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Johnson v. Jones

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

February 8, 2018

BYRON JOHNSON, Plaintiff
v.
CANDICE JONES, Director of the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          ROBERT W. GETTLEMAN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Byron Johnson filed the instant lawsuit against defendant Candice Jones in her official capacity as former Director of the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice, [1] claiming that he was discriminated against due to his age and race in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, 29 U.S.C. § 626(c) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as amended by, inter alia the Civil Rights Act of 1991, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq.[2] Defendant has moved for summary judgment under Fed.R.Civ.P. 56. For the reasons stated below, defendant's motion is granted.

         FACTS[3]

         Plaintiff, an African-American, began working for the Illinois Department of Corrections in 1996. He continued with the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice (“IDOJJ” or “defendant”) after it separated from the Illinois Department of Corrections in 2006. From 2012 until his termination on July 31, 2015, plaintiff held the position of Assistant Superintendent of Operations at Illinois Youth Center-St. Charles (“IYC-St. Charles”). IYC-St. Charles accommodates approximately 300 juvenile offenders. As Assistant Superintendent of Operations, plaintiff's duties involved supervising facility operations. Plaintiff also sometimes served as the Duty Administrative Officer (“DAO”), the individual in charge of the facility at any given time. The DAO role rotated among the IYC-St. Charles leadership team, including plaintiff.

         Plaintiff alleges that defendant discriminated against him both in the conditions of his employment, [4] and in terminating him on July 31, 2015. Plaintiff's charge of discrimination with the Illinois Department of Human Rights and United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) raised only the issue of discrimination in discharge. The EEOC sent plaintiff a Notice of Right to Sue dated February 3, 2016, which he received on February 12, 2016.

         At the time of plaintiff's termination, Candice Jones, an African-American, was the Director of IDOJJ. IYC-St. Charles was managed by a team consisting of Superintendent Jeff Bargar, Assistant Superintendent of Programs Stephanie Lawson, and plaintiff. Both plaintiff and Lawson reported directly to Superintendent Bargar. Superintendent Bargar reported to the executive team, consisting of Director Jones, Deputy Director of Programs Heidi Mueller, and Deputy Director of Operations Jesse Montgomery, an African-American. At all relevant times, a Federal Consent Decree and Remedial Plan were in place to address conditions of confinement, including mental health, education, and safety.

         Plaintiff received overall positive performance reviews in August 2012, August 2013, and September 2014. However, three incidents occurred within approximately one year of plaintiff's termination that defendant identifies as the basis for its decision to terminate plaintiff.

         The first incident defendant cites as a reason for plaintiff's termination occurred during a monthly video conference call Director Jones held with executive and administrative staff. The purpose of the calls was to review critical issues, including progress on the consent decree and remedial plan. Plaintiff participated in these calls. During one call, approximately one year prior to plaintiff's termination, Director Jones posed a question to plaintiff regarding mental health screening. Plaintiff was not able to correctly answer the question, which was subsequently answered accurately by Clinical Services Supervisor Christine Rothwell. Plaintiff alleges that Director Jones' question was outside the scope of his job duties because it related to a program function rather than facility operation. Defendant, however, expected plaintiff, in his role as Assistant Superintendent of Operations, to know significant operational, program, and reform related changes. Jones never spoke to plaintiff to express dissatisfaction in his inability answer her question. To the court's knowledge, plaintiff was not formally disciplined for this incident.

         The second incident defendant cites as a reason for plaintiff's termination occurred following a situation on June 8, 2015, in which two youths escaped from IYC-St. Charles housing. One made it off the premises. All members of the IYC-St. Charles leadership team, including plaintiff, were summoned to the facility. On the afternoon of June 9, 2015, a meeting of leadership staff occurred to establish a command schedule to ensure continuous coverage during this crisis situation. Plaintiff volunteered to work a shift from 5:00 p.m. until 12:00 a.m. At midnight, Stephanie Lawson would return to relieve plaintiff of his duties. However, at 8:42 p.m. plaintiff, the highest ranking officer on duty at the time, left the facility without securing authorization from Superintendent Bargar or any other member of the executive team. Plaintiff alleges that he attempted to contact Superintendent Bargar, but that he could not reach him. Before leaving, plaintiff turned over control of the facility to Reception Unit Administrative Supervisor Chris Voights, a former superintendent. Plaintiff claimed to be tired as he had gotten less than three hours of sleep over the past 38 hour period and had forgotten to take his diabetes medication. Nevertheless, plaintiff left during a shift he agreed to cover at a critical time for IYC-St. Charles. Defendant disciplined plaintiff for his conduct during this incident with a verbal warning.

         The final incident defendant cites as a basis for plaintiff's termination occurred on June 26, 2015, when Juvenile Justice Supervisor Stephen Walker used chemical agents on a youth. The youth had become violent and upset. Walker and other security staff contacted plaintiff before he arrived at the facility to inform him of the escalating situation. Plaintiff claims he was told the youth was banging his head, pounding on windows, and kicking doors. Plaintiff took an active role in managing the situation by directing Walker move the youth to timeout and later to a more secure room. Upon plaintiff's arrival at the facility, plaintiff attempted to deescalate the situation by conversing with the youth in the youth's holding cell and informing the youth that he would be moved. The youth became increasingly irate and Walker administered chemical restraints. Stephanie Lawson was the DAO in charge of the facility at that time, but the parties dispute whether DAO Lawson was present at the time at the time chemicals were used. The parties also dispute which IYC-St. Charles employee authorized use of chemical agents.

         The Illinois Administrative Code permits use of chemical agents on youth only with the authorization of the shift supervisor or someone with higher authority. The consent decree requires defendant have policies regarding circumstances when facility staff are permitted to use pepper spray and mandates an oversight and discipline system with prompt investigation of allegations of excessive force. Following the incident, Deputy Director of Operations, Jesse Montgomery, reviewed the use of force. In an email exchange between plaintiff and Montgomery a few days after the incident, plaintiff indicated that his “only thoughts at that time were to get this youth out of this room before he hurts himself.” Montgomery referred the incident for external investigation, but that investigation was never completed. To the court's knowledge, no employee was formally disciplined in this incident.

         Defendant terminated plaintiff, an at will employee, on July 31, 2015. The termination letter did not cite a basis for termination and did not offer any opportunity for appeal or grievance. Defendant does not recall when the decision to terminate plaintiff occurred. Within weeks of plaintiff's termination, Stephanie Lawson was transferred to another IDOJJ facility and Jeff Bargar was demoted.

         Following his termination, plaintiff filed a charge of discrimination with the Illinois Department of Human Rights (“IDHR”) and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). The IDHR and EEOC charge described plaintiff's issue solely as discharge due to ...


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