and Utilities Departments into one department named the Public Works Agency. As a result of this combination, Bobkiewicz stated that the City was eliminating Robinson's position from the City's Fiscal Year 2016 budget and terminated her employment, effective immediately. Bobkiewicz considered the information gathered during the investigation by Lin and Farrar when deciding to terminate Robinson.

         On August 27, 2015, Lyons sent a memorandum to the City Council describing the proposed organizational changes to the Public Works and Utilities Departments, which was the City Council approved on September 23, 2015. Lyons and others who conducted the examination of the departments used Lin's May 2015 memorandum as a basis for ultimately recommending that Robinson not remain as an employee in the new agency.


         A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) challenges the sufficiency of the complaint, not its merits. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6); Gibson v. City of Chicago, 910 F.2d 1510, 1520 (7th Cir. 1990). In considering a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, the Court accepts as true all well-pleaded facts in the plaintiff's complaint and draws all reasonable inferences from those facts in the plaintiff's favor. AnchorBank, FSB v. Hofer, 649 F.3d 610, 614 (7th Cir. 2011). To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the complaint must not only provide the defendant with fair notice of a claim's basis but must also be facially plausible. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009); see also Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007). “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.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.


         Robinson alleges that Farrar and Lin violated § 1981 by fabricating HWE Complaints against her in retaliation for her complaints of race discrimination. To state a claim for § 1981 retaliation, Robinson must allege that she suffered a materially adverse action because she engaged in protected activity. Shott v. Katz, 829 F.3d 494, 497 (7th Cir. 2016) (citing Davis v. Time Warner Cable of Se. Wis., L.P., 651 F.3d 664, 674 (7th Cir. 2011); Silverman v. Bd. ofEduc. of the City of Chicago, 637 F.3d 729, 740-42 (7th Cir. 2011)) cert. denied, No. 16-442, 2016 WL 5816674 (U.S. Nov. 28, 2016). Farrar and Lin argue that Robinson fails to sufficiently allege a protected activity, an adverse action, and causation. They further assert that Robinson has failed to allege ...

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