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Hunt v. Personnel Staffing Group, LLC

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

February 22, 2018

ANTWOIN HUNT, JAMES ZOLLICOFFER, NORMAN GREEN, JAMES LEWIS, and KEVIN JAMES, on behalf of themselves and other similarly situated laborers, Plaintiffs,
v.
PERSONNEL STAFFING GROUP, LLC, d/b/a MVP, THE SEGERDAHL CORP., MERCURY PLASTICS, INC., MPS CHICAGO, INC. d/b/a JET LITHO, THE PENRAY COMPANIES, INC., ADVERTISING RESOURCES, INC. d/b/a ARI PACKAGING, LAWRENCE FOODS, INC., and BLOMMER CHOCOLATE COMPANY, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          John J. Tharp, Jr. United States District Judge.

         Five African American laborers sued Personnel Staffing Group, LLC, d/b/a MVP (“MVP”), an employment agency, and seven of its client companies for race discrimination. Plaintiffs Antwoin Hunt, James Zollicoffer, Norman Green, James Lewis, and Kevin James, on behalf of themselves and other similarly situated laborers, allege that MVP and its client companies refused to provide them with job assignments on account of their race and in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981 (“Section 1981”). The defendant client companies move to dismiss the claims against them for lack of standing and for failure to state a claim and also move to dismiss or strike any time-barred claims and allegations. Because the plaintiffs have alleged sufficient facts to have standing and to state a claim under Section 1981 against each of the defendant client companies, and because the complaint does not unambiguously establish that the claims are time-barred, the Court denies the defendants' motions to dismiss.

         BACKGROUND[1]

         MVP is a temporary staffing agency that provides its client companies with low- and moderately-skilled laborers to fill jobs on a daily basis. Defendants The Segerdahl Corp. (“Segerdahl”), Mercury Plastics, Inc. (“Mercury”), MPS Chicago, Inc. d/b/a Jet Litho (“MPS”), The Penray Companies, Inc. (“Penray”), Advertising Resources, Inc. d/b/a ARI Packaging (“ARI”), Lawrence Foods, Inc. (“Lawrence Foods”), and Blommer Chocolate Company (“Blommer”) are clients of MVP (collectively “the defendant client companies”). MVP acts as an agent of the defendant client companies in recruiting, training, assigning, and paying laborers to work at the companies. MVP also acts as a joint employer with the defendant client companies in the assignment of laborers to work at the companies. The jobs for which MVP assigns laborers do not require any special skills, training, or qualifications. MVP operates a branch office located in Cicero, Illinois.

         MVP recruits laborers for its client companies through various forms of advertising. Individuals seeking work assignments from MVP may walk into the Cicero office to request work. A walk-in is typically asked to provide his contact information to an MVP employee, who then assigns work to the individual or informs the person that he will be contacted when a daily job becomes available. MVP's Cicero office retains contact information and applications for at least several months.

         Hunt, Zollicoffer, Green, Lewis, and James were qualified to work at the defendant client companies and, at various times throughout December 2012 to December 2016, they repeatedly sought work assignments in person and by phone from MVP's Cicero office. On a few occasions, Hunt, Green, Lewis, and James received work assignments, but they were never assigned to any of the defendant client companies. Zollicoffer never received a work assignment from MVP, including to any of the defendant client companies.

         During their visits to MVP's Cicero office, the plaintiffs observed that typically between a quarter and a third of the laborers seeking work assignments at the office were African American. They further observed that many of the laborers who appeared Hispanic or spoke Spanish were given work assignments. However, laborers who appeared to be African American were not assigned work. Furthermore, the majority of MVP's recruitment efforts were in predominantly Latino neighborhoods or via Spanish-language media sources. MVP also provides transportation for some of its laborers, but the plaintiffs observed that the laborers who received transportation appeared to be Latino or spoke Spanish and none appeared to be African American.

         According to information from former MVP dispatchers, drivers, and onsite representatives, many of MVP's client companies, including the defendant client companies, directed MVP not to send African American laborers to work at their companies. MVP complied with these requests and instructed its employees to refrain from referring African American laborers to assignments at many of its client companies, including the defendant client companies. When making their discriminatory requests, the defendant client companies used code words to refer to African American laborers and Hispanic laborers. According to a former MVP onsite representative, MVP management disciplined her for failing to comply with its client companies' directions to steer African American laborers away from their companies. MVP and its clients companies also had a system in place so that client companies could terminate an African American laborer by marking the laborer as “Do Not Return.”

         The plaintiffs filed their complaint on December 6, 2016, alleging intentional discrimination in violation of Section 1981 against MVP and the defendant client companies. Segerdahl and Lawrence Foods filed a motion to dismiss and strike as time-barred the plaintiffs' Section 1981 claims that are based on events occurring more than two years prior to the filing of the complaint. Segerdahl and Lawrence Foods Mot. to Dismiss and Strike Time-Barred Section 1981 Claims (“Segerdahl Motion”), ECF No. 51. Mercury then filed a motion to dismiss the complaint for lack of standing and for failure to state a claim. Mercury Mot. to Dismiss for Lack of Standing and for Failure to State a Claim (“Mercury Motion”), ECF No. 77. All of the defendant client companies joined both motions.[2] The plaintiffs filed a response to the Segerdahl Motion before the Mercury Motion was filed, and later filed a revised response addressing both motions. See Pls.' Resp. to Mot. to Dismiss and Strike, ECF No. 73; Pls.' Revised Resp. to Mot. to Dismiss and Strike (“Pls.' Resp.”), ECF No. 92. The defendants jointly filed one reply in support of both motions. Defs.' Consolidated Reply in Supp. of their Mot. to Dismiss (”Defs.' Reply”), ECF No. 96.

         DISCUSSION

         To survive a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), “a complaint must state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Adams v. City of Indianapolis, 742 F.3d 720, 728 (7th Cir. 2014) (citing Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). A claim is plausible on its face if the facts alleged allow the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged. Id. (citing Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)). The plaintiff's claims must include enough details to present “a story that holds together.” Carlson v. CSX Transp., Inc., 758 F.3d 819, 826-27 (7th Cir. 2014) (citing Swanson v. Citibank, N.A., 614 F.3d 400, 404-05 (7th Cir. 2010)). When considering a motion to dismiss, the court construes the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff and draws all inferences from the alleged facts in the plaintiff's favor. Id.

         The crux of the debate presented in the parties' briefs is whether the plaintiffs had (or were seeking) an employment contract and if so with whom. The defendants maintain that the allegations of the complaint do not afford the plaintiffs standing to pursue Section 1981 claims because the complaint fails to adequately allege the requisites of a contractual relationship with which the defendants interfered. The defendants' challenge falls short, however, because it misconstrues applicable precedent and demands more detail at the pleading stage than is required to state a plausible claim under Section 1981.

         I. Standing and Failure to State a Claim

         The client company defendants argue that the plaintiffs' Section 1981 claims should be dismissed because the plaintiffs “lack standing” and fail to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.[3] Memo. in Supp. of Mercury Motion 1, ECF No. 78. Section 1981 provides that all persons shall have the same rights as white citizens to make and enforce contracts, which includes “the making, performance, modification, and termination of contracts, and the enjoyment of all benefits, privileges, terms, and conditions of the contractual relationship.” 42 U.S.C. § 1981. In the employment context, the statute prohibits an employer from discriminating against a job applicant or an employee on the basis of race. Blise v. Antaramian, 409 F.3d 861, 866 (7th Cir. 2005); Tank v. T-Mobile USA, Inc., ...


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