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Baker v. Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital

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

July 7, 2017

ANGELA BAKER, Plaintiff,
v.
NORTHWESTERN MEDICINE LAKE FOREST HOSPITAL, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          John J. Tharp, Jr. United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Angela Baker has sued her former employer for sex, race, and disability discrimination. Baker, a white woman with a connective tissue disease and anxiety, alleges that a coworker harassed her because of her sex and her employer did nothing when she reported it. She also alleges she was disciplined while a non-white coworker was not disciplined for similar infractions. After two warnings for failure to follow work procedures, she was fired for a more serious infraction. Baker further contends that her employer, Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital ("Northwestern") discriminated against her on the basis of her disability. Northwestern has moved to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6). For the reasons stated below, the motion to dismiss is denied as to her race and sex claims, and granted as to her disability claims.

         BACKGROUND

         For the purposes of this motion, the Court accepts the facts alleged in the complaint as true and draws all inferences in plaintiff Angela Baker's favor. See Swanson v. Citibank, N.A., 614 F.3d 400, 402 (7th Cir. 2010). Baker is a Caucasian woman who has been diagnosed with scleroderma[1] and anxiety. Third Am. Compl. ("Compl.") ¶ 4. She was hired by Defendant Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital ("Northwestern") around December 2005 as a histotechnician.[2] Id. at ¶ 7.

         As a result of her scleroderma, the skin on Baker's fingers and toes will often crack and become infected. Id. at ¶ll. She also suffers from fatigue and pain in her muscles and joints. Id. at ¶ 10. As a result of her disease, Baker also has depression and anxiety. Id. at ¶ 13. According to Baker, many of her managers and HR personnel were aware of her scleroderma and anxiety, although not Ruben Carter, another histotechnician who worked in the same lab. Id. at ¶ 15. Carter is male, non-white, and has no visible disabilities. Id. at ¶16.

         According to Baker, Carter began harassing her in August of 2014. Compl. ¶ 16. Among other things, Carter would yell at her, slam and pound on counters and equipment, slam his backpack onto counters behind her, wave his arms at her (nearly hitting her), swear at her, threaten to report her to management, refuse to speak with her about work, and otherwise taunt and threaten her (including "I can talk to you any way I want to" and "don't walk near me"). Id. On at least two occasions, Baker alleges, Carter made sexual comments to her (once saying "because you like it that way" while leaning within two inches of her face, another time by suggesting they "meet outside the hospital and discuss this" in a sexual tone). Id. Baker says she frequently reported Carter to management, but nothing was done. Id. at ¶ 17. Specifically, when she reported the two sexual incidents to her supervisor, the manager "laughed it off and did not believe [Baker]." Id. at¶ 18-19.

         As the issues with Carter escalated, Northwestern forced Baker to participate in an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), but did not require Carter to participate. Compl. ¶ 21. After she was forced to participate in EAP, Carter made several derogatory comments about her mental health, including telling her to complain to a psychologist and telling her to take her medication. Id. at ¶ 22. Baker alleges Carter was "violent and intimidating" on a daily basis. Id. at¶ 23.

         Baker filed an EEOC charge alleging sex and disability discrimination and hostile work environment on September 22, 2015. Id. at ¶ 32. Before filing her EEOC complaint, Baker had twice been written up for making errors (once for mislabeling slides, another time for interrupting Carter's work) but Carter was not written up for making similar errors. Id. at ¶ 24-25. She was terminated from Northwestern on May 12, 2016 for a third, more serious, infraction in which she threw out a patient's tissue specimen because she had neglected to process it when she should have. See Compl. ¶ 33, Def.'s Ex. 1, ECF No. 20.[3] Within 90 days of receiving her right to sue letter with the EEOC, Baker filed this lawsuit. Compl. ¶ 34. Northwestern has moved to dismiss all of her claims.

         DISCUSSION

         Baker's operative complaint raises three claims.[4] First, she alleges that she was subjected, in violation of Title VII, to a "sexually hostile work environment." Compl. ¶ 36. Second, Baker alleges that she was racially discriminated against, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981, when she was terminated after her third write-up. Id. at ¶ 42. Third, she alleges that she was subjected to disability discrimination when Northwestern failed to protect her from a hostile work environment. Id. at ¶ 47. Northwestern has moved to dismiss all three claims.

         I. Title VII Sexual Harassment

         A plaintiff claiming sexual harassment must generally show: "(1) her work environment was both objectively and subjectively offensive; (2) the harassment she complained of was based on her sex; (3) the conduct was either severe or pervasive; and (4) there was a basis for employer liability." Passananti v. Cook County, 689 F.3d 655, 664 (7th Cir. 2012). The harassment at issue may be overtly sexual or simply sexist. Id. "To rise to the level of an actionable hostile work environment, the complained-of conduct must have been sufficiently severe or pervasive to have altered the conditions of her employment such that it created an abusive working environment." Id. at 667. In a hostile work environment, the workplace is "permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult, " but there is no "magic number" of incidents required. Shanoff v. III. Dep't of Human Servs., 258 F.3d 696, 704 (7th Cir. 2001). Verbal harassment that continues once an employee has protested her treatment is "indicative of a hostile environment, " even if some of the later remarks and behaviors are not explicitly sexist (as long as they "may reasonably be construed as being motivated" by animus). Id.

         Northwestern makes two arguments why the sexual harassment claim should be dismissed. First, Northwestern claims there is insufficient evidence to support Baker's claim that Carter's conduct was motivated by sexist animus because "the only reasonable inference that can be drawn from Plaintiffs allegations is that Mr. Carter and Plaintiff very much disliked one another" and the allegations do not give rise to an inference that "such dislike was motivated by Plaintiffs gender, much less that Mr. Carter desired a romantic or sexual relationship with Plaintiff." Def's Mem. at 12. In its reply, Northwestern goes so far as to argue that "Plaintiff has not alleged any conduct by Mr. Carter that was arguably sexual in character." Def's Reply at 2 (emphasis in original, quotation marks omitted). Second, Northwestern argues that Baker failed to provide notice that Carter was harassing her based on her gender. See Id. at 4-5.

         Northwestern's first argument misapprehends the nature of Baker's sexual harassment claim. Sexual harassment can include "unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature" but it can include other behaviors as well. Boumehdi v. Plastag Holdings, LLC,489 F.3d 781, 788 (7th Cir. 2007). Those other behaviors need not be explicitly discriminatory, as long as there is "a reasonable inference tying the harassment to the plaintiffs protected status." Cole v. Bd. of Trs.,838 F.3d 888, 896 (7th Cir. 2016). Furthermore, as the Supreme Court has said, "harassing conduct need not be motivated by sexual desire to support an inference of discrimination on the basis of sex." Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Servs.,523 U.S. 75, 80 (1998). Whether Carter had any interest in having sex with Baker is not determinative of whether his conduct constituted sexual harassment. The question is whether he engaged in harassing conduct on account of her sex-that is, because she is a woman. And while it is assuredly the case that a great deal of the harassment women receive in the workplace is sexual in nature, that is not ...


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