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Sherris v. City Colleges of Chicago

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

February 21, 2018

NADIA SHERRIS, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY COLLEGES OF CHICAGO, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          HON. JORGE L. ALONSO, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff, Nadia Sherris, sues defendant, City Colleges of Chicago, her former employer, for hostile work environment based on sexual harassment and retaliation under Title VII, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e et seq. This case is before the Court on defendant's motion for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. For the following reasons, the Court grants the motion.

         BACKGROUND

         Defendant is a community college system comprised of seven colleges in Chicago. (Pl.'s LR 56.1 Resp. ¶ 2, ECF No. 24.) Plaintiff worked as a catering manager in defendant's Business Enterprises department, which was responsible for defendant's revenue-generating businesses, including cafeteria services, three cafes, and two restaurants. (Id. ¶¶ 11, 19.) The food-service elements of the Business Enterprises Department were intertwined with the Washburne Culinary Institute (“Washburne”), a culinary school within defendant's Kennedy-King College. (Id. ¶¶ 12, 14.) Plaintiff reported to Jose Cervantes, who supervised various operations of Washburne and the Business Enterprises Department, particularly its cafes and restaurants, at five or six different locations. (Id. ¶ 14.) Cervantes reported to Joyce Carson, Vice Chancellor of Business Enterprises. (Id. ¶ 13.) Cervantes did not have the authority to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer or discipline plaintiff, reassign her with significantly different responsibilities, or change her benefits. (Id. ¶ 20.)

         Plaintiff began employment with defendant in January 2014. (Id. ¶ 19.) She came to be employed there after Cervantes, a neighborhood acquaintance, told her of the opportunity and encouraged her to apply. (Pl.'s Dep. at 21:22-23:3, ECF No. 23-6.) Plaintiff interviewed with Carson and subsequently received a job offer via defendant's Office of Human Resources. (Id. at 24:18-26:1.) According to plaintiff, Cervantes had bragged that he and Carson were friends. (Id. at 220:18-221:9.)

         In mid-February 2014, Cervantes began sexually harassing plaintiff, groping her on a number of occasions and making repeated sexual advances. (Pl.'s LR 56.1 Resp. ¶ 22; Pl.'s Dep. Ex. 6, Pl.'s City Colleges of Chicago Discrimination and Harassment Complaint Form at 2, ECF No. 23-7 at 15.) Carson heard that there was “tension” between plaintiff and Cervantes, so on or shortly before March 10, 2014, she called plaintiff to ask her about it. (Pl.'s LR 56.1 Resp. ¶ 25.) Plaintiff told Carson that Cervantes had been making advances that made her uncomfortable. (Id. ¶ 25.) Carson encouraged her to file a written complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity (“EEO”) Officer in the Office of Human Resources. (Id.; see Id. ¶¶ 5-7 (under defendant's EEO policy, which prohibits sexual harassment and retaliation, EEO officer is responsible for investigating any complaints, which must be in writing).) Plaintiff responded that she would think about whether to do that; she was “nervous” about doing so because she did not want to “cause troubles” or “lose [her] job, ” which Cervantes had helped her to get. (Pl.'s Dep. at 99:1-23, ECF No. 23-6.) Additionally, she thought the problem might “just go away” because Cervantes frequently told her, “okay, I'll stop[, ] I promise I'll leave you alone, ” and also that he was going to retire from City Colleges of Chicago and start his own business soon, so she would only have to “put up with this for another month.” (Pl.'s Dep. at 99:23-100:8, ECF No. 23-6.) Carson told plaintiff that, regardless of whether plaintiff chose to file a written complaint, Carson would have to report the issue, and on March 10, 2014, Carson sent a memo to Stephanie Tomino, defendant's Vice Chancellor of Human Resources, informing her that “Nadia Sherris has made allegations of improper advances by a senior member of the Washburne team” and asking her to “[k]indly take action, as appropriate.” (Pl.'s LR 56.1 Resp. ¶¶ 16, 26.)

         Plaintiff received a letter, dated March 10, 2014, from Aaron Allen, defendant's Director of Labor Relations, informing plaintiff, “The EEO Office for the City Colleges of Chicago . . . became aware that you may have been subjected to conduct in violation of the City Colleges of Chicago EEO Policy. You have the option of filing a written complaint if you would like to initiate an investigation of the incident(s).” (Id. ¶ 27.) The letter enclosed a copy of the EEO policy as well as a complaint form. (Id.) Leah DeVita, a Labor and Employment Specialist and one of the investigators who worked with Allen, called plaintiff to follow up with her. (Id. ¶¶ 16, 28.) However, plaintiff did not immediately file a written complaint because Cervantes “had at that point told everybody he's . . . going to retire. He is starting his own company. So I thought he was just going to go away.” (Pl.'s Dep. at 102:3-6.)

         Carson instructed Cervantes that he was not to be alone with plaintiff or to “treat her in any way that would be considered problematic.” (Pl.'s LR 56.1 Resp. ¶ 32.) Cervantes was to spend more time at work sites where he was less likely to be near plaintiff, and Carson began handling some of Cervantes's management duties herself to allow Cervantes to “step[] back from . . . certain things, ” in anticipation of a potential investigation into his behavior. (Id. ¶¶ 32, 40; Carson Dep. at 73:9-10, ECF NO. 23-4.)

         According to plaintiff, “nothing changed” immediately after her March 10, 2014 conversation with Carson, in terms of Cervantes curtailing his contact with plaintiff and his harassing behavior toward her. (Pl.'s Dep. at 107:1-108-23.) To the contrary, it seemed to plaintiff that the way Cervantes and his friend Angel Cruz, Washburne's executive chef, treated her took a turn for the worse. (Pl.'s LR 56.1 Resp. ¶ 30.) They had previously been supportive of her, but they began to “throw [plaintiff] under the bus.” (Id.) Plaintiff testified that, although she could only remember one specific phone conversation and one email, she believed that she occasionally reached out to Carson to ask her to “come and visit here and see what's going on” (Pl.'s Dep. at 112:4-5), i.e., to see the way Cervantes and Cruz were treating her, because she was “feel[ing] like things [were] starting to get weird” (id. at 115:15), but Carson only reiterated that plaintiff should follow up with the EEO office for support (id. at 112:15-17, 116:17-18). (See Def.'s Resp. to Pl.'s Stmt. of Add'l Facts ¶ 12, ECF No. 27.)

         On March 14, 2014, a dispute involving plaintiff arose over preparations for a catering event. At 11:00 a.m., in the midst of the dispute, plaintiff emailed Cruz, “And tell god damned Emanuel to pick up his phone if he is with you that little lazy next to being fired whiny brat-I have so had it.” (Pl.'s Dep. Ex. 10, ECF No. 23-7 at 26.) At 11:17 a.m., plaintiff emailed Carson, “Please call me. I think he knows I'm filing now because both Angel and Jose are giving me grief beyond normal. I cannot work in this environment.” (Pl.'s LR 56.1 Resp. ¶ 29.) Carson, having received plaintiff's 11:00 a.m. email to Cruz unbeknownst to plaintiff, emailed plaintiff and Cruz, with Cervantes copied, “This is not the way we communicate with ANYONE!!! We need to have a team sit-down next week.” (Pl.'s Dep. Ex. 10, ECF No. 23-7 at 26.) Carson called Cruz to ask about the situation, and after Cruz explained that “there was something needed for [the] event that [plaintiff] wasn't being responsive too, ” Carson instructed Cruz to put his requests to plaintiff in writing from that point forward. (Pl.'s LR 56.1 Resp. ¶ 31.) At her deposition, plaintiff admitted that she used inappropriate language, although she claimed that such language was common in defendant's kitchens and among the catering or kitchen staff. (Id. ¶ 41.)

         On March 15, 2014, Cruz emailed Carson to report plaintiff's behavior at the preceding evening's event:

I'm sorry to bother you with this email but I just wanted to let you know what happened last night at the event. . . . Nadia continued provoking me calling me all kinds of names in front of the staff, I was not argumentative I did not say a word and I walked away from the situation. She called me an animal a joker, she told the staff that I needed an audience, she tried to fire Emmanuel for a mistake at the end of the night she admitted she had made, . . . she was completely out of control. Three employees and one student witnessed the incident; Kyle, Brenda Williams, Rosita and Cheyenne Toney. Jose was also there and he saw how she treated me in front of the staff yesterday.

(Id. ¶ 42.) At her deposition, plaintiff admitted to calling Cruz an animal and a joker and testified that she called Cruz names “in the heat of the moment” because she was “upset.” (Id.) On March 25, 2014, based on the report of the incident involving Emmanuel, Carson sent an email to plaintiff, Cruz, Cervantes, and other management and human resources personnel, stating, “It has come to my attention that an employee was told he was fired Friday, March 14, 2014. No. one at City Colleges has the authority to fire anyone on the spot. If an employee's behavior is unacceptable you may release him/her from the event and document the situation for review and discussion with Human Resources.” (Id. ¶ 46; see Pl.'s Dep. at 156:7-157:6.)

         On March 25, 2014, plaintiff submitted a written EEO complaint against Cervantes to defendant's EEO office. (Pl.'s LR 56.1 Resp. ¶ 33.) At that point, plaintiff testified, Cervantes's harassment “stopped, thankfully.” (Pl.'s Dep. at 108:23; see Id. at 109:1-18.) Allen initiated an investigation, interviewing several employees in addition to plaintiff and Cervantes, and on April 10, 2014, he sent an eight-page report to Tomino, informing her that the investigation “found that there is insufficient evidence to find that . . . Cervantes subjected . . . [plaintiff] to sexual harassment.” (Pl.'s LR 56.1 Resp. ¶ 34.) The report explained that the investigation had uncovered no witnesses to the alleged harassment and no basis to believe that either Cervantes or plaintiff was more credible than the other, so it could not sustain the allegations, although it was clear that Cervantes had “exhibited poor judgment” by “blurring professional boundaries.” (Pl.'s Dep. Ex. 8 at 7-8, ECF No. 23-7 at 23-24.) On the following day, Cervantes submitted a letter to Carson in which he tendered his resignation, effective May 9, 2014, in order to start his own business, although he assured Carson, “Your support has always been appreciated and reporting to you has been one of the best parts of working for City Colleges.” (Pl.'s LR 56.1 Resp. ¶ 36; Pl.'s Stmt. of Add'l Facts ¶ 24.)

         On April 10, 2014, Margaret Black, who managed one of Washburne's cafes, sent an email to Carson, Cruz, and Cervantes describing a phone call she had received from plaintiff:

I just got a call from Nadia stating that she wants me to come . . . to inventory all the items that are there for the Café. As in a previous email the Chef made it clear that he would take care of the things for the café, because we do not have the space for all the items here. I told Nadia that we order in small amounts and on a as[-]needed basis, she informed me that it is my respons[ibility] as a manager to know what inventory I have. I again tried to explain to her that the Chef and I had it under control, she informed me she ...

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