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Stegall v. Berryhill

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

May 23, 2018

RISA STEGALL, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.


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

         Plaintiff Risa Stegall brings this employment discrimination action against Nancy A. Berryhill, acting commissioner of the Social Security Administration. Plaintiff alleges that she was denied employment by the Social Security Administration because of a disability. Before the Court are Plaintiff's motions in limine [104], Defendant's motion in limine [102], and the parties' joint motion to resolve a dispute over the scope of certain trial exhibit redactions [114]. For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff's motions in limine Nos. 1, 2, and 3 are granted in part and denied in part. The Court reserves ruling on Plaintiff's motion in limine No. 4. Plaintiff's motions in limine Nos. 5 and 6 are denied. Defendant's motion in limine [102] is granted. The Court grants the joint motion to resolve dispute over scope of certain trial exhibit redactions [114] and directs the parties on how to proceed with respect this issue below. This case remains set for a jury trial to commence on May 29, 2018 at 9:00 a.m.


         I. Background

         At issue in this case is whether the Social Security Administration (the “Defendant” or of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended, 29 U.S.C. §701, et seq. In May 2010, Plaintiff applied for a position as a contact representative at the SSA's District Office in Prospect Heights, Illinois. The major duties of a contact representative include responding to inquiries by telephone or mail, providing beneficiaries and others with information regarding benefits, supplying the public with appropriate forms and instructions, and making appropriate social service referrals.

         The SSA uses a point system to determine eligibility for an interview for a competitive position. Plaintiff has a service-connected disability stemming from a back injury that she sustained while performing food service preparation in the military. Because of this service-connected disability, Plaintiff earned a 10-point preference in her individual point score. The number of points that Plaintiff scored in her application, including the 10-point preference, put her within the top five applicants as calculated by the SSA's human resources department. The department sent the top applicants to district manager Elizabeth Williams, who was in charge of hiring for the position. On May 20 and 21, 2010, Ms. Williams interviewed five candidates for the position (three on May 20 and two on May 21), including Plaintiff.

         Plaintiff was the second of the five applicants interviewed for the position. When Plaintiff arrived for her interview, she was greeted by Ms. Williams, and then she proceeded to a process that the SSA refers to as a “meet and deal” certification, which essentially is a three-person interview. In this instance, Plaintiff met with George Pearson (the operations supervisor), Tina Arden (the management support specialist), and Ms. Williams.

         The central dispute between the parties concerns the interaction between Plaintiff and Ms. Williams in the 10-15 minutes immediately following Plaintiff's “meet and deal” certification. Each party disputes the other side's description of the conversation. Plaintiff says that during this discussion Ms. Williams offered Plaintiff the job contingent on Plaintiff passing a background check. In an affidavit submitted under oath before she was represented by counsel, Plaintiff testified that after Ms. Williams offered her the position, Plaintiff told Ms. Williams that she was in a “psychiatric program that assists veterans in reentering the workforce” because Plaintiff “was having problems transitioning because of [her] back and depression.” [110, at 14.] Plaintiff further testified that “[w]hen she informed Ms. Williams about the program, her entire demeanor and facial expression changed from being excited about [Plaintiff] being part of her team to the impression that she was dealing with a nut case.” [110, at 14.] Plaintiff also claimed that she believed she was not hired because of her race. When asked why Plaintiff believed she was not hired because of her race, Plaintiff stated:

The population of the City of Prospect Heights is predominately Caucasian. When I first came into the Prospect Heights Social Security Office I was dressed business professional. Some of the people turned their heads as if they were wondering why I was there and it appeared they thought I did not belong there. I told security that I was there for an interview and the gentleman told me to have a seat. Looking around, I did not see anyone of my race. My first impression was that I was a token. When Ms. Williams came out to escort me into her office, I scoped out the office again and could see no one of my race. After leaving, I looked around again and did not see anyone of my race. * * * Although Ms. Williams hired me, I still believe my race was a factor. I am a light-skinned Black individual and I believe she thought a light-skinned Black person was a better fit for the office. [110, at 17-18.]

         Plaintiff also says that she explained that she was enrolled in a vocational rehabilitation program at Hines Veterans Administration Hospital, and that she would probably need frequent breaks because she was unable to sit for long periods of time due to a back injury. About ten days later, Plaintiff was informed by letter that she was not hired for the position.

         Ms. Williams denies that she ever offered Plaintiff the position. Williams further states that she does not recall Plaintiff divulging any information about the rehabilitation program, her reason for not selecting Plaintiff was that Plaintiff did not answer an interview question as well as the other candidates. More specifically, Ms. Williams says that when she asked Plaintiff why she wanted to work for the Social Security Administration, Plaintiff responded that she was looking for stability and looking forward to retirement. Ms. Williams felt that Plaintiff's response indicated that she was not motivated for public service. After her interview, Plaintiff continued to apply for other jobs.

         On May 27, 2010, Ms. Williams offered the contact representative position to Candidate 1, who initially accepted the position with a start date of June 21, 2010. On May 28, the SSA appointed Jung-Eun Cha-Candidate 2-to a temporary summer position as a contact representative with a start date of June 7, 2010 and an end date of September 30, 2010. On June 18, Candidate 1 declined the job offer to accept another position with the SSA. Ms. Williams then offered the contact representative position to Ms. Cha, who accepted. The SSA hired Ms. Cha under its “Schedule A” hiring authority, which involves offers of federal employment to individuals who have “an intellectual disability, a severe physical disability or a psychiatric disability.” 5 C.F.R. 213.3102(u). There is no evidence before the Court regarding Ms. Cha's specific disability. As of her hire date, Ms. Cha had not requested any accommodations for her disability.

         In June of 2010, Plaintiff filed a complaint of employment discrimination with the SSA. Plaintiff alleged that Defendant discriminated against her on account of her race (Plaintiff is African American) and her disabilities (both mental and physical). After the SSA issued a final agency decision denying Plaintiff's discrimination claim, Plaintiff appealed the decision to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). [1, at 6-16.] On January 10, 2014, Plaintiff filed a pro se complaint for employment discrimination in this Court, again alleging that Defendant discriminated against her on account of race and on account of her mental and physical disabilities. [1.] On July 14, 2014, the Court recruited counsel to represent Plaintiff. [23.] On January 12, 2016, Plaintiff voluntarily dismissed her claims of (1) race discrimination, and (2) discrimination on the basis of an alleged mental health disability or impairment. [45.] Currently before the Court are Plaintiff's motions in limine [104], Defendant's motion in limine [102], and the parties' joint motion to resolve dispute over scope of certain trial exhibit redactions [114].

         II. Legal Standard

         The Rehabilitation Act provides that “[n]o otherwise qualified individual with a disability * * * shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity” covered by the Act. 29 U.S.C. § 794(a). “To succeed on a claim of employment discrimination under this statute, a plaintiff must prove that: (1) she is disabled within the meaning of the statute; (2) that she was otherwise qualified for the job in question; (3) that she was discharged or the subject of other adverse action solely because of her disability; and (4) the employment program of which her job was a part received federal financial assistance.” Felix v. Wisc. Dep't of Trans., 2016 WL 3618299, at *6 (7th Cir. 2016) (citing Novak v. Bd. of Trustees of S. Ill. Univ., 777 F.3d 966, 974 (7th Cir. 2015); Jackson v. City of Chicago, 414 F.3d 806, 810 (7th Cir. 2005). Complaints alleging employment discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act (“RA”) are governed by the standards applied under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). 29 U.S.C. § 794(d).

         “Trial courts issue rulings on motions in limine to guide the parties on what evidence [they] will admit later in trial.” Perry v. City of Chicago, 733 F.3d 248, 252 (7th Cir. 2013). The party seeking to exclude evidence “has the burden of establishing the evidence is not admissible for any purpose.” Mason v. City of Chicago, 631 F.Supp.2d 1052, 1056 (N.D. Ill. 2009); see also Jonasson v. Lutheran Child & Family Servs., 115 F.3d 436, 440 (7th Cir. 1997). As the trial progresses, the Court “remains free to alter earlier rulings” on motions in limine. Perry, 733 F.3d at 252; see also Luce v. United States, 469 U.S. 38, 41-42 (1984) (“[E]ven if nothing unexpected happens at trial, the district judge is free, in the exercise of sound judicial discretion, to alter a previous in limine ruling.”). “Furthermore, the court may defer ruling on a motion in limine until trial if the parties' arguments ‘cannot be evaluated accurately or sufficiently * * * in such a procedural environment.'” United States v. Mandell, 2014 WL 464226, at *2 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 3, 2014) (quoting Jonasson, 115 F.3d at 440). Although motions in limine typically address evidentiary matters, they may also relate to other matters, such as affirmative defenses and proper lines of inquiry at trial. United States v. Boender, 2010 WL 811296, at *1 (N.D. Ill. Mar. 3, 2010) (citations omitted).

         III. Plaintiff's ...

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