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Robertson v. Lofton

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

March 30, 2018



          Joan B. Gottschall United States District Judge

         In the 2010-11 school year, plaintiff Deidre Robertson (“Robertson”), an African American high school English teacher in the Chicago Public Schools (“CPS”), was suspended twice for alleged misconduct and received the first “unsatisfactory” performance rating of her CPS career on June 2, 2011; defendant Board of Education of the City of Chicago (“the Board”) issued a “warning resolution” to Robertson based on those two incidents in January 2012. See Resp. to JSUMF ¶¶ 4-6, 9, 10, 16, 34-37, 45-48, 49, 56, Defs.' Resp. to SAMF ¶¶ 5-6.[1] Due to declining enrollment in the Senn Achievement Academy (“Senn”) where she taught (except for one class), the unsatisfactory rating led to her being laid off, along with eight other teachers, in July 2011 and transferred to the “reassigned teacher pool” (“the pool”) from which she has since worked as a substitute teacher in other CPS schools. Resp. to JSUMF ¶¶ 26, 64-66, 69-70. Robertson filed suit against the Board and Senn's principal in the 2010-11 school year, Susan Lofton (“Lofton”), Resp. to JSUMF ¶ 3.

         Lofton and the Board have filed separate motions for summary judgment. They partially incorporate each other's arguments, and they collectively seek dismissal of all thirteen counts of Robertson's Third Amended Complaint (“TAC”), ECF No. 68. Plaintiff responds by defending only two counts, her employment discrimination claims brought in Counts I and II under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, (“Title VII”) 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2000e-17. Primarily because Robertson has identified no similarly situated non-African American employee who received more favorable treatment, the court grants the motions for summary judgment.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Except where otherwise noted, the following facts are undisputed. Robertson has worked as a CPS teacher since August 2004. Resp. to JSUMF ¶ 8. She taught English at two high schools before Senn. Id. ¶¶ 9-13. She transferred to Senn in the 2007-08 school year.[2] Id. ¶ 14. Her first principal, Richard Norman (“Norman”), rated her “satisfactory.” Id. ¶¶ 16, 17.

         Senn's campus housed three, distinct schools, Senn High School, Senn Achievement Academy, and Rickover Naval Academy; the high school and achievement academy shared Lofton as a principal in 2010-11. See Resp. to JSUMF ¶¶ 21-22. Carter Carey (“Carey”), a Caucasian man, served as Senn's assistant principal in the 2010-11 school year. Resp. to SAF ¶¶ 8-10.

         “Lofton received multiple complaints from students, staff and parents regarding Plaintiff swearing in front of students (e.g. fuck, shit, bullshit), threatening students, having verbal confrontations with students, calling students and parents names (e.g. retarded, bitch, jackass, ghetto, Moby Dick great white whale), touching students, throwing a pencil and pencil box at a student, and speaking unprofessionally to students, parents and staff.” Resp. to JSUMF ¶ 27 (undisputed; internal citations to exhibits omitted). Lofton received a verbal complaint from a parent about Robertson threatening a parent; after a tenured teacher and student teacher corroborated the complaint, Lofton issued Robertson a cautionary warning. Id. ¶¶ 28-30. As for Carey, Robertson's proposed comparator, Lofton received no complaints about him swearing in front of students or parents and no complaints about him using corporal punishment. Resp. to JSUMF ¶¶ 59-60. Carey cursed in front of students, though Robertson does not recall who was principal at the time, Robertson Dep. 404:1-405:14, and had physical contact with students, SAF ¶ 13. Robertson's unrebutted testimony is that the physical contact occurred when Carey tried to break up fighting students. Resp. to JSUMF ¶ 60 (citing Robertson Dep. 407:11-16).

         A. The “R.S. Incident”

         Robertson was involved in a physical altercation with a student, R.S., on October 1, 2010. Resp. to JSUMF ¶ 31. What happened and whether Robertson acted in self-defense is disputed. See, e.g., SAF ¶¶ 24-25. One eyewitness reported not seeing Robertson come into physical contact with R.S. SAF ¶ 20. And despite the incident, R.S. remained in Robertson's class. Id. ¶ 21; see also Id. ¶¶ 22-23 (stating that one incident report stated that Robertson was unprofessional with R.S.' father, but that he later wrote a letter on Robertson's behalf). Robertson also notes that an incident report stated that the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (“DCFS”) would be contacted, but DCFS has no record of any contact. See Id. ¶¶ 26-27.

         A Board investigator concluded that there was credible evidence Robertson grabbed R.S.'s right arm hard enough to cause abrasions. Resp. to JSUMF ¶ 32. Following the Board's recommendation, Lofton suspended Robertson for fifteen days for use of corporal punishment. Id. ¶ 34. Robertson followed the appeal process, and after a hearing, the Board reduced the length of her suspension to ten days. See Id. ¶¶ 35-37.

         B. The May 2011 Incident and the Warning Resolution

         In May 2011, a student complained to Lofton that Robertson was dropping f-bombs in class. Resp. to JSUMF ¶ 38. Lofton went to Robertson's classroom and brought all of the students in the front row back to “the office.” Id. ¶ 39. Lofton asked the students to write something about the incident, though whether she told them to write what happened or “something bad” about Robertson, as one student reported, is disputed. See Id. ¶ 40 and material cited; see also Id. ¶¶ 41-42 (factual disputes over whether Lofton left the room and whether students were told not to talk among themselves). Keeping these disputes in mind, each student wrote that Robertson had said “fuck” in class. Id. ¶ 43. Again, Robertson disputes this. In addition to disputing what Lofton told the students, Robertson asserts that there are discrepancies in the letters' accounts of what happened. Resp. to SAF ¶ 30.

         After giving Robertson a chance to tell her side of the story, Resp. to JSUMF ¶ 44, Lofton suspended Robertson for three days for using profanity, id. ¶ 45. Robertson appealed; the Board held a hearing and upheld the suspension. Id. ¶¶ 46-48. Citing the R.S. incident and the May 2011 incident, the Board issued a resolution warning Robertson about her conduct (“warning resolution”) on January 25, 2012. Id. ¶ 49 (citing Ex. A Lofton Dep., Ex. S Jan. 25, 2012 Warning Resolution).

         C. Robertson's 2010-11 Performance Evaluation

         In the 2010-11 school year, the Board used a four-level evaluation system under which teachers received a rating of superior, excellent, satisfactory, or unsatisfactory.[3] Resp. to JSUMF ¶ 50. As required by Board policy and the applicable union contract, Lofton and Carey observed Robertson three times during the school year. Resp. to JSUMF ¶ 51.

         Assistant Principal Carey observed Robertson on December 2, 2010. Id. ¶ 52. His notes identify her weaknesses as interactions with students, completion of lesson plans, consistent student assessment, and recording student grades. Id. (citing Ex. T at 001732). Lofton observed Robertson teach on April 26, 2011. Id. ¶ 53. She noted these weaknesses: “not writing her own lesson plans, actual lesson was disjointed, nonfiction graded reading strategies not evident, mistakes in vocabulary and parts of speech, low rigor, reliance on literal level items, and the class did not start on time.” Id. citing (Ex. B ¶ 23; Ex. U at 001723). Lofton noted similar weaknesses after the third observation on May 31, 2011. See Id. ¶ 54.

         Based on those observations, Lofton rated Robertson “unsatisfactory” on June 2, 2011. Id. ¶ 56. Robertson disagreed and refused to sign the performance review. SAF ¶ 3.

         Due to projected under enrollment, about nine Senn teachers lost their jobs in layoffs at the end of the 2010-11 school year. Resp. to JSUMF ¶ 62. Under Board policy, an “unsatisfactory” rating is used as a factor when deciding which teachers to lay off. Id. ¶ 63. Robertson “was one of the teachers laid off based on her ‘Unsatisfactory' rating, ” id. ¶ 64, after which she was put in the pool and worked as a substitute in subsequent years. See Id. ΒΆΒΆ 65-66, ...

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