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Conner v. The Board of Trustees for University of Illinois

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

October 15, 2019

Charlie Conner, Plaintiff,
The Board of Trustees for the University of Illinois, Defendant



         Plaintiff Charlie Conner worked as a foreman in the motor pool garage at the University of Illinois, Chicago campus. In December 2015, Conner, who is black, settled a lawsuit against the university alleging that Conner had experienced racial harassment, discrimination, and retaliation while working in the garage. Conner now alleges that his supervisors and coworkers continued to harass and discriminate against him, and he continued to complain about that treatment. In response, the university denied him overtime, denied him adequate support as a foreman, excessively monitored and scrutinized his work, and allowed a culture of racial harassment to pervade the garage. Conner brings claims of retaliation and disparate treatment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Illinois Civil Rights Act. The university moves to dismiss Conner's claim, arguing that it is duplicative of a pending action in the Central District of Illinois and that it fails to state a claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Alternatively, the university moves to strike certain allegations for a variety of reasons. For the reasons discussed below, the university's motion to dismiss is granted in part, denied in part, and its motion to strike is denied.

         I. Legal Standards

         To survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), a complaint must state a claim upon which relief may be granted. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). In reviewing a motion to dismiss, a court must construe all factual allegations as true and draw all reasonable inferences in the plaintiff's favor. Doe v. Columbia Coll. Chicago, 933 F.3d 849, 854 (7th Cir. 2019) (citing Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)); Sloan v. Am. Brain Tumor Ass'n, 901 F.3d 891, 893 (7th Cir. 2018). On a 12(b)(6) motion, a court may only consider allegations in the complaint, documents attached to the complaint, documents that are both referred to in the complaint and central to its claims, and information that is subject to proper judicial notice. Reed v. Palmer, 906 F.3d 540, 548 (7th Cir. 2018) (citing Geinosky v. City of Chicago, 675 F.3d 743, 745 n.1 (7th Cir. 2012)).

         In the employment-discrimination context, the pleading requirement is minimal. Tamayo v. Blagojevich, 526 F.3d 1074, 1081 (7th Cir. 2008) (“[A] plaintiff alleging employment discrimination under Title VII may allege these claims quite generally.”). All the plaintiff must include in his complaint is the “‘type of discrimination' the plaintiff thought occurred, ” “by whom, ” and “when.” Huri v. Office of the Chief Judge of the Circuit Court of Cook Cty., 804 F.3d 826, 833 (7th Cir. 2015) (quoting Swanson v. Citibank, N.A., 614 F.3d 400, 405 (7th Cir. 2010)); see also Samovsky v. Nordstrom, Inc., 619 Fed. App'x 547, 548 (7th Cir. 2015) (“‘I was turned down for a job because of my race' is all a complaint has to say.” (quoting Tamayo, 526 F.3d at 1084)). That is because employers are “familiar with discrimination claims and know how to investigate them.” Carlson v. CSX Transp., Inc., 758 F.3d 819, 827 (7th Cir. 2014). Thus, little information is required “to put the employer on notice of these claims.” Id.

         II. Facts

         Plaintiff Charlie Conner worked in the motor pool garage of the Chicago campus of the University of Illinois, first as a mechanic and later as a foreman. [9] ¶¶ 3-5 (amended complaint).[1] Sometime between 2012 and 2015, Conner sued the university for racial harassment, discrimination, and retaliation. [9] ¶ 27. In December 2015, Conner and the university settled. [9] ¶ 27. Following the settlement, Conner was supposed to meet with two university administrators on a monthly basis. [9] ¶¶ 43, 79. Though the administrators often canceled the meetings, Conner met with them sporadically starting in 2016. [9] ¶¶ 79-80.

         In late 2015, the university promoted Conner to foreman of the garage. After Conner's promotion, several of his white coworkers resigned or transferred. [9] ¶ 61. According to one coworker, the employees transferred because they “did not want to work for a black guy.” [9] ¶ 61. The university never replaced those workers, so Conner continued to work both as a mechanic and as a foreman. [9] ¶¶ 75-76. Before Conner became foreman, a white man had that job, and the garage was always fully staffed with mechanics. [9] ¶ 74. Conner complained to university administrators about being short-staffed. [9] ¶¶ 75-76. They responded that Conner was a “working foreman.” [9] ¶¶ 75-76.

         Also around the time of Conner's promotion, the garage changed its overtime procedures. The garage's supervisors were required to assign overtime on a rotating basis and historically kept a list of assigned shifts to ensure that they distributed it equally. [9] ¶¶ 68, 70. After Conner's promotion, his supervisors began assigning overtime to every worker except Conner, the only black employee in the garage and the only employee who had complained about racial discrimination. [9] ¶¶ 68-69. In the winter, the garage scheduled overtime in advance because of anticipated snowstorms. [9] ¶ 71. Even when Conner was scheduled in advance to work an overtime shift, a white worker would later replace him on the schedule. [9] ¶ 71. Conner complained to his supervisors that he was being denied overtime shifts. [9] ¶ 69. He also complained to university administrators that his supervisors were discriminating against him by denying him overtime; one administrator responded that Conner cost the university too much when he worked overtime. [9] ¶ 70. The university continues to deny Conner overtime. [9] ¶ [73].

         During an early 2016 meeting with administrators and a supervisor, Conner broke down in tears describing the conditions in the garage. [9] ¶ 83. Following the meeting, the supervisor told Conner's coworkers that he had cried during the meeting and accused Conner of putting on a “big show.” [9] ¶ 84. Around the middle of 2016, Conner told university administrators that the racial issues in the garage would persist so long as many of the supervisors there had a history of racial discrimination. [9] ¶ 81.

         In July 2016, Conner's former supervisor Jim McNamara, who worked in a different university garage after Conner's lawsuit, sped toward Conner in his car as if to hit him. [9] ¶¶ 35-36. Conner told his current supervisor, Bob Witas, what had happened, and Witas said he would talk to McNamara. [9] ¶ 36. In September, McNamara again almost hit Conner with his car. [9] ¶ 36. After Conner reported the second incident, Witas told Conner that he had not gotten around to speaking with McNamara yet, and that Conner should kick McNamara's car when McNamara tried to hit him again. [9] ¶ 37. In February 2017, McNamara sped toward Conner, and Conner jumped out of the way onto the hood of another car. [9] ¶ 39. Conner reported the incident to Witas, the university police, and Chicago police, who arrested McNamara. [9] ¶¶ 40-41. Following that incident, Conner met with university administrators and told them that he had reported McNamara's previous threats to Witas. [9] ¶ 43.

         In early 2018, another supervisor pressured Conner to release a vehicle before Conner had finished inspecting it. When Conner refused, the supervisor told Conner to “do [his] fuckin[g] job.” [9] ¶ 53. The supervisor did not pressure or use profane language toward other workers in the garage. [9] ¶ 54. Conner filed a written summary of that incident to Facilities Management. [9] ¶ 55. University administrators subsequently interviewed Conner's supervisor about the incident but took no action; Conner later learned that a different supervisor had told the administrators that Conner had been the one who had used profanity. [9] ¶¶ 55-56.

         One of Conner's supervisors excessively monitored Conner's work and frequently told Conner to “shut up.” [9] ¶ 64. He regularly made disparaging comments about black employees' work product, especially in front of white employees. [9] ¶ 64. Another supervisor frequently cursed at, yelled at, and condescended to Conner [9] ¶ 65. Neither supervisor disparaged, cursed at, or excessively monitored the work of white workers or workers who had not complained about discrimination in the past. [9] ¶¶ 64-65.

         Conner's supervisors and coworkers directed racial slurs and epithets at him two to three times per month from 2016 into 2019. [9] ¶¶ 30-31. For example, in late 2017, a supervisor told Conner that he looked like “black Aunt Jemima” because he was wearing a winter hat. [9] ¶ 47. In early 2018, a different supervisor had a disagreement with another black employee. [9] ¶ 52. Shortly afterward, the supervisor asked Conner, “Are all black people this ignorant?” [9] ¶ 52. In spring 2018, a supervisor commented that “[a]ny monkey can do this job” and then added, “let me rephrase, any jack-leg mechanic can do this.” [9] ¶ 48. On several occasions, that supervisor told Conner that he was “killing the [u]niversity.” [9] ¶ 59. One coworker used the “N” word around Conner once every three or four weeks into 2018. [9] ¶ 62. Coworkers called Conner a “white hater” and told him, “this is not over” in the context of his complaints about racism. [9] ¶¶ 58, 60. And another coworker frequently joked that things should be fixed the “white” way when he meant the “right” way. [9] ¶ 62.

         III. Analysis

         Conner alleges that the university violated Title VII and the Illinois Civil Rights Act by retaliating against him for repeatedly complaining about racial discrimination and harassment in the motor pool garage. He also claims that the university treated him differently than white employees because of his race. The university moves to dismiss Conner's complaint, arguing that the complaint is duplicative of a pending class action in the Central District of Illinois, Conner released some of his claims by his 2015 settlement with the university, and Conner has failed to state a case of either retaliation or disparate treatment. It also moves to strike allegations it labels “conclusory, ” irrelevant, untruthful, and salacious, as well as allegations that relate solely to a claim of hostile work environment.[2]

         A. Duplicative Lawsuits

         A federal suit may be dismissed when it is “duplicative of a parallel action already pending in another federal court.” Serlin v. Arthur Andersen & Co., 3 F.3d 221, 223 (7th Cir. 1993) (quoting Ridge Gold Standard Liquors, Inc., v. Joseph E. Seagram & Sons, Inc., 572 F.Supp. 1210, 1213 (N.D. Ill. 1983)). A suit is duplicative if the “claims, parties, and available relief do not significantly differ” between the two lawsuits. McReynolds v. Merrill Lynch & Co., 694 F.3d 873, 889 (7th Cir. 2012) (quoting Ridge Gold, 572 F.Supp. at 1213).

         The university urges dismissal of Conner's complaint as a matter of judicial economy, because both Conner's case in this court and the Central District class action seek relief under the same statutes, and, according to the university, both complaints allege similar facts.

         The parties, claims, and relief sought all differ between Conner's complaint and the class action.[3] Conner is not a named plaintiff in the class action. The court in that case has not certified a class yet, so Conner is not actually a party to the class action. Standard Fire Ins. Co. v. Knowles, 568 U.S. 588, 593 (2013) (a nonnamed class member is not a party to class-action litigation before the class is certified). The claims in the two complaints are also different. Here, Conner brings claims of retaliation and disparate treatment; the class action brings hostile-work-environment claims on behalf of the named plaintiffs and the proposed classes, and retaliation and disparate-treatment claims only on behalf of the named plaintiffs individually. [15-3] ¶¶ 488-523. And the two cases seek different relief. Conner's complaint requests, among other things, compensatory damages for emotional distress and lost wages. The class action seeks compensatory damages and lost wages, but it also requests punitive damages and an injunction requiring the university to implement new policies, training, and disciplinary measures. [15-3] ¶¶ 526-35 (prayer for relief).

         Finally, though the university insists that the two suits “arise out of the same material facts, ” [15] at 7, there is little factual overlap. The university identifies only five paragraphs in Conner's complaint (out of 60 factual allegations) that the class-action plaintiffs also included in their complaint. Likewise, the class-action complaint contains only 21 paragraphs that detail Conner's experiences, out of nearly 450 factual allegations. [15-3] ¶¶ 181-202. The class-action complaint includes only three examples that also appear in Conner's complaint: when a supervisor asked Conner if “all black people [are] this ignorant, ...

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