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Williams v. Extra Space Storage, Inc.

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

July 9, 2019



          John J. Tharp, Jr. United States District Judge.

         This case presents the not-uncommon question of whether an employee was fired for misconduct or on account of his race. Plaintiff John Williams alleges that his former employer, Defendant Extra Space Storage, Inc. (“Extra Space”), which operates self-storage facilities, terminated him from his position as a Store Manager because he is African American. Extra Space maintains that it terminated Williams because he violated company policy by failing to require a customer to sign a rental agreement in connection with her use of a storage unit, not because of Williams' race. Williams says that he was properly exercising his managerial discretion to assist the customer, so the company's explanation is a pretext. Firing Williams for trying to accommodate a customer may, or may not, have been a good business decision, but that is not the issue. The question here is whether the company fired Williams on account of his race. And because Williams has not provided any evidence upon which a reasonable jury could conclude that its policy was enforced against him because of his race, Extra Space's motion for summary judgment is granted.


         Storage USA, a storage company, hired Williams in 2001. In 2005, Extra Space acquired Storage USA from General Electric. At the time of the acquisition, Williams worked as a manager at Storage USA's (and later Extra Space's) Joliet facility. In June 2006, Extra Space offered Williams the position of Store Manager at Extra Space's Wabash facility, which was only 15 minutes from his home; Williams accepted and remained in that position until September 2015, when the events relevant to this lawsuit occurred. As Store Manager, Williams had more responsibility than his assistant managers and was responsible for the daily operation of the store.

         On September 17, 2015, Williams granted an existing customer's request to store items temporarily in a vacant unit she was not renting or leasing while she rearranged the items in her rented unit. Williams left a tag on the vacant unit to signify that the unit was vacant and ready to be rented, left the unit unlocked, and asked the customer to lock it when she was done using it. Williams did not require the customer to sign a new rental agreement for the additional unit she was using and did not create any other record documenting her use of the unit or the items she was storing in it. Nor did Williams know what items the customer was storing in the additional unit. Williams did not ask his supervisor, Mitchell Pope, if he could allow the customer to store items in the vacant unit.

         Pope discovered that Williams had allowed the customer to use the storage unit without a rental agreement and subsequently terminated Williams' employment on September 24, 2015. Williams says that initially, neither Pope nor Extra Space's human resources representative could identify a specific policy that Williams violated, but Pope later issued a “final employee counseling form” explaining the reason for terminating Williams, which read as follows:

John Williams violated [Extra Space] policy by allowing a customer to store items in a vacant unit without obtaining a lease, nor renting the unit to the customer. The customer's items remained in the unit until 9/18/15 when the customer asked the assistant manager on duty to remove the lock from the unit so she could retrieve her belongings. The unit was locked with an Extra Space company lock and displayed a QC tag indicating the unit was cleaned and ready to rent.
In order to maintain a consistently high-quality, professional working environment, the Company expects employees to adhere to certain general business practices that support the basic philosophies and principles of operation.

         Def.'s Statement of Material Facts (“DSOF”) ¶ 19, ECF No. 93. Pope's supervisor and Extra Space's human resources department agreed with and approved of Pope's decision to terminate Williams. Pope also testified that “allowing a customer to store his or her belongings in a storage unit without a rental agreement violates Extra Space policy, ” and that he terminated Williams because he allowed a customer to store items in a unit without a rental agreement. DSOF ¶¶ 20- 21, Ex. 4, Pope Decl. ¶ 4, ECF No. 93-5.[2] According to Pope, “getting a rental agreement is so fundamental to [Extra Space's] business” because “[i]t's the primary protection for Extra Space and for customers, and it really governs the relationship that [Extra Space] ha[s] with [its] customers.” DSOF ¶ 25, Ex. 2, Pope Dep. 118:13-119:7, ECF No. 93-3. Pope's supervisor, Divisional Vice President Matthew Walker, testified that “[a]llowing a customer to store belongings in a storage unit without a rental agreement or a lease not only violates the basic tenets of Extra Space's business, but it also exposes Extra Space to potentially significant liability.” Def.'s Resp. to PSOF ¶ 4, ECF No. 107; DSOF Ex. 5, Walker Decl. ¶ 6, ECF No. 93-6.

         Williams does not dispute that he allowed a customer to use the unit without a rental agreement. He also admits that he violated Extra Space policy by leaving the vacant storage unit in which he allowed the customer to store her items unlocked. DSOF ¶ 27, Ex. 1, Williams Dep. 164:10-17, 166:6-8, ECF No. 93-2. He argues, nevertheless, that his actions were permitted by company policy. Denying the customer's request to store her items in the vacant unit, Williams contends, would have been a bad idea, as the customer would then have been forced to place her property in a walkway or aisle instead, which would have blocked other customers from accessing their units and created a fire hazard. Extra Space's Operations Manual that was in effect in September 2015 provides that “Extra Space is always searching for additional ways to make storing easier and more convenient for our customers. Some markets will require that we do the additional service at little or no cost and others will be able to support a fee for the service. Most importantly, your supervisor must approve any fees charged for these services.” PSOF ¶ 6, Ex. A, Williams Dep. Ex. 5, PageID # 1182, ECF No. 102-2. The Employee Handbook in effect at the time calls for Store Managers to provide exceptional service for customers and take necessary steps to ensure the customers' satisfaction. The Operations Manual further provides that “[w]hen a customer has a problem the Store Manager should attempt to resolve it. Our We Care program gives managers the authority to resolve customer problems when they occur.” PSOF ¶ 7, Ex. A, Williams Dep. Ex 5, PageID # 1184, ECF No. 102-2.

         The Operations Manual also states, however, that its “We Care” customer service program “is not intended to replace [Extra Space's] business policies and procedures”; the rental agreement is “the single most important document the customer signs as it spells out the relationship terms between the customer and Extra Space”; “[t]he customer must list a description of the items to be stored along with an estimated value”; and “[n]o customer should be allowed to move into a unit without a signed copy of a rental agreement on file.” PSOF Ex. A, Williams Dep. Ex. 5, PageID # 1184, ECF No. 102-2; DSOF Ex. 8, Lawler-Ibarra Decl. ¶¶ 12, 13, Exs. D, E, F, ECF No. 93-9. In at least some situations where customers rented a unit for only a day or a week, those customers were required to sign the same rental agreement that a monthly tenant would sign.

         Before Williams was fired, Extra Space had never terminated an employee for allowing a customer to temporarily store her items in a unit without a rental agreement. Williams claims that it was an “established custom and practice” at the Wabash facility and similar facilities, which Pope knew about, for Store Managers to allow customers to move their items from a rented unit to a vacant unit to facilitate the cleaning and organizing of their rented unit. Pl.'s Mem. in Opp'n (“Resp.”) 1-2, ECF No. 102; PSOF ¶¶ 3-4.[3] Pope and Pope's supervisor, Matthew Walker, testified that they did not permit any such practice, and Karen McNeal, who was supervised by Pope, testified that Pope did not allow employees to permit customers to use units without renting them.

         After Williams' termination, Extra Space filled the Wabash Store Manager vacancy by promoting David Hutcherson, an African-American, from an Assistant Manager position. Pope also later promoted Hutcherson to the position of District Team Lead, a position to which Williams had aspired but, he contends, had previously been denied to him on the basis of his race.

         Williams' allegations of discriminatory hiring are part of a series of additional episodes that, he alleges, comprised a discriminatory course of conduct against him by Extra Space during the years leading up to his termination. Williams cites incidents dating back to 2011, when a district manager instructed Williams to clean up the floor and the facility on separate occasions. Williams says the same district manager issued a warning to Williams for leaving his family unattended at the Wabash office. In 2012, a different district manager issued Williams a warning for failing to open the Wabash facility when Williams was on a pre-approved vacation. Williams also contends that in 2012 or 2013, Pope “implicitly accused Williams of stealing inventory by watching only the videotape surveillance of the days and times in which Williams worked and not watching any surveillance footage of non-African American employees.” Resp. 4, ECF No. 102.

         Pope also issued Williams a warning in April 2015 after Williams twice failed to provide Pope with advance notice that he would be absent from work. Williams contends that employees are only required to obtain pre-approval for absences “if at all possible, ” and that it was not possible for Williams to obtain pre-approval on one of the occasions “because Williams reported to the job site as scheduled.” Resp. 5, ECF No. 102. Within a couple of weeks of when Williams received the warning for failing to obtain pre-approvals for his absences, Alex Luna, a non-African American assistant manager of the Wabash facility, was not disciplined when he failed to obtain pre-approval for an absence. Luna was later promoted to a Store Manager position.

         Williams also contends that he worked at Extra Space for fifteen years and exceeded performance expectations but was never promoted above Store Manager even though he applied several times for higher-level managerial positions. Those positions were instead given to non-African American co-workers with less experience than ...

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