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Van Vliet v. Illinois Department of Human Services

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

January 10, 2018




         Before the Court is Defendant Illinois Department of Human Services' ("IDHS") motion to dismiss ("Motion") portions of Plaintiff Denise Van Vliet's ("Van Vliet") verified complaint ("Complaint") pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). For the following reasons, the Court grants IDHS' Motion.


         The Court accepts as true the following well-plead allegations from Van Vliet's Complaint. All possible inferences are drawn in Van Vliet's favor. Tamayo v. Blagojevich, 526 F.3d 1074, 1081 (7th Cir. 2008).

         From June 2008 until October 4, 2016, Van Vliet was employed on a year-to-year contractual basis by IDHS as a Staff Sign Language Interpreter in the Division of Rehabilitation Services ("Rehab Division"). Van Vliet interpreted for her supervisor, Richard Robarts ("Robarts"), who is deaf. Robarts himself was responsible for annually renewing Van Vliet's employment contract.

         Van Vliet suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder ("PTSD"), which "substantially limited one or more major life activities, such as concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working." Her PTSD also affected "major bodily functions such as neurological and brain functions." However, at all relevant times, Van Vliet was able to perform the essential functions of her position with or without a reasonable accommodation.

         In late October 2015, Andre Howard ("Howard"), Robarts' supervisor, told Robarts and Van Vliet that Van Vliet needed to "stop being over the top." Van Vliet claims that neither she nor Robarts understood what Howard was referencing. The next month, in November 2015, Howard explained to Robarts, "without Van Vliet, " that he was planning on "overruling" Robarts and terminating Van Vliet's contract. Van Vliet alleges that she witnessed Howard's threat to terminate her being "signed" to Robarts.[1] Her PTSD was triggered as a result.

         On December 3, 2015, Lou Hamer ("Hamer"), the Bureau Chief of the Rehab Division, "terminated" Van Vliet. Later that same morning, however, Hamer reversed Van Vliet's termination letter after she informed him that Howard's behavior had triggered her PTSD. Hamer's reversal allegedly infuriated Howard. Five days later, on December 8, 2015, Howard told Robarts that he would not authorize Van Vliet's contract renewal in June 2016.

         On December 30, 2015, in an email to Hamer and Assistant Bureau Chief Mary Beth Scholton ("Scholton"), Van Vliet described "the hostile work environment she was subject to" and informed the two that "she was seeking treatment as a result of the reversed termination." Hamer responded to the email by telling Van Vliet to "stop with the accusations and emails" and "let it go if there were no new issues." The following month, January 2016, Howard began to require Van Vliet - an employee - to sign into the visitor's log every day. The same month, Robarts filed an EEOC Charge of Discrimination. Upon being notified of the charge, Howard acted as if it was Van Vliet who had filed the charge. Van Vliet alleges that on the day Howard learned of the EEOC charge, he "charged at Ms. Van Vliet in the office kitchen so aggressively that she had to step to the side to avoid" a collision. A few days later, Howard got very close to Van Vliet, yelled at her for not having her employee badge, and repeatedly interrupted her as she tried to interpret for Robarts. Van Vliet protested and told Howard to not stand so close. Van Vliet also claims that although she was not responsible for issuing her employee badge and had simply not received hers yet, she was the only party disciplined for the confrontation. Howard received no reprimand.

         In March 2016, Van Vliet filed her first charge of discrimination with the EEOC. Two months later, in May 2016, Home Services Coordinator Thaddis Goss informed Van Vliet that Howard was planning to "have her fired." To cope with the stress of the situation, Van Vliet turned to her religion, Kriya Yoga, which she claims to hold as a sincerely held religious belief. Van Vliet states that Kriya Yoga observes as a central tenet of its faith the idea that "God abides in everyone and everything through Karma."

         Van Vliet alleges that, consistent with the recommendation of her therapist, she would write "Karma to Andre" after her name on the visitor's logs that Howard was forcing her to sign into.[2] Scholton demanded that Van Vliet cease writing her "Karma to Andre" addendums. To comply, Van Vliet began signing in as "Denise KTA Van Vliet." On August 4, 2016, Van Vliet was suspended for two weeks for writing "KTA" on the visitor's logs - two months after Robarts' June 2016 renewal of Van Vliet's contract. During her suspension, Van Vliet emailed Scholten with her concerns about the suspension's effect on Robarts' ability to communicate.

         On August 19, 2016, after her suspension, Van Vliet met with Hamer "to discuss Howard's hostile behavior towards her and how this affected [Robarts]." Van Vliet told Hamer that Howard was "triggering her" with his behavior and reiterated her concerns that her suspension affected Robarts' ability to perform his job. Van Vliet alleges that, prior to her meeting with Hamer, she had already complained about IDHS' sign language policy and how it adversely affected Robarts. Hamer intimated that he would speak with Scholten and get back to Van Vliet, but he failed to follow up.

         In a September 2016 incident, [3] Van Vliet was positioned outside Robarts' office "to perform her usual duties of sign language interpretation." Van Vliet alleges that her position outside the office was most effective for Robarts to see her interpretation. Upon seeing Van Vliet outside the door, Howard allegedly "charged at her in a threatening manner and forced her into a break room." Howard got close to Van Vliet's face, began yelling at her, and said that she "wasn't supposed to sit there" and that "her place was at [Robarts'] side." Van Vliet told Howard that his remarks and demeanor were "sexist, " "dehumanizing, " and "offended her, " which allegedly angered Howard even further.

         Van Vliet alleges that prior to the September 2016 confrontation, she had informed Howard that she would sit in the best location for accessible, effective communication with Robarts; sitting next to him was not one such location. Two days after the incident, Hamer terminated Van Vliet via letter. Van Vliet alleges that Hamer whistled when he gave her the termination letter.

         In an IDHS Charge of Discrimination dated December 28, 2016 ("IDHS Charge"), Van Vliet indicated that she was discriminated against based on "Retaliation" and "Religion."[4] Van Vliet listed the "particulars" of the discrimination as follows:

I began my employment with Respondent in or around June 2008. My most recent position was Sign Language Interpreter. During my employment, I requested a religious accommodation. Subsequently, I was suspended. The terms and conditions of my employment changed.
I believe I have been discriminated against because of my religion, Kriya Yoga, and in retaliation for engaging in protected activity, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended.

         On April 24, 2017, Van Vliet filed her twelve-count Complaint against IDHS. Counts I, II, and III allege hostile work environment, retaliation, and termination, respectively, on the basis of Van Vliet's sex in violation of Title VII of The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), 42 U.S.C. §2000e. Count IV alleges IDHS' failure to accommodate Van Vliet's disability, while Counts V, VI, and VII, respectively, allege claims of hostile work environment, retaliation, and termination, all in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. §12111. Similarly, Count VIII alleges IDHS' failure to accommodate Van Vliet's religion, while Counts IX, X, and XI, respectively, set forth claims of retaliation, suspension and termination, and hostile work environment, all on the basis of Van Vliet's religion in violation of Title VII. Finally, Count XII alleges associational discrimination in violation of the ADA. IDHS seeks dismissal of Counts I, II, V, XI, XII, and the termination portion of Count X. By virtue of the arguments addressed herein, the Court also considers Count Ill's viability. Not at issue are Counts IV, VI, VII, VIII, IX, and the suspension portion of Count X.

         STANDARD ...

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