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Butler v. Northeast Illinois Regional Commuter Railroad Corp.

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

September 27, 2019

CRAIG D. BUTLER, Plaintiff,
v.
NORTHEAST ILLINOIS REGIONAL COMMUTER RAILROAD CORP., doing business as METRA, JAMES M. DERWINSKI, in his individual and official capacity as Metra Chief Mechanical Officer, ART OLSEN, in his individual and official capacity as Metra Director of Milwaukee Western Avenue District Mechanical, and SHON GEORGE, in his individual and official capacity as Metra Superintendent of Milwaukee Western Avenue District Mechanical, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Rebecca R. Pallmeyer United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Craig Butler worked as an electrician for Defendant Northeast Illinois Regional Commuter Railroad Corporation ("Metra"). In August 2013, Metra terminated Butler's employment for violation of Metra's policies on attendance and employee conduct, but Butler successfully appealed his termination to the Special Board of Adjustment and was reinstated. Then in April 2016, Metra again terminated Butler's employment for attendance violations. This time, Butler's appeal failed, and he filed claims with the Illinois Department of Human Rights ("IDHR") and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"). This lawsuit, filed in October 2017, followed. Butler asserts claims for race discrimination and harassment in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq.; for retaliation in violation of Section 1983 and Title VII; and for disability discrimination in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq.

         The court dismissed claims against individual Defendants, dismissed Butler's harassment allegations, and dismissed certain claims as time-barred [49]. Metra moves for summary judgment on Butler's remaining claims. For the following reasons, the motion is granted.

         BACKGROUND

         The parties have submitted competing statements of fact, as required by Local Rule 56.1. Those submissions support the following account. Butler is a 47-year-old African-American man. (Amended Mem. in Supp. of Butler Opp. to Metra Mot. for Summ. J. ("Butler Opp.") [129], 1.) He identifies as disabled because he suffers from sleep apnea, hypertension, high blood pressure, and anxiety. (See Metra Reply to Butler Resp. in Opp. to Metra L.R. 56.1 Stat. of Undisputed Facts ("Metra RSOF") [133] ¶ 62.)

         Metra hired Butler as a journeyman electrician on November 14, 2011 and on December 19, 2011 awarded him the position of electrician in Metra's Milwaukee District Mechanical Department. (Id. ¶¶ 1, 3.) The terms and conditions of Butler's employment were governed by two sets of policies: (1) a collective bargaining agreement ("CBA") between Metra and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, of which Butler was a member, and (2) Metra's Mechanical Department Directives, meaning internal employment policies and procedures applicable to Mechanical Department employees. (Id. ¶¶ 2, 4; Metra Mem. in Supp. of Mot. for Summ. J. ("Metra Mot.") [123], 2.)

         On August 16, 2013, Metra terminated Butler's employment for violations of Metra’s attendance and employee conduct policies. (See Metra RSOF ¶¶ 19-26.) Butler appealed his termination to an administrative body called the Special Board of Adjustment. (See Id . ¶ 27.) In a ruling dated September 5, 2014, the Special Board reinstated Butler's employment effective September 26, 2014. (Id. ¶¶ 27-28; Special Board Award, Ex. E to Metra L.R. 56.1 Stat. of Undisputed Facts [125-5], 2; Butler Employee Personnel Record, Ex. J to Metra L.R. 56.1 Stat. of Undisputed Facts [125-10], 3.) The ruling specified that the Special Board was granting Butler "one last chance to be a safe and reliable employee . . . ." (Special Board Award 2.) Referencing this "last chance" condition, the Board further stated, "[Butler] should understand that any future infractions of the Carrier's rules, could result in the permanent termination of his services." (Id.; see also Metra RSOF ¶ 30.) The last chance condition of Butler's reinstatement applied indefinitely. (See Metra RSOF ¶ 33.) On April 22, 2016, Metra again terminated Butler's employment, for violation of the last chance condition. (Metra RSOF ¶ 54.) After unsuccessfully appealing that decision (id. ¶¶ 55-56), Butler filed this lawsuit arising out of his second termination and the events leading up to it.

         A. Metra's Progressive Discipline Policy

         Mechanical Directive No. 7 sets forth Metra's "Progressive Discipline Policy." (Metra RSOF ¶ 6.) The policy sets forth five steps that carry escalating disciplinary consequences up to and including termination, which is Step Five. (See Id . ¶ 7.) At Step One, an employee receives a letter of reprimand; at Steps Two, Three, and Four, an employee is suspended from work for three, five, and ten days, respectively; and at Step Five, an employee is terminated. (See Id . ¶ 7.) For violations that occur within less than two years of cumulative active service, Metra assesses discipline one step at a time. (Id. ¶ 11.) Each step carries a two-year probationary period, meaning that an employee starts again at Step One if he completes two years of cumulative active service without incurring additional discipline. (Id. ¶¶ 11-13.)[1]

         For minor infractions, including absenteeism and tardiness, Metra employees receive "verbal and superintendent conferences" before they are charged with formal "steps" of discipline. (Id. ¶ 9; see also Id . ¶ 38 (stating that an employee receives a verbal warning for a first occurrence, a conference with a superintendent for a second occurrence within a twelve-month period, and charges under the progressive discipline system for additional violations within a twelve-month period).) Under the CBA, an employee has a right to a hearing before Metra assesses discipline against him. (See Id . ¶ 8.) A "discipline committee, " rather than the hearing officer or witnesses, decides whether to assess discipline following a hearing. (Id. ¶ 10.) Thereafter, an employee has a right under the CBA to file a grievance. (Id. ¶¶ 15; Aff. of Danielle Gauthier, Ex. M to Metra L.R. 56.1 Stat. of Undisputed Facts ("Gauthier Aff.") [125-13] ¶ 11.) Alternatively, the employee can appeal the decision to the Special Board of Adjustment, which is comprised of a referee and neutral member, an employee member, and a carrier (i.e., employer) member. (See Metra RSOF ¶ 17; Gauthier Aff. ¶ 11; Special Board Award 1; Metra Mot. 3.)

         B. Butler's August 2013 termination and related events

         The events that led to Butler's August 2013 termination began in the first ninety days of his employment at Metra. (See Metra RSOF ¶ 21.) During that time, Butler violated Metra's absenteeism policies and Metra assessed Step One discipline against him. (See Id . ¶¶ 19-21.) Butler again violated attendance-related rules on March 2, 2012, March 9, 2012, and March 15, 2012. (Id. ¶¶ 22-24.) After the March 2 and 9 violations, Metra assessed Step Three discipline against Butler (see Id . ¶¶ 22-23), and after the March 15 violation, Metra assessed Step Four discipline against him. (See Id . ¶ 24.) Approximately a year and a half later, on August 16, 2013, Metra determined that Butler had violated a rule of employee conduct by reading a newspaper after his scheduled break. (Id. ¶ 25.) Because Butler was in Step Four of the progressive disciplinary policy at the time, the violation resulted in termination. (See Id . ¶¶ 25-26.) Butler denies that he violated the relevant rule of employee conduct and, as noted, successfully appealed his termination. (See Id . ¶¶ 25-27.) The Special Board of Adjustment determined that although Metra "had met its burden of proof . . . and had proper justification for assessing discipline, " "the discipline assessed for [the newspaper infraction] is excessive." (Special Board Award 2.) The Special Board reinstated Butler's employment, subject to the indefinite last chance condition referenced above. (Id.) The Special Board made its decision independently, but it was Metra's responsibility to enforce the terms and conditions of Butler's reinstatement, including the last chance condition. (See Metra RSOF ¶¶ 29, 31, 32.) It is uncontested that the last chance condition effectively put Butler on permanent Step Four status. (See Butler Opp. 4, 7; Metra Reply in Supp. of Summ. J. Mot. ("Metra Reply") [131], 7.)

         C. Butler's April 2016 termination and related events

         Following his reinstatement on September 26, 2014, Butler was placed on a medical leave of absence from October 3, 2014 through March 12, 2015, for a condition(s) undisclosed in the record. (Metra RSOF ¶¶ 27, 34.) After Butler returned from leave, he violated a Metra policy that "requires an employee to provide valid documentation for an absence due to illness" when he has already used his three allotted sick days. (See Id . ¶¶ 35-39.) Those violations were on March 27 and 30, 2015, which Metra treated as one occurrence, and April 6, 2015, which Metra treated as a second occurrence. (See Id . ¶ 39.) Butler received a superintendent conference, rather than a disciplinary step, for those occurrences. (See Id . ¶¶ 38-39.) One month after his return from leave, on April 14, 2015, Butler again went on a medical leave of absence, again for reasons not stated in the record. (Id. ¶ 40.) Butler returned to work on or about September 2, 2015. (Id.)

         By February 23, 2016, Butler had exhausted his three allotted sick days. (Id. ¶ 41.) On that date, Butler "called off work and requested use of a sick day." (Id. ¶ 42.) Art Olsen, one of Butler's supervisors, instructed him to provide "upon his return" "medical documentation confirming he was seen by a physician on February 23, 2016 to support his absence due to illness." (Metra Mot. 4; Metra RSOF ¶ 43.) Butler did not in fact visit a physician on that date, but at some point after February 23-on a date the parties do not specify-he submitted doctor's notes dated March 2, 2016 and March 29, 2016 to support the absence. (Id. ¶¶ 44, 45.)[2] Olsen informed Butler that because the note dated March 2, 2016 did not reflect a doctor's visit on the date of the absence, it did not satisfy Metra's "valid documentation" requirement. (Id. ¶¶ 46, 48.)[3]"Valid documentation, " Metra policy provides, is "anything that would justify an employee's absence on a particular day that was missed." (Id. ¶ 37.)[4] Metra issued Butler a notice of hearing concerning the February 23, 2016 absence and afforded him "additional time to submit valid documentation" before the hearing. (Id. ¶¶ 47, 49.) The hearing commenced on March 24, 2016. (Apr. 15, 2016 Hearing Tr. 4:2-4.) During the hearing, Butler requested a recess to retrieve supplemental documentation. (See Id . ¶ 50.) As Butler was crossing a street during the recess, he fell and injured his knee. (Id. ¶ 50; see Ex. C to Am. Compl. ("Attachments to EEOC Complaint") [37-1], 1.) Metra postponed the completion of the hearing as a result of the injury. (See Metra RSOF ¶ 51.)

         At some point before the hearing reconvened, Butler submitted the second doctor's note dated March 29, 2016. In that note, Butler's doctor wrote that Butler visited his office on March 29 and had been under his care since March 21, 2012. (Doctor's Notes, 2.) The rest of the note is illegible. (See id.) Olsen testified during his deposition that this note did not constitute valid documentation for Butler's February 23, 2016 absence not only because it failed to show that Butler visited a doctor on February 23, but also because it was "too vague." (Olsen Dep. 50:18-24; Metra RSOF ¶ 48 (citing same).)

         Metra reconvened Butler's hearing on April 15, 2016. (Metra RSOF ¶ 51.) Butler provided no additional medical documentation to support his February 23, 2016 absence. (Id. ¶ 52.) Accordingly, on April 22, 2016, Metra disciplined Butler for violating the absenteeism policy. (Id. ¶ 53.) Because the violation was Butler's third within a twelve-month period, the discipline took the form of a step (see Id . ¶ 38) and violated the last chance condition of Butler’s reinstatement. (Id. ¶ 54.) Metra, therefore, terminated his employment; the record does not reveal which Metra official made this decision. (Id. ¶¶ 54, 56.) Butler appealed the termination directly to the Special Board of Adjustment, and the Special Board affirmed Metra's decision. (Id. ¶¶ 55-56.) As detailed below, Butler does not dispute that the basis for his termination was the violation of Metra's absenteeism policy, which itself violated the last chance condition of reinstatement. Rather, Butler alleges that Metra imposed unduly harsh discipline for the violation because of Butler's race and disability, and in retaliation for Butler's filing of an EEOC complaint against Metra in 2013.

         On July 15, 2016, Butler filed a complaint against Metra with the IDHR and the EEOC. (Metra RSOF ¶ 59; Ex. B to Am. Compl. ("July 2016 EEOC Complaint") [37-1].) Butler alleged that Olsen required him to provide doctor's notes for the February 23, 2016 absence, and then determined that the notes were inadequate, because of his race and disabilities, and because Butler had filed an EEOC complaint against Metra in 2013. (See Attachments to July 2016 EEOC Complaint.) Butler also alleged that Metra subjected him to the last chance condition of employment indefinitely, and applied that condition when he violated the absenteeism policy in 2016, for the same reasons. (See id.) On August 2, 2017, Butler received notice of his right ...


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