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Butler-Burns v. Board of Trustees of Community College District No. 508

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

March 26, 2018




         Plaintiff Beverly Butler-Burns brings suit against her former employer Defendant City Colleges of Chicago alleging that she was discriminated against and ultimately terminated on the basis of her age and race in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq. (Count I); Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (Count II); and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Count III). Currently before the Court is Defendant's motion for summary judgment. (Dkt. 53). For the reasons set forth below, Defendant's motion is granted in part and denied in part.

         BACKGROUND [1]

         Defendant is a community college district established pursuant to the Illinois Public Community College Act, 110 ILCS 805/1-1 et seq., that operates seven community colleges in Cook County, Illinois. Plaintiff, an African-American woman, began working for Defendant in November 2010 when she was 56. Plaintiff first held two part-time positions at the Harold Washington Institute before she accepted a position as Labor & Employee Relations Specialist-DO (“LERS”), a full-time position in Human Resources at the District Office, in December 2012. Her starting salary was $60, 000. (Dkt. 55) at ¶¶ 14, 15. As a LERS, Plaintiff was hired and supervised by Aaron Allen, an African-American man over forty years of age. Allen reported to Stephanie Tomino, the Vice Chancellor of Human Resources.

         The job description for the LERS position listed eleven “qualifications” for the position, including:

1. Master of Science degree from an accredited college or university with a concentration in Labor Relations, Employee Relations, Human Resource Administration or similar field. Juris Doctorate preferred, or a combination of training and experience required.
2. At least (3) three years of professional experience in labor relations, employee relations, or human resources administration required.
3. Must possess familiarity with employment laws and the ability to assess evidence and arrive at a fair conclusion in accordance with the District's Equal Opportunity Policy and other policies, work rules, and applicable laws.

         6. Must possess excellent verbal and written communication skills. (Dkt. 55-2) at 47-49 (City Colleges of Chicago Job Description for Labor & Employment Relations Specialist-DO Revised 7/31/12); see also Id. at 50-52 (City Colleges of Chicago Job Description for Labor & Employment Relations Specialist-PT Revised 2/16/12) (listing the same qualifications). Plaintiff has a Master's Degree in Human Resource Management and Development, and she held human resource management positions at CNA Financial, Coca-Cola, and Sherwin Williams continuously from 1996 to 2010. (Dkt. 62) at ¶¶ 2-3; see also (Dkt. 62-1) at 22-24 (Butler-Burns resume). The parties do not dispute that Plaintiff met the minimum qualifications for the LERS position. See (Dkt. 62) at ¶ 1.

         During Plaintiff's time as a LERS, three other employees also held this position: Konstantina Christopoulos, Sarah Levee-Nau, and Leia DeVita. Christopoulos was a part-time LERS who was hired in 2009 at a salary of $40/hour. She was 28-years old when she was hired (making her 33 when Plaintiff was discharged in September 2014), and she is not African American. In addition, Christopoulos has a law degree. (Dkt. 55) at ¶¶ 8, 10; (Dkt. 56) at ¶ 10. Levee-Nau was hired as a full-time LERS with a starting salary of $72, 000 in March 2013, when she was 35-years old (making her 36 when Plaintiff was discharged). Levee Nau is not African American and she has a law degree. (Dkt. 55) at ¶ 17; (Dkt. 56) at 17. Finally, DeVita was hired as a full-time LERS with a starting salary of $60, 000 in April 2013, when she was 27-years old (making her 28 when Plaintiff was discharged). DeVita is not African American and she has a law degree. (Dkt. 55) at ¶ 18; (Dkt. 56) at ¶ 18. Accordingly, in September 2014, Plaintiff was the longest serving full-time LERS, and she was also the only LERS without a law degree.[2]

         Among the job responsibilities for a LERS were investigating alleged violations of Defendant's Equal Opportunity policy, investigating employee relations complaints, preparing investigative reports with findings and recommended outcomes, and conducting supervisory training. (Dkt. 55) at ¶ 7. Although Plaintiff did not receive any feedback critical of her work or behavior and, despite Defendant's admission in this proceeding that Plaintiff was satisfactorily performing her job duties ((Dkt. 62) at ¶ 12), Defendant contends that her performance was substandard. Specifically, Allen testified in his deposition that he believed that she had a “lower level of analytical skills, ” she did not grasp employment laws, she was a “weaker performer” than her peers, her writing was not as focused or accurate as it should have been, and she was not performing as much work as the other LERS. Id. at ¶¶ 23-25, 41. Accordingly, Allen chose not to assign certain duties to Plaintiff, including grievance hearings and contract negotiations. Allen testified that he felt that Plaintiff could not “competently perform” those duties and/or that Plaintiff had demonstrated a certain lack of abilities and skills. Id. at ¶ 23. On at least one occasion, Allen told Tomino that Plaintiff was slow to complete her investigation reports. Tomino as well believed that Plaintiff had a low skill level and was a weak LERS. Id. at ¶ 27.

         On June 16, 2014, Defendant hired Dewayne Howard, an African American man over forty, as Associate Vice Chancellor of Human Resources. In this role, Howard supervised Allen and reported to Tomino. Id. at ¶ 28. His primary oversight included (1) labor relations and (2) talent (i.e., recruitment), including talent acquisition and performance management. Id. at ¶ 32. At some point, Howard decided that he wanted to “strengthen the talent side of his team in order to build up certain areas including the performance review process.” Id. at ¶ 33. This involved “allocating additional resources to talent management and acquisition rather than Labor & Employment Relations.” Id. at ¶ 44.

         In September 2014, Defendant announced that it needed to eliminate one LERS position in the District Office. Howard engaged in a staff review, during which he met with all of the office employees including Plaintiff. Defendant asserts that Howard was not left with a “strong impression” of Plaintiff and that he reviewed her work product and found it lacking. Id. at ¶¶ 35-36. After speaking with Allen, Howard decided to eliminate Plaintiff's position. Tomino approved of the decision. (Dkt. 55) at ¶ 45. On September 25, 2014, Allen and Howard told Plaintiff that her position was being eliminated. Id. at ¶ 47. She was 60 and her salary was $61, 500 at that time. In a November 10, 2014 meeting, the Board of Trustees officially approved of Plaintiff's termination. Id. at ¶ 48. No other Human Resources Department employees were separated at this same time, and Plaintiff's open cases were reassigned to the other, non-African American and substantially younger LERS. Id. at ¶ 50; (Dkt. 62) at ¶ 25. Not long after Plaintiff's position was eliminated, on October 17, 2014, Leeve-Nau was promoted to Associate Director of Labor & Employee Relations (a newly created position) and her salary was increased to $85, 000 annually. (Dkt. 55) at ¶ 51; (Dkt. 57) at ¶ 29.

         On October 31, 2014, Defendant posted a job opening for a new position in the Direct Office titled Human Resources Coordinator. Plaintiff contends that this position involved some of her job duties, although Defendant asserts that it did not involve any of the substantive duties of a LERS. Nicole Dax, a 29-year old white female who graduated law school in 2013 was hired for this position at a starting salary of $45, 000 in January 2015, and she was promoted to fulltime LERS on July 13, 2015 by Allen, Howard, and ...

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