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Gentry v. Allied Tube & Conduit Corp.

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

April 16, 2018

EVELYN GENTRY, Plaintiff,
v.
ALLIED TUBE & CONDUIT CORP. and ATKORE INTERNATIONAL, INC., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Robert W. Gettleman United States District Judge.

         Pro se plaintiff Evelyn Gentry brought a three-count second amended complaint against Allied Tube & Conduit Corporation and Atkore International, Inc. (“defendant”)[1] alleging disparate treatment and failure to promote in violation of the Illinois Human Rights Act (“IHRA”), 775 ILCS 5/1-101 et seq. (Count I), disparate treatment resulting in termination in violation of the IHRA and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as amended (“Title VII”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000 et seq. (Count II), and retaliation resulting in termination in violation of the IHRA and Title VII (Count III). Defendant has moved for summary judgment on all counts. For the reasons described below, defendant's motion is granted.

         BACKGROUND[2]

         Plaintiff, an African-American woman, began working for defendant as a Senior Human Resources Generalist (“SHRG”) in July 2013. At some point in June 2014 plaintiff was offered a project management position, which she accepted. Defendant's Vice President of Global Human Resources, Kevin Fitzpatrick (“Fitzpatrick”) and its then-Director of Human Resources told plaintiff that she would maintain the project management role exclusively until at least February 1, 2015. Through October and November 2014, defendant's new Director of Human Resources, Molly Kieres (“Kieres”), urged Fitzpatrick and defendant's Vice President of Human Resources, Steve Bishara (“Bishara”), to assign plaintiff SHRG duties in addition to her project management role. Fitzpatrick and Bishara attempted to do so, and plaintiff repeatedly refused to take on SHRG duties without additional compensation. Fitzpatrick and Bishara denied plaintiff additional compensation, and told her that she would be fired if she refused to perform the requested duties. Plaintiff persisted, demanding either additional compensation or a return to her SHRG position. Plaintiff was returned to her SHRG role in December 2014.

         No later than January 2015 plaintiff experienced what she describes as an “attitude shift, ” which caused her to view her interactions with colleagues through a negative, pessimistic filter.[3]Plaintiff concedes that this affected her interactions with her colleagues, specifically Bishara, Fitzpatrick, and Kieres, at whom she directed her frustrations. On March 10, 2015, Kieres gave plaintiff her 2014 performance appraisal. Kieres noted that, as of December of that year, plaintiff had become disengaged and her behavior had declined sharply. Kieres rated plaintiff “below expectations” in the areas of teamwork, respect, customer focus, and “tough minded.” Additionally, Kieres commented that plaintiff was, at times, dismissive in a way that could be construed as disrespectful, and argumentative in her communications and interactions with all levels of the organization. Kieres further commented that plaintiff needed to work on being less defensive when receiving feedback and more open to what is being said. Plaintiff refused to sign the appraisal and, instead, submitted a rebuttal alleging that the appraisal demonstrated Kieres' bias against plaintiff's personality and communication style.

         In March 2015 plaintiff spoke with Bishara twice regarding what she perceived as race discrimination, specifically that certain non-Caucasian employees were being paid less than their Caucasian peers for doing the same job with roughly the same experience. At some point prior to those conversations, plaintiff expressed concerns to Kieres and Bishara that certain employees had been placed on performance improvement plans (“PIPs”), and, after all of these employees failed to meet the objectives in their respective PIPs, only a male Caucasian employee was not terminated. No later than April 4, 2015, plaintiff learned that Bishara and Fitzpatrick promoted one of her Caucasian colleagues, which resulted in a pay raise. No later than September 2015, plaintiff learned that another Caucasian colleague had also been promoted and given a pay raise in December 2014. Neither of the positions to which plaintiff's colleagues were promoted was posted for solicitation of applications.

         Meanwhile, plaintiff continued to receive counseling, both verbal and written, regarding her need to improve her interpersonal skills. In December 2015 Kieres warned plaintiff that she would be disciplined if her behavior continued. It did. On May 20, 2016, Kieres issued plaintiff a written warning concerning email exchanges in which plaintiff used a tone that Kieres deemed inappropriate and evidencing poor judgment. The written warning informed plaintiff that her conduct violated defendant's Values and Guide to Ethical Conduct, and that she was to conduct herself in a professional manner and handle disagreements respectfully, or face further discipline. Plaintiff refused to sign the warning. Then, in June 2016, plaintiff participated in interview certification training with Bishara and Fitzpatrick. As part of the training, plaintiff was asked to craft a story about her experience working for defendant that she could share with job candidates. Plaintiff responded that her defining story was that she would be filing a lawsuit against the company in the coming week. Plaintiff was asked to craft a positive story that she could present to Bishara and Fitzpatrick in the future. She did not.

         Plaintiff received her 2016 mid-year performance appraisal on November 18, 2016, and was again rated “below expectations” in several categories such as teamwork, respect, and engagement. Plaintiff received a PIP at the same time. The PIP enumerated a number of incidents between December 3, 2015, and October 14, 2016, in which plaintiff was perceived by her colleagues as unprofessional, disrespectful, or condescending, in violation of defendant's “Core Values.” The PIP also provided goals for plaintiff to reach, including not receiving complaints from co-workers about her tone and attitude. Plaintiff refused to sign both her 2016 performance appraisal and the PIP. Plaintiff also repeatedly refused to participate in the PIP, although she was given the opportunity to think it over for two weeks. When plaintiff was informed that she would be terminated if she did not participate in the PIP, her response was: “Well, you'll just have to fire me.” So defendant did.

         Plaintiff filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) on December 27, 2016, alleging that her termination was discriminatory and retaliatory. She received a right to sue letter from the EEOC January 31, 2017. This was not plaintiff's first experience with the EEOC. On September 25, 2015, plaintiff filed a Charge of Discrimination with the EEOC alleging disparate treatment due to race. Plaintiff amended that Charge on February 5, 2016, adding that, as part of her disparate treatment, she received lower merit increases. She received a right to sue letter on that Charge April 7, 2016, and filed this lawsuit July 7, 2016.

         DISCUSSION

         I. Legal Standard

         Summary judgment is appropriate when the moving papers and affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). Once a moving party has met its burden, the nonmovant must go beyond the pleadings and set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); Becker v. Tenenbaum-Hill Assoc., Inc., 914 F.2d 107, 110 (7th Cir. 1990). The court considers the evidence as a whole and draws all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion. Green v. Carlson, 826 F.2d 647, 651 (7th Cir. 1987).

         A genuine issue of material fact exists when “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). The nonmoving party must, however, “do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt about the material facts.” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). “The mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the [nonmoving party's] position will be insufficient, there must be some evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the [nonmoving party].” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252.

         II. Analysis

         Under Title VII employers cannot discriminate against employees due to “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e‒2(a)(1). Generally, a plaintiff making an employment discrimination claim can defeat summary judgment in one of two ways. First, plaintiff can point to sufficient evidence in the record, whether called direct, indirect or circumstantial, from which a reasonable jury could conclude that defendant fired her because of her race or national origin (the direct method). This is the standard way to defeat a motion for summary judgment, as recently reiterated by the Seventh Circuit in Ortiz v. Werner Enterprises, Inc., 834 F.3d 760, 764 (7th Cir. 2016) (overruling the use of a “convincing mosaic” test.). Under this test, “evidence must be considered as a whole, rather than asking whether any particular piece of evidence proves the case by itself - or whether just the ‘direct' evidence does so, or the ...


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