United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
J. Tharp, Jr. United States District Judge
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.
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 and anxiety. Third Am. Compl.
("Compl.") ¶ 4. She was hired by Defendant
Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital
("Northwestern") around December 2005 as a
histotechnician. Id. at ¶ 7.
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.
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¶
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.
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. 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.
operative complaint raises three claims. 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.
Title VII Sexual Harassment
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
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.
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 ...