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Koszuta v. Office Depot, Inc.

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

April 12, 2018

JAYSON KOSZUTA, Plaintiff,
v.
OFFICE DEPOT, INC., Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER

          Ruben Castillo United States District Court

         Jayson Koszuta ("Plaintiff) brings this action against his former employer, Office Depot, Inc. ("Defendant") alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq. and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (R. 38, Am. Compl.) Presently before the Court is Defendant's motion for summary judgment. (R. 85, Mot.) For the reasons stated below, the motion is granted.

         FACTS

         Before turning to the facts, the Court must address Plaintiffs filings in response to the motion. As detailed herein, Plaintiff has elected to proceed pro se after being represented by three different attorneys in this case. Plaintiff has made this Court's task quite difficult by disputing nearly all of Defendant's proposed facts, even those pertaining to such benign matters as whether an email was sent or a meeting held on a particular date. (See R. 91-2, Pl.'s Resp. to Def.'s Facts.) In response to some proposed facts, he both admits and denies, often with lengthy and confusing explanations, arguments, and cross-references to other documents that he created for this litigation; some of his responses span more than a page of single-spaced type. (See, e.g., Id. ¶¶ 15-17, 39.) It is also not clear that Plaintiff actually denies that emails were sent or that meetings were held. Instead, it appears that he is trying to dispute the truth of statements made in the emails or has a different recollection of what occurred at a particular meeting. (See id.) Indeed, the voluminous exhibits he submitted with his response brief corroborate much of Defendant's account regarding the events leading to his termination. (See R. 91-3 to R. 91-7.)

         In short, Plaintiffs' responses fail to comply with the Local Rules of this Court and have created a significant amount of confusion over the issues actually in dispute. See N.D. III. L.R. 56.1(b)(3) (providing that party opposing a motion for summary judgment must provide a "concise" response to each of movant's proposed facts); Curtis v. Costco Wholesale Corp., 807 F.3d 215, 219 (7th Cir, 2015) ("A litigant who denies a material fact is required to provide the admissible evidence that supports his denial in a clear, concise, and obvious fashion, for quick reference of the court."); Bordelon v. Chi. Sch. Reform Bd. of Trs., 233 F.3d 524, 528-29 (7th Cir. 2000) (observing that the purpose of local rales like Rule 56.1-"to require the parties to identify the disputed issues in a concise format-would be defeated if the court were required to wade through improper denials and legal argument in search of a genuinely disputed fact"). The Court understands that Plaintiff is proceeding pro se, but even pro se litigants are required to comply with applicable procedural rules.[1] McNeil v. United States, 508 U.S. 106, 113 (1993) ("[W]e have never suggested that procedural rules in ordinary civil litigation should be interpreted so as to excuse mistakes by those who proceed without counsel."); Cady v. Sheahan, 467 F.3d 1057, 1061 (7th Cir. 2006) (holding that "even pro se litigants must follow the rules of civil procedure"). For these reasons, the Court must strike Plaintiffs responses to Paragraphs # 6-71. These proposed facts are deemed admitted, See N.D. Ill. L.R. 56.1(b)(3)(C).

         Plaintiffs statement of additional facts suffers from the same infirmities. (See R. 91-1, Pl.'s Add. Facts.) Although technically he enumerated 40 paragraphs-the limit proscribed by the Local Rules-he includes multiple assertions of fact in each paragraph, and some paragraphs span as many as four single-spaced pages. (See, e.g., Id. ¶¶ 15, 19, 20, 22.) His additional facts are also replete with improper arguments, hearsay statements, and cross-references to other documents he prepared for this litigation rather than to record evidence. Neither Defendant, nor this Court, can be expected to scour this 59-page, single-spaced document in search of potential fact disputes. Accordingly, Plaintiffs statement of additional facts is also stricken. See N.D. Ill. L.R. 56.1(b)(3)(C).

         With these documents stricken, the Court would be within its discretion to limit its consideration solely to Defendant's Rule 56.1 statement. See Bordelon, 233 F.3d at 529. This action would be particularly warranted given that this is an employment discrimination case, as such cases are "by their nature extremely fact-intensive." Bilal v. Rotec Indus., Inc., 326 Fed.Appx. 949, 956 (7th Cir. 2009). However, in the interest of justice, the Court has considered the exhibits submitted by Plaintiff, including emails, company records, and deposition testimony, to determine whether there is an actual dispute of fact warranting a trial.[2] (See R. 91-3 to R. 91-7.)

         Turning now to the facts, Defendant hired Plaintiff in January 2006 as an IT Senior Developer at its Naperville, Illinois, headquarters. (R. 91-2, Pl.'s Resp. to Def.'s Facts ¶ 3.) In 2008, Plaintiff was promoted to Software Senior Engineer and then again to Software Lead Engineer, the position he held for the remainder of his employment. (Id.) In 2011, IT Senior Manager Christina Garcia became Plaintiffs direct supervisor. (R. 87, Def.'s Facts ¶ 7.) In 2012, Plaintiff went out on medical leave for approximately six months for mental health treatment.[3] (Id., ¶ 8.) He was released by his doctor and returned to work on January 4, 2013. (R. 91-3, Doctor's Note at 159.) He did not go back to his doctor for treatment after his return to work. (R. 87, Def.'s Facts ¶ 9; R. 88-1, Pl Dep. Tr. at 60-61.)

         In addition to his IT work, Plaintiff had a significant interest in what he refers to as a "unity" theory, which he describes as a "social cause that promotes think[ ] tanks of ideas of different trustworthy people that unite together on a common ground to come up with brilliant ideas." (R. 91-3, Pl.'s Narrative at 103.) Among other things, he had a blog that he was "working on for unity and technology, to ... basically throw ideas out there about the broken legislative system or whatever[.]" (R. 88-1, Pl Dep, Tr. at 72-73.) He also had business cards made up listing his website, and on at least one occasion handed a card out to a coworker. (Id. at 72-73.) Additionally, he had a number of pictures and other materials hanging in his cubicle related to his unity theory. (See R. 91-3, Pl.'s Narrative at 90-91.)

         During November 2013, Defendant was in the process of merging with OfficeMax, Inc. (R. 91-2, Pl.'s Resp. to Def.'s Facts ¶ 4.) On November 7, 2013, an incident occurred between Plaintiff and one of his coworkers, Dave Records, after which Plaintiff complained to Garcia that Records had called him an "asshole." (R. 87, Def.'s Facts ¶ 13; R. 91-3, Pl.'s Timeline at 9; R. 88-1, PI. Dep. Tr. at 50.) Garcia later met with human resources ("HR") employee Yolanda Hawthorne to discuss the incident.[4] (R. 87, Def.'s Facts ¶ 15.) Garcia reported to Hawthorne that, when making his complaint to her about Records, Plaintiff had raised his voice and leaned towards her in a way that made her feel uncomfortable, and that he had engaged in similar-conduct on other recent occasions. (Id. ¶¶ 12-13.) Hawthorne then spoke with Plaintiff about the incident. (R. 88-2, Hawthorne Meeting Notes at 6-7.) As she recalled the conversation, Plaintiff informed her that he had been "on antidepressants, but he told his doctor that he didn't like the way they made him feel [and] with that in mind he took himself off the meds." (Id. at 6.) Plaintiff has a slightly different recollection of their conversation. He claims that he told Hawthorne not that he had recently discontinued his medications, but that he had been "able to come back to work [after his medical leave] without the need of being on any medication."[5] (R. 91-3, Pl.'s Timeline at 10.) There is no dispute, however, that as a result of that meeting, Hawthorne was aware that Plaintiff was not taking any medications despite having been on an extended leave for mental health reasons less than a year earlier.

         On November 13, 2013, Plaintiff attended a follow-up meeting with Hawthorne and Wanda Rodriguez, another HR employee. (R. 87, Def.'s Facts ¶ 16; R. 91-3, Pl.'s Timeline at 11.) At that meeting, Plaintiff read aloud from a document he had prepared stating, among other things, that he was being "bullied" by Garcia. (R. 87, Def.'s Facts ¶ 17.) Plaintiff later emailed Hawthorne and Rodriguez the eight-page document he had been reading from, which stated in part that Plaintiff was a "solution provider" who was "just overwhelmed with the opportunity to spread unity it just cannot be described in words." (Id. ¶ 18; R. 88-2, Pl.' s Email at 29.) He further stated that "[eliminating the dividers and promoting the Uniters, " was a "key fundamental, " and he identified Garcia and Records as "Dividers not Uniters[.]" (R. 88-2, Pl.'s Email at 30.)

         On that same day, Hawthorne interviewed four of Plaintiff s co-workers-Leilani Gandia, Cheng Zhang, Meera Dugar, and Records-as part of an investigation into Plaintiffs allegations of being "bullied" by Garcia, as well as Garcia's reports of Plaintiff s unusual behavior. (R. 87, Def.'s Facts ¶ 19; R. 88-2, Meeting Notes at 25-26.) Gandia and Records both corroborated Garcia's report that Plaintiff frequently spoke about his "unity" theories during work. (R. 87, Def.'s Facts ¶ 22.) Zhang said she did not want to work with Plaintiff, and Gandia requested that she be allowed to work from home in order to avoid interacting with Plaintiff. (Id. ¶ 23.) Gandia documented her experiences in an email, originally sent to Garcia and then forwarded to Hawthorne. (R. 88-2, Gandia Email at 9-12.) Among other things, she described a recent incident wherein Plaintiff had "aggressively cut off [Zhang]" during a meeting, another incident where he was "aggressive" toward Records, and another incident wherein Plaintiff had been talking to Gandia about his unity theory and his "eyes looked bloodshot" and he "didn't really [look] so good." (Id. at 9-10.) Gandia also reported that after another recent meeting, she saw Plaintiff walking back to his desk "pointing both index fingers in the air saying 'unity.'" (Id. at 11.) Zhang and Dugar also both reported that Plaintiff had engaged in aggressive or disruptive behavior in recent months. (R. 87, Def.'s Facts ¶ 21.) Zhang similarly documented her experiences in an email, originally sent to Garcia and later forwarded to Hawthorne, in which she described how during a recent meeting Plaintiff had acted "aggressively" and spoke "loudly, " causing a "tense" atmosphere. (R. 88-2, Zhang Email at 16, ) Zhang stated that she had a similar experience with Plaintiff a month earlier, when she was speaking during a meeting and he began "yelling [at] me with [an] angry face." (Id.)

         Later on November 13, 2013, Defendant's new Chief Executive Officer ("CEO"), Roland Smith, held a town hall meeting with the entire corporation, consisting of several hundred employees. (R. 87, Def.'s Facts ¶ 24.) During the meeting, Plaintiff asked Smith a lengthy question pertaining to his unity theory, stating in part:

Think of the last five letters of opportunity. There is a huge opportunity for unity and I truly feel if we can convert the fighters, reduce the politics, put our best foot forward on every question, solution, design, and agree to disagree, we're gonna get to the finish line a lot faster. So I don't know your thoughts, all your core values, they basically breathe unity. I didn't hear- you say the word, but I feel it. It's an exciting time. I just want to know ... is there a unity committee? Is there something that could be put in place to help facilitate unity?

(R. 91-5, Town Hall Meeting Tr. at 15.)

         On November 15, 2013, Garcia reported to HR senior manager Ronda Aimi that Plaintiff had acted in a threatening and aggressive manner toward her. (R. 87, Def. 's Facts ¶ 27.) She stated that Plaintiff had mocked her and, while leaning toward her in a manner that made her uncomfortable, told her that "things were going to change." (Id. ¶ 28.) Aimi observed that Garcia was crying and visibly trembling when she made this report to HR. (Id. ¶ 30.) Plaintiff denies that he ever acted in a threatening or aggressive manner toward Garcia, and claims that this was a "big crying story" concocted by Garcia and her "loyal circle." (R. 88-1, Pl.'s Dep. Tr. at 61, 68.)

         As a result of these events, on November 15, 2013, Aimi determined that Plaintiff should be escorted out of the building and placed on leave. (R. 87, Def.'s Facts ¶ 31.) Charlie Baugh, a vice president, was the one to actually escort Plaintiff out of the building. (R. 88-1, Pl.'s Dep. Tr. at 68.) Plaintiff initially refused to leave the building when Baugh asked him to, but later agreed to leave. (Id.) According to Plaintiff, Baugh made a rude comment to him on the way out, stating, "What, were you going to jump?" when Plaintiff accidentally got off the elevator on the second floor. (Id. at 89.) Baugh also gave Plaintiff a brochure about an employee assistance website, "liveandworkwell.com, " which provided mental health and other self-help information. (Id. at 90; R. 91-5, Brochure at 105-07.)

         The following day, HR employees Aimi, Hawthorne, and Rodriguez had a telephone conference with Plaintiff. (R. 87, Def.'s Facts ¶ 32.) During the call, Plaintiff again complained about Garcia, including making allegations that she had brought in relatives and friends to work for Defendant in violation of the company's conflict-of-interest policy. (Id. ¶ 33; R. 88-2, Meeting Notes at 48-50.) On November 21, 2013, Plaintiff sent a lengthy email to Aimi's boss, Steve Parsons, complaining about his treatment by Garcia and Baugh, and claiming that Aimi and other HR staff had treated him unfairly and only wanted to "try and cover up the problem instead [of] addressing the root cause[.]" (R. 91-5, Parsons Email at 31-32.) He stated that he had written a "50 page confession to defend my integrity that I am not the problem but am extending my unity hand to you to work with you to solve the problem, " (Id.)

         On November 22, 2013, Aimi emailed Plaintiff a letter detailing Defendant's concerns about his workplace behavior. (R. 91-5, Aimi Letter at 9-10.) Among other things, the letter stated that Plaintiff had "yelled at, interrupted and intimidated work colleagues, " and that he had been "talking with many associates about your fixation with a theory of Unity that you appear to apply both to work and government matters." (Id. at 9.) The letter stated, "You have been observed by numerous people walking around the .. . building with one or both index fingers in the air, which you have indicated is a message for this theory." (Id.) The letter further stated that Plaintiffs behavior at the recent town hall meeting had been "extremely unusual and inappropriate, " and that he "effectively took control of the meeting for an extended period of time, attempting to communicate about your personal views about [his] Unity theory when this was a first opportunity for all OfficeMax associates to meet their new CEO." (Id.) The letter went on to state:

It is nearly impossible to have a rational conversation with you about your impact on the work environment. Anyone who questions you or challenges a proposition you present is labeled as a divider or a fighter who must be "eliminated." You even say that some are the "forces of evil." While you present yourself as the victim of bullying, the consensus of those with whom you work is that your behavior is bullying. Some of them, frankly, are scared of you.

         Aimi then stated that since returning from his extended medical leave Plaintiff had "conducted [himself] well for the most part, " but that in the past few months he appeared to be in a "downward spiral." (Id.) Aimi also noted that Plaintiff had told a member of the HR staff that he was not taking any medications. (Id.) The letter then stated:

We need help to sort this out. We are not experts, but we are very concerned, based on the facts we have collected, that you currently may not be able to properly interact with others as is required to do your job. We intend to seek the assistance of an independent medical consultant to evaluate your fitness for duty. We need to consult with advisors to determine a professional to provide this service. We hope to do this as quickly as possible. You will remain on paid leave at least through the holiday week. We will update you on our progress to put this assessment in place, with an ultimate goal of finding a way to return you to work.

(Id. at 10.) The letter also expressed concerns that Plaintiff may have been recording his phone conversations with Aimi and other HR staff after he was placed on leave; Aimi stated that Defendant "absolutely prohibits surreptitious recording of conversations, and Illinois law requires consent of all parties as well." (Id.) At the close of the letter, Aimi stated that "given what you say about the leaders in your organization, you cannot be happy with your job." (Id.) She offered to discuss a separation package with Plaintiff if he was interested, and stated that she was available to answer any questions he might have. (Id.)

         That same day, Plaintiff responded to Aimi by email, stating, "I strongly disagree with the majority of what you have to say." (R. 88-2, PL Email at 56.) He stated that he was awaiting a response from Parsons because "you and your staff ha[ve] provided me without one ounce of trust and I will be sure Roland Smith president and CEO is aware of this." (Id.) He stated further, "This attempt for you to bully me once again is uncalled for, so this will be discussed with him as well." (Id.) On November 25, 2013, Plaintiff sent an email spanning 10 single-spaced pages to Smith, Defendant's new CEO, responding hi detail to Aimi's letter and raising numerous allegations against Garcia, Baugh, Aimi, and others within the company. (R. 91-5, Pl.'s Email at 17-28.) Within the email, Plaintiff asked Smith to "take a minute ... and listen to this very meaningful song that has been my inspiration over the past 2 weeks[.]" (Id. at 18.) He included a link to a YouTube video. (Id.)

         On November 26, 2013, Parsons responded to Plaintiffs earlier email, telling him that he had been in communication with Aimi and that "your situation .. is not as one-sided as you describe." (R. 91-5, Parsons Email at 30.) Parsons expressed "concern that you do not at least see the other side(s) to the issues you have raised or how other associates may perceive you." (Id.) Parsons encouraged Plaintiff to "continue working" with Aimi, and stated that Aimi "remains willing to facilitate your return to work, subject to the conditions she has outlined for you." (Id.)

         On November 27, 2013, Aimi sent Plaintiff an email requesting "input" from him "to determine a solution to [his] current employment status." (R. 87, Def.'s Facts ¶ 37; R. 91-5, Aimi Email at 35.) She further stated that Defendant remained "willing to continue your pay through the end of the current work week. However, that will end at the conclusion of this work week. We would entertain resuming your pay if we are able to have a fitness for duty examination scheduled promptly." (R. 91-5, Aimi Email at 35.) That same day, Plaintiff responded by email, stating that he would "have to pursue a team of non-biased trustworthy people outside the organization to work with on solving this problem of me being the victim." (R. 91-5, PI. Email at 35.) Plaintiff refused to agree to a fitness-for-duty exam or provide a physician's note stating that he was fit for duty because he believed this request was "not justified, " and that there was "no need" for him to undergo an exam. (R. 88-1, Pl.'s Dep. Tr. at 47, 75.)

         On December 23, 2013, Aimi sent Plaintiff an email stating, "It has been a while since we have talked. We would like to come to a resolution. I understand you are unwilling to do what we had asked of you." (R. 87, Def.'s Facts ¶ 42; R. 91-5, Aimi Email at 37.) Aimi suggested discussing a separation package as "the most sensible outcome" and informed Plaintiff that she was available to talk by phone that day or the following day. (R. 91-5, Aimi Email at 37-38.) Plaintiff responded by email that same day and accused Aimi of making "direct false accusations" against him. (Id., Pl. Email at 37.) He stated that he disagreed that a separation package "is the most sensible outcome here because you have proven nothing of such." (Id.) He closed by stating that he had been in contact with "another senior level HR representative" because he felt that "this person will be able to establish a stronger level [of] trust that is truly required among two parties when working to solve any complicated problem." (Id.)

         On December 24, 2013, Aimi emailed Plaintiff again, this time informing him that the headquarters for the newly-merged company would be in Boca Raton, Florida, and that the Naperville building would likely be closing in the next 12 to 18 months, rendering full-time associates from that office "severance eligible." (R. 87, Def.'s Facts ¶ 45.) On January 2, 2014, Plaintiff filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment and Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"). (R. 91-3, EEOC ...


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