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Warr-Hightower v. Illinois Central College

United States District Court, C.D. Illinois

November 14, 2017


          ORDER & OPINION


         The matter is before the Court on Defendants' Motion to Dismiss the Amended Complaint. (Doc. 16). The motion has been fully briefed. For the reasons stated below, the motion is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART.


         On April 14, 2017, Plaintiff Celia Warr-Hightower (“Hightower”) brought a class action complaint against Illinois Central College (“ICC”) alleging race discrimination and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e et seq., and 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (Doc. 1). On July 28, 2017, Hightower filed an amended class action complaint[1] adding multiple defendants in addition to ICC: ICC's Board of Trustees (the “Board”); current and former members of the Board, Carl Cannon, Kelly Daniels, Paula Davis, Michael Everett, Diane M. Lamb, Frank H. Mackaman, Gale Thetford, Don Brennan, and Susan K. Yoder-Portscheller; former President of ICC John Erwin; former interim President of ICC William Temmone; former interim President of ICC Bruce Budde; current President of ICC Dr. Sheila Quirk-Bailey; ICC's Vice President of Diversity Rita Ali; ICC's Vice President of Human Resources Martha Bloodsaw; and Hightower's supervisors, Amy Daxenbichler, Emily Points, and Tracy Morris.

         The following facts are taken from Plaintiff's amended complaint and are assumed to be true for purposes of this motion to dismiss. See Murphy v. Walker, 51 F.3d 714, 717 (7th Cir. 1995). The Court will separate Hightower's class action claims from her individual claims.

         I. Hightower's Individual Claims

         Hightower is an African American woman and has been employed by ICC from 2011 until present as a Counselor and Advisor. (Doc. 12, ¶¶ 10, 20). She has a bachelor's degree in psychology, a master's degree in human development and counseling, and is currently working towards her Ph.D in education from Illinois State University. Id. ¶ 19. Hightower's students have consistently given her extremely high remarks for her counseling abilities. Id. ¶ 21.

         Hightower alleges that she was unlawfully denied two promotions for which she was qualified for on the basis of race. Id. at ¶¶ 19-27, 31-36. In late 2014, Hightower's supervisor retired and recommended Hightower for promotion. Id. ¶ 22. Hightower applied for the promotion. After the final interview, the Vice President of Student Services, Tracy Morris, asked to speak to Hightower one-on-one; Morris did not ask to speak one-on-one with the two white candidates under consideration for the position. Id. ¶¶ 24-25. During that meeting, Morris tried to convince Hightower that she did not really want to obtain the new position because Hightower really enjoyed counseling and interacting with students. Id. ICC chose a white woman, defendant Emily Points, for the role. Id. ¶ 27. Points had no experience or relevant education in counseling. Id. Points was the ICC's women's soccer coach and her degrees were in physical education and sports management. Id. Shortly after starting the new position, Points-now serving as Hightower's supervisor-gave Hightower a lower performance rating than Hightower had received in previous years. Id. ¶ 30.

         Following Hightower's promotion denial, Morris instructed campus police to be “on guard” because Morris believed Hightower might react angrily. Id. ¶ 28. Hightower was offended and visited the Chief of Police to voice her displeasure with Morris's instruction. Id. ¶ 29. Shortly thereafter, Morris came to Hightower's office and accused her of being angry, stating that Hightower needed to “move on.” Id.

         In the fall of 2015, Hightower applied for a promotion to Director of Counseling, a position that Hightower had previously served successfully on an interim basis. Id. ¶ 31. Contrary to ICC's practice for other open positions for which there are qualified internal candidates, ICC elected to interview outside candidates for the position. Id. ¶ 33. Hightower was not chosen for the position. ICC instead hired a white woman, Amy Daxenbichler, from outside ICC for the role. Id. ¶ 34.

         Upon learning that she did not get the position, Hightower spoke with Vice President of Diversity Rita Ali. Hightower pointed out that she had successfully served in the role of Director of Counseling on an interim basis. Id. ¶ 35. Ali responded that she was unaware that Hightower had served as interim Director of Counseling. Id.

         Hightower complained to Ali, Vice President of Human Resources Martha Bloodsaw, and former interim President of ICC Bruce Budde about the promotion denials and Morris's characterization of Hightower as an “angry black woman, ” all of whom failed to meaningfully address her concerns. Id. ¶ 36.

         Hightower alleges that after being passed over for promotions and since she complained, she has been unlawfully retaliated against in various forms. Plaintiff alleges that Daxenbichler delivered a “false and retaliatory disciplinary write up” which resulted in Hightower not being eligible for a standard pay raise, denied Hightower's request to take vacation days even though white employees were allowed to take those same days off, and required Hightower to participate in extra training on the weekends and evenings. Id. ¶ 38. Hightower further claims that Points and Daxenbichler transferred her job location to another campus and that Points “laughed it off” when Hightower's office was broken into. Id. She further states that Morris and Daxenbichler denied Hightower the benefit of tuition reimbursement that was afforded to other white employees. Id. Lastly, Plaintiff claims that Points gave Hightower a lower performance review than she had received in the past. Id. ¶ 30.

         Hightower contends that Defendants have discriminated against her on the basis of race and retaliated against her for complaining of racial discrimination. Id. ¶ 40. She brings claims for race discrimination and retaliation under Title VII and the Illinois Civil Rights Act (“ICRA”), 740 ILCS 23/5, against ICC. Id. ¶¶ 51-69. She brings individual-capacity equal protection claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the individual defendants. Id. ¶¶ 70-74.

         II. Hightower's Class Action Claims

         Hightower asserts that ICC has a pattern and practice of discrimination “against its African American employees through policies, practices, and standard operating procedures.” Id. ¶ 11. She contends that the “basic forms of discrimination” “fall into two basic categories.” Id.

         “First, ICC maintains a policy or practice of creating a predominantly and disproportionately non-African American upper echelon workforce, thus systematically denying African Americans the responsibilities, salary, and benefits of high-level positions.” Id. ¶ 12. “ICC ensures that its upper ranks remain predominantly white through a variety of methods” such as denying African Americans promotions in a sham interview process that favors pre-selected white candidates; hiring non-African American outside candidates for positions which qualified African American internal candidates have applied for; employing succession planning practices that fast-track non-African American employees for advancement over African Americans; denying tenure to qualified African American faculty; falsely disciplining African Americans for behavior permitted for non-African Americans; denying training opportunities for African Americans; and discouraging African Americans to pursue advancement by employing a Vice President of Diversity who regularly counsels African American employees to simply put their heads down and wait for better opportunities in the future. Id.

         Second, ICC maintains the status quo of disproportionately non-African American leadership by channeling discrimination complaints into a sham investigation process, and retaliating against those who pursue discrimination complaints outside of that process. Id. ¶ 13. This sham process discourages African American employees from continuing to pursue advancement or challenge racial discrimination, and makes it more difficult for African Americans to find lawyers or timely pursue legal claims outside of the sham process. Id. Hightower asserts that the Board is acting in concert with Vice President of Human Resources Bloodsaw and Vice President of Diversity Ali to implement, devise, and enforce the aforementioned policies or practices of discrimination. Id. ¶ 14.

         Hightower further claims that there are “numerous recent examples of ICC imposing a glass ceiling toward African Americans.” Id. ¶ 15. ICC refused to give a tenure-track position to a well-respected African American professor. Id. When students protested the school's action, President Quirk-Bailey attempted to intimidate the protesting students by telling them their protests would only make it worse for the professor. Id. ICC also “drove out” its only African American dean, reassigning him to a high school program. Id. Lastly, ICC denied a permanent role to an African American interim dean whose performance in the position was excellent. Id. ICC again chose a less qualified white candidate for the role. Id.

         Hightower asserts class claims of race discrimination and retaliation against ICC and the Board in violation of Title VII and ICRA.

         III. Defendants' Motion to Dismiss

         On August 21, 2017, Defendants filed the instant motion to dismiss Plaintiff's Amended Complaint making several arguments in support of dismissal. (Doc. 16). On October 10, 2017, Plaintiff filed a response contesting all of Defendants' arguments. (Doc. 20). Defendants filed a reply on October 27, 2017. (Doc. 22). This matter is now ripe for decision.

         Legal Standard

         In ruling on a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), “the court must treat all well-pleaded allegations as true and draw all inferences in favor of the non-moving party.” In re marchFIRST Inc., 589 F.3d 901, 904 (7th Cir. 2009). The complaint must contain “a short and ...

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