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Arnold v. Visiontek Products, LLC

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

July 17, 2017

WALLACE ARNOLD, Plaintiff,
v.
VISIONTEK PRODUCTS, LLC, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Andrea R. Wood United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Wallace Arnold claims that his former employer, Defendant VisionTek Products, LLC (“VisionTek”), subjected him to a hostile work environment because of his race and then retaliated against him for complaining about the mistreatment by terminating his employment, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000 et seq.[1] Specifically, Arnold alleges that his supervisor repeatedly threatened him with unwarranted disciplinary action, assigned him impossible tasks to complete, and forced him to use only the back door to enter and exit VisionTek's facility-all because he is black. Arnold further alleges that VisionTek terminated his employment after he complained to his supervisor that he was being treated differently on account of his race and that his civil rights were being violated. Now before the Court is VisionTek's motion for summary judgment. (Dkt. No. 77.) For the reasons stated below, the motion is granted.

         BACKGROUND

         The following facts are gleaned from the parties' summary judgment filings.[2] As one would expect, many of the facts are disputed. For purposes of VisionTek's summary judgment motion, the Court considers the record in the light most favorable to Arnold as the non-moving party, resolving all evidentiary conflicts in his favor and according him the benefit of all reasonable inferences that may be drawn from the record. See Coleman v. Donahoe, 667 F.3d 835, 842 (7th Cir. 2012).

         Arnold was hired by Hartford Computer Group-VisionTek's predecessor company-in 2002. (Def.'s Resp. to Pl.'s Additional Stmt. of Facts (“DRPASF”) ¶ 1, Dkt. No. 90.) In 2006, VisionTek became a separate company and Arnold began working there. (Id.) VisionTek manufactures and sells computer products, such as graphics cards, memory cards, and power supplies. (Pl.'s Resp. to Def.'s Stmt. of Undisputed Facts (“PRDSUF”) ¶ 2, Dkt. No. 83.) During the relevant time period, Arnold worked as part of the production team at VisionTek's warehouse facility in East Dundee, Illinois. (Id. ¶¶ 4, 13.) He was primarily responsible for packing boxes of products to be shipped to customers. (Id. ¶ 21.) The production team, which in addition to Arnold consisted of Bennie Gipson, Edwin Mangosing, Sanjiv Amin, and Jose Torres, was supervised by Wendell Calip, Vice President of Operations and Information Technology at VisionTek. (Id. ¶¶ 12-14.) Arnold was ultimately terminated from VisionTek on August 3, 2012. (DRPASF ¶ 2, Dkt. No. 90.)

         According to VisionTek, Arnold was terminated as a result of a pattern of misbehavior and poor performance that began in or around 2011. (PRDSUF ¶ 36, Dkt. No. 83.) To support its version of the events leading to Arnold's firing, VisionTek points to a February 14, 2011 email from Michael Innes, the company's President and Chief Operating Officer, identifying a number of examples of Arnold's “unprofessional behavior and poor attitude, ” each of which was corroborated during discovery in this litigation by deposition testimony from Arnold's co-workers. (Id. ¶¶ 8, 37; Def.'s Stmt. of Undisputed Facts (“DSUF”) Ex. N, Dkt. No. 78-19.)[3] The email, which was sent to Calip and Andra Morgan, VisionTek's Vice President of Finance and Director of Human Resources, references an altercation between Arnold and a temporary worker; Arnold's propositioning of Edna Garcia, an employee of Encore, a company that shares VisionTek's warehouse space at the East Dundee location; and a confrontation between Arnold and Jeff Anderson, [4] another Encore employee. (PRDSUF ¶¶ 10, 37, 44, Dkt. No. 83.) The email also mentions an incident in which Arnold was seen surrounded by police at a bus stop being questioned for inappropriate public behavior. (Id. ¶ 37.)

         With respect to the first altercation described in the email, Arnold purportedly advised a temp-who was assigned to assist and reported to Gipson-of a safety issue. (Id. ¶¶ 38-39.) The temp “snapped” and Arnold walked away. (Id. ¶¶ 39, 42.) However, Arnold approached the temp after work because the earlier confrontation “kept eating at [him], ” and the situation escalated until Calip intervened. (Id.) According to Gipson, the altercation occurred because Arnold was improperly attempting to instruct the temp on how to perform his job. (Id. ¶ 42.)

         As to Arnold's interactions with the female Encore employee, he offered to give her gas money or take her out to lunch after she gave him a ride. (Id. ¶ 44.) Arnold's co-workers testified that he brought Garcia food, flowers, and other presents on numerous occasions and that she was uncomfortable with Arnold's advances. (Id. ¶¶ 46-48.) When Arnold observed Anderson speaking with Garcia, he assumed Anderson was telling her bad things about him. (Id. ¶¶ 49-50.) So Arnold responded by threatening Anderson, who he viewed as competition for Garcia's attention. (Id. ¶¶ 49-51.) After discussing the situation with Calip about the situation, Arnold left work angry. (Id. ¶ 37.) The next day, he showed up to work two hours late without calling to notify VisionTek of his late arrival. (Id.)

         After Innes sent the February 14, 2011 email discussed above, Arnold was issued a written disciplinary warning notice regarding his behavior towards Anderson. (Id. ¶ 53.) The notice, dated February 16, 2011 and signed by Arnold, states that he made “negative verbal comments toward another employee on the work floor.” (Id.; DSUF Ex. O, Dkt. No 78-20.) The notice also indicates that Arnold was given a “verbal warning that these actions cannot happen in the work place” and that he would face dismissal if he failed to correct his behavior. (Id.) Arnold received and signed a separate disciplinary warning notice, also dated February 16, 2011, for showing up to work late and failing to call. (PRDSUF ¶ 54, Dkt. No. 83; DSUF Ex. P, Dkt. No. 78-21.)

         Then, beginning in or around early 2012, Arnold, who had become active with the Occupy Wall Street movement and in protesting the killing of Trayvon Martin, began making and displaying political picket signs at work. (PRDSUF ¶ 26, Dkt. No. 83.) He made the signs using VisionTek materials-including boxes, two-by-four posts, and markers-during normal business hours when he should have been working. (Id.) As Arnold admits, the language on the signs was vulgar and inappropriate for the workplace. (Id. ¶ 28.) For instance, Arnold himself testified at his deposition that one sign read “fuck America.” (Id.) VisionTek asserts-and Gipson testified-that another sign read “F whitie, ” or “fuck whites, ” although Arnold denies making signs with any such language. (Id. ¶ 29.) Innes and Calip both saw and received complaints about signs containing inappropriate language, including a sign that was derogatory towards lawyers and bankers. (Id. ¶ 30.) VisionTek asserts that Arnold intentionally displayed the signs, such as by carrying the signs in a manner to be seen when he entered and exited the warehouse. (Id. ¶ 31.) Moreover, Arnold's construction of the signs while at work had a significant impact on his productivity and on his working relationships with the other members of the production team. (Id. ¶ 33.) His co-workers testified that he became a slower worker, which caused bottlenecks on the production line. (Id. ¶¶ 33-35.) They further testified that they had to pick up Arnold's slack and that they began to resent him because he was not working as hard as they were. (Id.)

         On March 26, 2012, Calip issued Arnold a third disciplinary warning notice, this time regarding the signs. (Id. ¶ 27; DSUF Ex. Q, Dkt. No. 78-22.) The notice states as follows:

[Calip] observed a sign that was being displayed in the production area that had vulgar language written on it. [Calip] asked [Arnold] to take down the sign[, ] stating that it was inappropriate in the workplace. [Arnold] reacted by stating that [Calip was] violating his civil rights. [Calip] stated that the workplace is not a place to display such signage. [He] was worried that a customer [might] come through or another employee [might] be offended.

(Id.) The notice indicates that there had been at least one prior verbal discussion with Arnold regarding the signs. (Id.) It also warns that “[c]ompany property is not a place to solicit personal and/or political views with signage” and that if Arnold continued “to use the workplace as a political forum or audience for his views by displaying signage, he [might] be docked pay or even terminated from his position.” (Id.)

         Despite the warning, Arnold continued making signs and was terminated as a result. (PRDSUF ¶ 31, Dkt. No. 83.) Arnold's notice of employment separation states that he “fail[ed] to be a team member, ” “distan[ced] himself from [the] team[, ] causing friction in [the] production area, ” and “continued to work at [a] slow pace when [the team was] busy[, ] causing bottlenecks during peak shipping hours.” (Id. ¶¶ 2-3; DSUF Ex. M, Dkt. No. 78-18.)

         Arnold, of course, tells a very different story. He claims that the “non-African-American” management of VisionTek discriminated against him by subjecting him to a hostile work environment. First, he asserts that Calip demeaned and humiliated him by forcing him to come and go from work only through the back door of the facility, singling him out from his co-workers. VisionTek contends that this assertion is rebutted by an August 25, 2010 email from Innes to all VisionTek employees, which states in relevant part that, “[s]tarting today all warehouse employees must leave & enter through the rear door[.]” (PRDSUF ¶ 68, Dkt. No. 83; DSUF Ex. R, Dkt. No. 78-23.) Arnold denies receiving the email or being aware of its contents and suggests that this purported policy was not uniformly enforced against all employees. (PRDSUF ¶ 68, Dkt. No. 83.) VisionTek points out that Gipson (who is also black), Magnosing, and Amin all testified that beginning in or around August 2010 and continuing through August 2012 (when Arnold was terminated), they exclusively entered and exited the warehouse facility through the rear door. (Id. ¶ 70.)

         In response, Arnold maintains that “he was singled out for coming and going through the back door of the warehouse.” (Id.) Arnold claims that for at least some period of time, he was the only employee required to use the back door, until, after product was stolen from the warehouse, all employees began using the rear entrance. (DRPSAF ¶ 35, Dkt. No. 90.) During his deposition, Arnold could not recall specific dates when this occurred, but he stated that it was after VisionTek discovered his protest signs that they made him use the back door. (DSUF Ex. A-2 at 184-85, 188-89, Dkt. No. 78-2.) He initially testified that he was singled out because he was carrying politically-motivated signs (Id. at 190.) He then stated that “it could be because I am black, too.” (Id.) Arnold claims that Gipson, who is also black, did not have to go through the back door. (Id.) However, as noted above, Gipson, Magnosing, and Amin all testified that during the relevant time period, they entered and exited the warehouse facility through the rear door. (PRDSUF ¶ 70, Dkt. No. 83.)

         Arnold further claims that Calip gave him impossible tasks-which were not assigned to any other employees-and then chastised, reprimanded, and humiliated him for failing to complete them. VisionTek asserts that Arnold was unable to substantiate this claim during his deposition, failing to identify a single “impossible” task that Calip assigned to him or even any task that Calip would not have assigned to other members of the production team. (DRPSUF ¶ 72, Dkt. No. 83.)[5] Indeed, other members of the team testified that Arnold was actually given simpler assignments because he worked slowly. (See Id. ¶¶ 73-74.) For example, Mangosing said that he was given more difficult assignments than Arnold, and that when he completed those assignments, he would then help Arnold complete his simpler tasks. (DSUF Ex. I at 116-17, Dkt. No. 78-14.) In addition, Gipson testified that Calip never yelled at or ridiculed Arnold for failing to complete an assignment on time. (DSUF Ex. H-2 at 160, Dkt. No. 78-13.) In response, Arnold simply states that “[a]ll employees were assigned tasks of varying difficulty at different times.” (DRPSUF ¶¶ 73-74, Dkt. No. 83.)

         Finally, Arnold claims that Calip threatened him with unwarranted disciplinary notices, threatened to keep a secret file on him, and harassed him by making statements such as “I will make life difficult for you.” (DRPSAF ¶ 11, Dkt. No. 90.) In support, Arnold cites to his own deposition testimony. (See id.) He also points to the March 2012 disciplinary incident discussed above in connection with which he told Calip that he believed his civil rights were being violated. (Id. ¶ 21.) In addition, Arnold asserts that in July 2012, “following one of [ ] Calip's verbal harassments, ” he told Calip, “you wouldn't be doing this to me if I wasn't black.” (Id. ¶ 37.)[6]VisionTek contends that there is no evidence, aside from Arnold's own deposition testimony, that he ever made that statement. (PRDSUF ¶¶ 59-65, Dkt. No. 83.) Calip does not recall Arnold making the statement and none of his co-workers heard it. (Id. ¶¶ 62-65.)[7] Arnold maintains that he made the statement directly to Calip (although he does not indicate what Calip's response was, if he had any), and claims that his termination was in direct retaliation for his complaints of discrimination. (Id. ¶ 62.) Therefore, according to Arnold, there was no causal connection between the disciplinary warning notices he received and his discharge. (Id. ¶ 24.) Indeed, Arnold takes issue with each of VisionTek's proffered reasons for his termination.

         While Arnold does not completely repudiate the complaints about his behavior described in Innes's February 14, 2011 email and the deposition testimony, he does offer his own point of view. First, with respect to his altercation with the temp worker, Arnold denies that he was improperly attempting to instruct the worker how to perform his job; he contends that he was simply trying to give the temp worker safety advice. (Id. ¶¶ 37, 42.) Arnold asserts that the temp worker “snapped” at him during their initial confrontation and that, when he approached him after work that day, the situation escalated because the temp worker kept yelling and getting louder and louder. (Id. ¶ 39.)

         Second, Arnold denies making any advances toward Garcia, the female Encore employee. (Id. ¶¶ 37, 44, 47.) Rather, after she gave him a ride to the bus stop, he offered to give her gas money or buy her lunch as a gesture of gratitude. (Id.) When she declined that offer, he brought her breakfast and a flower instead. (Id. ¶¶ 46-47; DRPASF ¶ 32, Dkt. No. 90.) Arnold denies bringing her food, flowers, or other presents on any other occasion and asserts that she did not appear to be uncomfortable when he brought her breakfast. (Id.)

         Third, Arnold (citing only his own deposition testimony and affidavit) denies threatening Anderson, the Encore employee he observed speaking with Garcia. (PRDSUF ¶¶ 49-50, Dkt. No. 83.) Arnold testified that Garcia told him that Anderson had advised her to stay away from him and that he spoke with Calip about the situation. (DSUF Ex. A-1 at 147-50, Dkt. No. 78-1.) But he denies confronting Anderson[8] and does not recall leaving work angry after his conversation with Calip. (Id. at 151-54.) Arnold admits that he showed up to work late the next day and did not call, but he asserts that this was a common occurrence given his long commute and that he typically did not call when he was going to be late. (Id. at 129-30, 154, 159-60.)[9]

         Finally, Arnold acknowledges that he had a conversation with police at the bus stop, but he “disputes the nature of the encounter as characterized in Innes['s] email.” (PRDSUF ¶ 37, Dkt. No. 83; see also Id. ¶¶ 55-56.)

         With respect to the two disciplinary warning notices he received on February 16, 2011- one related to the altercation with Anderson and one for showing up to work late and failing to call-Arnold denies that he was given any verbal warning and contends that, although his signature is present on the notices, [10] he did not have the opportunity to review or understand their contents. (Id. ¶¶ 53-54; see also DRPASF ¶ 28, Dkt. No. 90; DSUF Exs. O & P, Dkt. Nos. 78-20 & 78-21.)[11] According to Arnold, Calip did not warn him that he was required to call if he was going to be tardy. (DSUF Ex. A-2 at 160, Dkt. No. 78-2.) And Arnold testified that he does not even know what the other warning notice is about, since the only altercation he recalls is the one with the temp worker. (Id. at 161-62.)[12]

         Concerning the political picket signs, Arnold disputes nearly all of the facts proffered by VisionTek. First, he claims that he never displayed the signs at work. (PRDSUF ¶ 26, Dkt. No. 90.) He admits that he brought the signs to and from work, but asserts that he kept them out of sight during the work day. (Id.)[13] Arnold also disputes VisionTek's contention that he purposely carried the signs in a manner to attract attention; he contends that he carried the large, unwieldy signs in the most convenient fashion and immediately stored them out of sight underneath a work bench when he arrived at his work station. (Id. ¶ 31; DRPASF ¶ 23, Dkt. No 90.) In addition, Arnold claims that he made signs while at the warehouse on only five or six occasions and then only during his lunch break or other breaks throughout the day. (DRPASF ¶ 15, Dkt. No. 90.) He insists that he never made signs during periods that he should have been working. (Id.) Arnold also insists that he used only cardboard from the trash and other bits of garbage and scrap materials to make the signs. (Id. ¶ 16.) As to the content of the signs, as noted above, Arnold generally admits that the language was vulgar and inappropriate for the workplace. (PRDSUF ¶ 28, Dkt. No. 83.) He acknowledges making signs in support of the Occupy Wall Street movement that contained offensive language critical of bankers but disputes that any of his signs were critical of lawyers. (Id. ¶ 30.)

         Arnold flatly rejects VisionTek's position that his sign-making had a negative impact on his productivity. (See, e.g., Id. ¶ 32.) He denies that he was working slowly and claims that the bottlenecks referenced in his notice of employment separation were created by breakdowns in machinery or by rush orders from management that required stoppage on the regular production line. (Id. ¶¶ 32-33.) Indeed, Arnold claims that he was fully meeting VisionTek's expectations and that between February 2011 and the time of his termination, his behavior and work productivity were not substantially different than they had been over the prior ten years. (DRPASF ¶ 36, Dkt. No. 90; Arnold Aff. ¶ 13, Dkt. No. 84-12.) He states that he never received any oral or written warnings regarding his productivity. (PRDSUF ¶¶ 35-36, Dkt. No. 83.) And with respect to the disciplinary warning notice he received about the signs on March 26, 2012, [14]Arnold asserts that the notice-which makes no mention of reduced productivity- was for displaying signs, not making them. (Id. ¶ 27; DRPASF ¶ 18, Dkt. No. 90.) In addition, Arnold asserts that during his discussion with Calip regarding the signs (referenced in the notice), he was told only that he could not display political signs in the workplace. (DRPASF ¶ 17, Dkt. No. 90.) Calip did not raise any issues with respect to making signs, and he did not express any concern regarding Arnold's productivity. (Id.) Moreover, Arnold claims that he stopped making signs at work ...


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