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Zoepfel-Thuline v. Black Hawk College

Court of Appeals of Illinois, Third District

August 7, 2019

TRUDY A. ZOEPFEL-THULINE, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
BLACK HAWK COLLEGE, Defendant-Appellee.

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of the 14th Judicial Circuit, Rock Island County, Illinois. Circuit No. 13-L-58 The Honorable James G. Conway, Jr., Judge, presiding.

          Don D. Thuline, of Galva, for appellant.

          Jeffrey D. Wright and Allison K. Wright, of Pappas O'Connor, P.C., of Rock Island, for appellee.

          JUSTICE McDADE delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Presiding Justice Schmidt and Justice Holdridge concurred in the judgment and opinion.

          OPINION

          McDADE JUSTICE.

         ¶ 1 The plaintiff, Trudy Zoepfel-Thuline, sued the defendant, Black Hawk College (the College), for alleged violations of the Illinois Human Rights Act (775 ILCS 5/1-101 et seq. (West 2008)), alleging that the College first delayed offering her employment contracts in retaliation for her reporting sexual harassment, then later terminated her employment in retaliation for the discrimination suit she filed against the College. The circuit court entered summary judgment in favor of the College, and the plaintiff appealed. On appeal, plaintiff argues that the court erred when it ruled that she was not engaged in a protected activity when she filed her discrimination suit against the College. We affirm.

         ¶ 2 I. BACKGROUND

         ¶ 3 The facts of this case are not in dispute. Those facts relevant to the disposition of this appeal are as follows.

         ¶ 4 In 2003, plaintiff began teaching General Education Development classes at the College on a part-time basis. For each class plaintiff taught, the College would require her to sign a stand-alone contract, which included, inter alia, a provision stating that her employment was subject to cancellation "if the enrollment, funds, or attendance is insufficient to justify holding class, or it is necessary to combine or reassign the class because of its size." Plaintiff was hired by David Harris, the College's outreach coordinator, who was also her direct supervisor.

         ¶ 5 In August 2009, Terry Urban, the evening receptionist in the College's Community Education Center, approached plaintiff and stated that while looking for vouchers in Harris's desk, she found something that she wanted plaintiff to know about. Plaintiff followed Urban to Harris's desk, and Urban showed her a stack of printed pictures that plaintiff classified as pornographic. The material was located underneath some hanging file folders. Plaintiff stated that she did not have authorization to go into Harris's desk, nor would there be any reason for her to do so.

         ¶ 6 Urban told plaintiff that she did not know what to do about the situation. Plaintiff told Urban to make copies of the pictures and give them to her so she could report it to the College. When plaintiff reported the situation to Jo Johnson in the College's human resources department, she was directed to mail copies to Johnson, who would follow up with Urban. Regarding her conversation with Johnson, plaintiff stated, "I wouldn't have said [Harris] had sexually harassed me. I would have said that I found it to be harassment."

         ¶ 7 The printed pictures listed the websites from which they had been accessed. An October 2009 e-mail exchange between Johnson and Karen Boyd, another administrator in the human resources office, indicated that a network analyst had been asked to perform an initial search of a computer in the Community Education Center that apparently was the suspected source of the printed pictures. However, the analyst did not find any browser history to confirm that suspicion. The e-mail exchange stated that nothing further would be done about the situation.

         ¶ 8 It does not appear from the record that the initial investigation into the situation included advising Harris that the pictures had been found in his desk or asking him how they came to be in his possession. He did explain their presence in a later affidavit filed with the circuit court. He stated that he had found the pictures in a printer in the Community Education Center's public computer lab and that he had suspected the pictures had been printed by a student whom he had confronted on an earlier occasion about printing the same kind of material. Harris stored the printed pictures in his desk until he could confront the student. He did not see the student following the discovery of the printed pictures, however.

         ¶ 9 Harris also averred that "[n]o employees, including [Trudy], had authorization to get into my personal work desk or file cabinet-where I had stored the material, nor would their job duties ever require them to do so without my express authorization."

         ¶ 10 On an afternoon in April 2010, plaintiff found herself short of calculators for her class. She approached Debra Rhodes in the Community Education Center and asked if she had any extras. Rhodes said that she thought Harris had some in his office. While Rhodes looked in Harris's office, including his desk, plaintiff saw the same printed pictures in the same place in Harris's desk.

         ¶ 11 During the first week of May 2010, plaintiff received an e-mail in error from Harris, in which he was critical about plaintiff's classroom management abilities. Plaintiff was angered by the e-mail and reported it to Johnson. During that conversation, plaintiff informed Johnson that the printed pictures were still in Harris's desk. Plaintiff asked Johnson what Harris had said about the situation. Johnson replied that he had not been asked about it. Surprised, plaintiff stated:

"I told her that I didn't care how he came by it, it was his now. It had been in that drawer for over a year. I said, 'I don't know why somebody didn't make him get rid of it, destroy it, whatever, but certainly not keep it in a drawer where faculty, staff and possibly even students could run into it,' and here I had twice, not expecting that would ever happen. I never went into his office, snooping around or, you know, ...

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