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Elue v. City of Chicago

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

June 20, 2017

Vera Elue, Plaintiff,
v.
City of Chicago, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Manish S. Shah United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Vera Elue sues the City of Chicago for race discrimination and retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., (Count I) and for retaliation under the Illinois Whistleblower Act, 740 ILCS 174/1 et seq. (Count II). The City moves to dismiss Elue's whistleblower claim. For the following reasons, the motion is granted in part, denied in part.

          I. Background[1]

         Vera Elue, an attorney, was senior legal counsel overseeing prosecutions and settlement agreements for the City of Chicago's Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection. She had started working for the department in 2005. Elue supervised other employees (including other attorneys), represented the department in administrative and court proceedings, and generated over $20 million in consumer retail and fraud prosecutions for the City of Chicago.

         In March 2012, the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission received a complaint that John Mariane, a Manager of Collections/Public Way in Elue's department, had engaged in the unauthorized practice of law. A month or two later, Barbara Gressel, the department's Deputy Commissioner and Elue's immediate supervisor, asked Elue to sign an affidavit stating that Mariane had not practiced law on behalf of the department. An attorney for the City also asked Elue to sign the affidavit. Elue refused to sign, telling them that she believed the affidavit contained false statements and therefore violated Illinois and federal law prohibiting perjury and the Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct.

         The following summer, Elue complained to the department's Commissioner that Gressel was involved in violating Illinois law, rules, and regulations on public corruption. The Commissioner told Elue to talk to Gressel. Gressel approached Elue two days later, banged her hand on Elue's desk, yelled profanities at Elue, and told Elue to never again complain about Gressel or Gressel would “fix” Elue and teach her a lesson she would never forget. Around this time, Elue filed a complaint with the City's Office of the Inspector General, alleging that the department, Gressel, and Mariane had violated Illinois law and regulations.

         Also during that summer, Elue-who is black-complained to Gressel that the department's black staff members and investigators were being treated differently than white employees. Several months later, on October 21, 2013, in Elue's presence, Mariane and William Basek (a law clerk in the department) told an administrative law judge that Sam Kavathas (an attorney defending clients before the department) had made racial statements, refused to deal with Elue, and said that he wanted a white man to handle the department's cases for his clients. That same day, Elue complained about Kavathas's statements to the Commissioner. The Commissioner asked Gressel to write a letter to Kavathas, denying his request. Gressel did not write the letter. The issue came up again on November 5, 2013, when Elue was in court prosecuting cases against the Kavathas's clients. Elue again complained to Gressel about Kavathas. A few days later, Gressel told Elue to prepare settlement offers to Kavathas's clients and that Basek and Mariane-who are white men-would handle settlement offers to Kavathas. Elue was removed from handling settlement offers during litigation calls to Kavathas. Elue later complained about the situation to the Commissioner, copying Gressel on her email. Around this time, the department also posted a job opening for an Assistant Commissioner. The job posting went up on October 28, 2013, and closed on November 5, 2013. The job posting stated that an interview was required and that the selected candidate needed at least five years of litigation experience with at least two years in a managerial role. Elue told Gressel that she wanted to apply for the position. Gressel responded that she wanted to give the position to someone outside the department, not Elue, and that she did not want to lose Elue as litigation counsel handling both the retail and fraud administrative hearing litigation calls. Also, months before the job had been posted, Mariane told Elue that Gressel said she was going to become the Deputy Commissioner and that Jim Potter had been selected as Assistant Commissioner.[2] Elue applied for the Assistant Commissioner position and was interviewed by the Commissioner and Gressel in December 2013.

         In January 2014, during a meeting with the Commissioner and other staff members, Gressel said that Elue was a problem employee and that she wanted Elue removed from the retail and fraud calls. Later that month, Elue was told that she was being removed from handling the retail call. (Elue had handled the call for the ten years, spending approximately three days a week on it.) A white attorney, with only a few years' experience in litigation, replaced Elue in handling the retail call. Elue asked Gressel if she was being removed from the retail call in retaliation but Gressel did not give any explanation.

         In February 2014, the department announced that Jim Potter, who is white, was selected for the Assistant Commissioner position. At that time, Elue had more litigation and managerial experience than Potter, who had no managerial experience. Elue filed another complaint with the Office of the Inspector General, alleging that the department had discriminated and retaliated against her. The following month, Gressel and the Commissioner told Elue that she would no longer handle the fraud call and that they wanted to remove her from the fraud call so that she could handle laws being enacted in the future. Gressel told Elue that she would not be handling any more court cases. Elue asked if she had done anything wrong and was told that she had not.

         Starting in April 2014, Elue was assigned to meet with community groups to resolve their complaints. Conducting and scheduling these community hearings became Elue's primary job duty, and her job duties involving administrative law judge hearings or litigation were substantially reduced. Before April 2014, Elue was handling hundreds of court cases a year. Afterwards, she only had ten court cases in 2014 (after April), ten in 2015, and six in 2016. Elue alleges that the community hearing assignments are “dead-end” job duties that white attorneys and employees in the department have successfully avoided.

         Elue also alleges that she has been subjected to continuous harassment by the City and its employees, including Gressel, since March 2014 and through January 2017, including:

● Excluding Elue from some meetings, communications sent to other staff members, and department reports and investigations;
● At times giving other employees credit for Elue's work and removing Elue's name from documents that she drafted;
● Reassigning some matters to other employees;
● Giving Elue contradictory instructions and rebuking her for following them;
● Making demeaning or mocking comments to or about Elue and instructing other employees and persons to ignore Elue's recommendations;
● Treating Elue in a humiliating manner by: telling her to attend a meeting but not say anything at it in May 2014, and in August 2015 when Gressel told other employees that Elue had been removed from community hearings;
● Undermining Elue and rendering her job duties involving “KCRO” useless between August 2015 and August 2016 by having the department stop enforcing “KCRO” and by countermanding Elue's requests for KCRO compliance;[3]
● Gressel telling an alderman to not give Elue new work assignments;
● Gressel refusing to respond to Elue's multiple requests for information about the Minimum Wage Ordinance and the Sick Leave Ordinance;
● Giving Elue derogatory performance appraisals in February 2014 and August 2016;
● Repeatedly making false accusations against Elue, resulting in written discipline and placement on a performance improvement plan in 2014;
● Repeatedly threatening Elue with demotion in 2015;
● Making false complaints about Elue's conduct, falsely accusing her of criminal violations, and encouraging others to make false complaints about Elue;
‚óŹ Gressel asking an employee in the fall of 2014 to spy on Elue and report back with ...

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