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Coleman v. Robert W. Depke Juvenile Justice Center

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

March 26, 2018



          Robert M. Dow, Jr., United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Shannon Coleman (“Plaintiff”) brings this action against Defendant Robert W. Depke Juvenile Justice Center a/k/a Nineteenth Judicial District (“Defendant” or “DJJC”) for Title VII race discrimination/disparate treatment arising out of his termination in April 2013.[1]This matter is before the Court on Defendant's motion for summary judgment [57]. For the reasons explained below, Defendant's motion [57] is granted. Judgment will be entered in favor of Defendant.

         I. Background

         The Court takes the relevant facts from the parties' Local Rule 56.1 statements and exhibits thereto, [59], [72], [74], and [81]. The following facts are undisputed unless otherwise noted.

         Plaintiff is an African-American man who resides in Lake County, Illinois. Defendant is a body politic of Vernon Hills, Illinois and houses court facilities under the purview of the Chief Judge of the Nineteenth Judicial Circuit Court as well as unrelated county facilities. On August 20, 2001, Plaintiff began employment with the Administrative Office of the Nineteenth Judicial Circuit Court as a part-time Juvenile Detention Officer, a non-sworn position, located at the DJJC. Plaintiff's position became full-time just before 2002.

         In July 2005, Plaintiff was given a promotion to Senior Juvenile Counselor. Juvenile Counselors perform work in the field of community corrections with juvenile offenders, counseling, supervising, processing records, evaluating and making recommendations on incoming referrals and/or juveniles held in detention. In 2008, Plaintiff applied for and was subsequently approved for a Career Path promotion to Senior Juvenile Counselor by Robert Zastany, the Executive Director for the Nineteenth Judicial Circuit.

         On June 15, 2010, Plaintiff acknowledged that he had previously read the Nineteenth Judicial Circuit-Lake County Employee Handbook and Annexes, that the Handbook and Annexes had been updated and should have been re-read, that he understood he was expected to comply with the policies contained therein, that he also read the Ethics Policy (part of the Annexes), and that he understood that employees of the Nineteenth Judicial Circuit are at-will employees serving at the discretion of the Chief Judge.

         Plaintiff worked in DJJC's Detention Unit until March 21, 2012 when he transferred to the Intake Unit. Plaintiff's job responsibilities as a Juvenile Counselor in the Detention Unit included ensuring the safety and security of the staff and residents (minors in secured detention), counseling residents, monitoring residents, conducting group discussions with residents, facilitating daily skills groups to encourage a good standard of morals and values, and transporting minors to and from Court.

         Plaintiff's job responsibilities as a Juvenile Counselor in the Intake Unit included making custody decisions such as detaining or releasing a juvenile to the custody of their parents under certain conditions, making recommendations to the State's Attorney Office, providing information and explaining services to families of minors, documenting information, preparing reports, and assisting the court in determining the levels of intervention needed in order to impact delinquent behavior, and making suggestions to the court to eliminate or reduce recidivism. Plaintiff had knowledge of certain delinquencies and crimes that the residents committed or had been accused of committing. Plaintiff also had knowledge regarding some of the causes, treatment, and prevention of delinquency and crime. Plaintiff was expected to exhibit good judgment and be a positive role model for the residents at the DJJC and his co-workers. It was important for Plaintiff to carry himself in a professional manner both at work and in the community. Pursuant to the Nineteenth Judicial Circuit Court Employee Handbook, “[c]onfidence in the ability of employees to discharge their responsibilities and to command the trust and confidence of the Chief Judge is essential to continued employment.” [63-15] at 52.

         Approximately three months after he began his full-time employment as a Juvenile Counselor, Plaintiff was issued a gold, five-point star badge that identified his job title, county in which he worked, and the state. Plaintiff always kept the star badge in the visor of the vehicle he was driving. The Employee Handbook states: “[T]he Badge/Card is for identifying you to other law enforcement agencies, to Court Security, and for responding to a request for identification. Badges and Identification Cards shall not be used in an unprofessional manner.” [63-15] at 48. Plaintiff admits that he was not allowed to “use the badge for unauthorized, non-work related purposes, or in an unprofessional manner” to the extent that this means that he was not allowed to use his badge to gain any special treatment, authority, or information outside of work for himself or his family. [74] at 7. However, Plaintiff disputes Defendant's assertion that he was not allowed to use the badge for any non-work related purposes. See id. at 6-7. Plaintiff elaborates: “Admittedly, during Plaintiff's deposition, when Plaintiff was asked whether he was allowed to use his badge for non-work related purposes, he answered, not to my knowledge…. However, the term ‘use' in the context of the question and obvious circumstances surround[ing] the case, would imply something along the lines of seeking a benefit or preferential treatment outside of work or to assert a special position of authority outside of work. To the extent that Defendant is alleging that an employee could not even display his or her badge in any way unless it was being displayed in a ‘work related' situation, Defendant's own policy contradicts that allegation.” [74] at 7.

         In Plaintiff's chain of command, the Director is Robert Cesar. Directors have supervisory authority to impose discipline to subordinate employees up to and including a three-day suspension without pay and administrative leave for investigation of employees. Supervisors review situations, interpret policies of the Nineteenth Judicial District, and select the form of discipline; while they are encouraged to use progressive discipline when appropriate, each case stands on its own merits. Next in the chain of command is the Executive Director, Robert Zastany. The Executive Director of the Administrative Office of the Nineteenth Judicial Circuit has supervisory authority to discipline up to and including discharge of paid County employees, but not including the discharge of sworn paid County employees (Probation Officers and Juvenile Counselors) and State employees. The Chief Judge has the sole authority to discharge sworn staff (Probation Officers and Juvenile Counselors). All significant personnel actions are briefed to the Chief Judge to see if there are any concerns, directions, or observations that may shed light onto a situation.

         On the evening of March 31, 2013, Officer Michael Platt made a traffic stop of Plaintiff and his passenger. As Officer Platt approached the window of Plaintiff's vehicle, Plaintiff “presented [him] with a five-pointed badge.” [63-18] at 6, Tr. p. 19:17-18. The badge was in Plaintiff's left hand, facing out toward Officer Platt, and was visible to Officer Platt. Id. at 7, Tr. p. 22:1-19. Officer Platt asked Plaintiff if the five-pointed badge was a North Chicago Police star because, due to the nighttime hours and the coloring of the badge, it looked at first like a North Chicago Police star. Plaintiff told him it was not. When Officer Platt looked at the five-pointed badge again he was able to see that it was a Lake County Probation Officer badge. Id., Tr. p. 21:1-6. Officer Platt testified that it was not unusual for law enforcement personnel to present a badge in their window during a traffic stop to alert him that they are “on the same team, ” that they may have a lawful weapon in the vehicle, and to alleviate worry about the situation escalating into violence. [63-18] at 7-8, Tr. pp. 23:20-25:12; 13, Tr. pp. 46:10-47:5.

         Officer Platt observed the strong odor of cannabis coming from inside of the vehicle. [63-18] at 8, Tr. p. 26:16-24. He asked for Plaintiff's and his passenger's identification and returned to his police car to wait for his partner. Id., Tr. p. 27:3-6. After his partner arrived, Officer Platt asked Plaintiff to exit his vehicle so the two men could speak. Id., Tr. p. 27:15-16. Officer Platt explained that he “intended to search the inside of the car, based on the odor of the cannabis coming in from inside it, and . . . asked him if there was anything in the car that [he] should know about.” Id., Tr. p. 27:19-23. According to Officer Platt, Plaintiff told him “that the passenger had been smoking a blunt in the passenger seat and had just recently put it out.” Id., Tr. p. 28:15-17. The police report also indicates that the passenger admitted he had been smoking a blunt. The DVD of Officer Platt's dash-cam shows that during the traffic stop, Officer Platt asked Plaintiff, “If you are a probation officer, why are you letting somebody smoke weed in your car?” [74] at 14.

         Officer Platt searched the interior of Plaintiff's vehicle, where he located a bag with a green leafy substance, presumed to be cannabis, inside a cigar box that was inside the center console. He also found a switch-blade knife in the center console and a bottle of tequila behind the driver's seat that was partially full and not factory sealed. According to the police report, Plaintiff stated that none of these items were his.

         Officer Platt testified that the traffic stop of Plaintiff was unusual because this was the only time he had experienced a person display an ID or badge to identify himself as part of the law enforcement community while at the same time observing the smell of cannabis and finding cannabis in the vehicle. [63-18] at 13, Tr. pp. 45:2-10; 47:16-48:2. Officer Platt opined that he found it inappropriate that Plaintiff displayed his badge “under the circumstances, because [Plaintiff] told [Officer Platt] that the passenger had just finished smoking a blunt inside of the car, ” which would, “in [Officer Platt's] opinion, be contradictory to being on the law enforcement side, if you will, or within the law enforcement community.” Id., Tr. p. 47:16-23. Nonetheless, Officer Platt testified that Plaintiff's display of the badge did “still put [him], to some degree, at ease” because it told him “a little bit, that I probably would not have to fight with that person.” Id., Tr. p. 48:3-7. Officer Platt also testified that Plaintiff was cooperative throughout the stop, did not resist him throughout the stop, and did not specifically ask for special treatment because he was a probation officer. Officer Platt did not give Plaintiff a breathalyzer test because, based upon his interaction with Plaintiff, he did not believe him to be under the influence of alcohol.

         Plaintiff and his passenger were arrested and transported to the Lake County Jail. Officer Platt completed the charging documents, and a police report which recorded the events that transpired during the traffic stop and arrest. Plaintiff was charged with a traffic citation for speeding, a traffic citation for illegal transportation of alcohol based upon the open container of tequila, and two non-traffic citations for unlawful use of weapons and possession of cannabis. Officer Platt requested that the Lake County Sheriff's Department dispatchers contact Defendant to confirm Plaintiff's employment because he was investigating whether to charge Plaintiff with impersonation of a Probation Officer or a Peace Officer. The dispatchers confirmed that Plaintiff was a juvenile probation employee and did not investigate the issue further.

         On April 1, 2013, Cesar learned that the Lake County Sheriff's Department had called to confirm Plaintiff's employment and that Plaintiff had been arrested and criminally charged. Cesar made the recommendation for Plaintiff to be placed on administrative leave and Zastany approved of that decision. Cesar testified that he put Plaintiff on administrative leave in order to find out more information about the arrest and criminal charges. Zastany testified that when an employee is arrested, it is protocol to suspend them with pay and have them turn in their materials while an internal investigation can be performed, which includes obtaining a copy of the police report. After Plaintiff was put on administrative leave, Cesar received copies of the police report and dash-cam police video that was taken at the time of Plaintiff's traffic stop and arrest. Cesar testified that the dash-cam police video showed that Plaintiff had his badge in his hand, where it was visible. [63-5] at 9, Tr. p. 29:15-17.

         On April 15, 2013, Cesar and Marci Jumisko, the Director of Administrative Services for the Nineteenth Judicial Circuit, recommended to Zastany that Plaintiff's employment with the Nineteenth Judicial Circuit should be terminated immediately. At the time Cesar recommended Plaintiff for termination, the only information he had concerning Plaintiff's arrest was the police report and arrest video. At no point did Cesar ask Plaintiff about what happened regarding the arrest or his version of events. Cesar testified that, if he was the decision maker, anyone would be terminated under circumstances similar to Plaintiff's arrest, but he had never before been presented with the number of violations of policies that occurred during Plaintiff's traffic stop and arrest. In particular, Cesar testified that he recommended that Plaintiff be terminated because, “to the best of [his] knowledge, [Plaintiff] was arrested with both marijuana and alcohol in the car, additionally to that, he exhibited his probation ...

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