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Williams v. Brennan

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

October 16, 2019

CARLOS A. WILLIAMS, Plaintiff,
v.
MEGAN J. BRENNAN, as Postmaster General for the United States Postal Service, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          SARA L. ELLIS UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         After the United States Postal Service (“USPS”) terminated his employment in 2014, Plaintiff Carlos A. Williams filed this employment discrimination lawsuit against Megan J. Brennan, the Postmaster General for USPS. He contends that USPS engaged in race, color, national origin, and gender discrimination as well as retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq.; age discrimination in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”), 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq.; and disability discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 701 et seq.[1] USPS has filed a motion for summary judgment on Williams' complaint. The Court finds questions of fact with respect to whether USPS issued Williams a notice of removal in 2014 because of his race, gender, or national origin or in retaliation for his protected activity. But Williams cannot proceed on the remainder of his claims because he cannot establish that certain of the challenged incidents amount to actionable adverse employment actions or that one of his protected characteristics caused the actionable adverse actions to occur.

         BACKGROUND[2]

         I. Williams' Background and Initial Employment with USPS

         Williams is an African American male born in 1972. He identifies as a Moor and Choctaw Indian.[3] After working for USPS for some time, Williams received a career appointment in 1997. He worked as a mail processing clerk at the Palatine Processing and Distribution Center from 1997 until 2010, when USPS reassigned him to the Glen Ellyn Post Office as a letter carrier. At the Glen Ellyn Post Office, Connie Principe, a Caucasian female born in 1962, and John Walsh, a Caucasian male born in 1960 both supervised Williams. James Gillispie, an African American male born in 1963, served as the Glen Ellyn Postmaster. Gillispie learned of Williams' Moor background sometime in 2010, but the record does not indicate that Williams told anyone that he is Choctaw Indian.

         In 2011, Williams joined an organization called the No Harassment Foundation, where he, along with Anita Hatcher and Kenny Reed, helped USPS employees file complaints of harassment, discrimination, and retaliation. Williams testified that, at some point in 2012, Walsh remarked that Williams thought he did not have to follow the rules because he was black. During his time working at the Glen Ellyn Post Office, Williams filed over fifteen EEO complaints against USPS, including around five against Gillispie, Walsh, and Principe. This includes an EEO complaint Williams filed against Walsh and Gillispie within about three months after he transferred to the Glen Ellyn Post Office, after which Williams claims Gillispie's treatment of him changed. On April 29, 2014, an EEOC administrative law judge concluded that Walsh had retaliated against Williams for his protected EEO activity when Walsh issued Williams a notice of removal in 2010 based on the late delivery of express mail.

         II. Holiday Pay

         USPS' Employee and Labor Manual (“ELM”) provides that, to receive holiday leave pay, an employee must be in a pay status either the last scheduled hour before or the first scheduled hour after the holiday. To the extent an employee is on extended leave without pay (“LWOP”), an employee cannot use paid leave for the last scheduled hour before or the first scheduled hour after a holiday to qualify for holiday pay.

         Williams did not receive holiday pay for the Christmas Day 2012 holiday. He was on LWOP on his scheduled work day immediately before and after Christmas Day (December 22 and 26). Williams also did not receive holiday pay for the Martin Luther King, Jr. 2013 holiday. He was on LWOP on the scheduled work days both immediately before and after that holiday (January 19 and 22). Williams did receive holiday pay for New Year's Day 2013. Although he was on LWOP on his scheduled work day immediately before New Year's Day (December 29), he was on FMLA-dependent sick leave the day after (January 2), meaning he was in a pay status for the first scheduled hour after the holiday. Williams testified that he requested to be placed on paid leave on the days before and after these three holidays.

         III. AWOL Designations

         In May 2011, Williams' wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. Although she went into remission in May 2012, the cancer returned in the summer or fall of 2013 and she passed away on May 20, 2014. Williams testified that he told Principe, Walsh, and Gillispie about his wife's diagnosis. Between 2011 and 2013, Williams requested sick or paid leave to take his wife to treatments. Williams testified that, at times, Principe, Walsh, and Gillispie did not approve such leave and instead placed him on LWOP. The record does not include any specific dates on which such denials allegedly occurred or whether Williams had sick or paid leave available when he made those requests.

         Williams also complains that Principe improperly designated him as AWOL between March 12, 2013, and April 16, 2013, changing his FMLA requests to AWOL designations in his time and attendance records. But these records do not include any AWOL designations during this time period, with Williams instead paid for working or being on paid leave.

         IV. April 9, 2013, Incident

         After completing his mail route on April 9, 2013, Williams returned to the Glen Ellyn Post Office. Williams and Principe disagree about the events that followed. Williams testified he intended to put away mail, unload his truck, take his five-minute wash up, and then punch out for the day. The parties agree that Principe approached him and told him to punch out immediately. After Williams insisted that he would punch out only after taking his five-minute wash up, Williams testified that Principe threatened to call the police if he did not punch out immediately. After Principe reiterated this, Williams responded, “then do it.” Doc. 39 ¶ 17. Principe testified that Williams became “loud and belligerent, ” and threatened her, indicating he had something for her and stating “I'll show you, sister.” Id. ¶ 20. Feeling physically threatened, Principe testified she then called the police. Williams claims he did not lose his temper or ever threaten Principe. When the police arrived, Williams agreed to leave. The police and USPS did not take further action.

         Aside from this incident, Williams also testified that Gillispie and Principe sent him home on several occasions, but Williams has not identified any specific dates or details surrounding these other alleged occasions.

         V. Williams' Initial Removal from USPS

         On May 24, 2013, Ellen Smid, an eighteen-year-old, approached Williams, who was sitting in his delivery truck parked outside of the house Smid shared with her parents. Smid approached the truck intending to save the mail carrier a trip to the front door. Instead of encountering the regular mail carrier for that route, she encountered Williams, who was covering that route that day. According to Smid, Williams asked her questions, including “how old [she] was, [and] what [she] wanted to pursue when [she] graduated high school, ” and told her “that he had this clothing line [she] should check out, and that he had a new ‘Volvo' that he could take [her] for a ride in but [she] ‘wouldn't have to do anything with him.” Id. ¶ 23. Smid recounted that Williams wrote down his name, number for her, and the name of his fashion line, Clexsy, which he told her meant “sexy and classy.” Id. The interaction made Smid uncomfortable, and she retreated to her house and locked the door. About ninety minutes later, Williams returned to the Smid house to deliver a package he had forgotten to deliver earlier. After Smid's father accepted the delivery, Smid told her father about what happened. Smid also posted about the incident on her Facebook page. Williams acknowledged speaking with Smid while delivering mail and admitted to complimenting her eyes, telling her about his Clexsy website and his Volvo, and giving her his telephone number. He denied offering to give Smid a ride or asking her to model for any websites.

         The day after the interaction between Williams and Smid, Smid's mother called the Glen Ellyn Post Office twice and spoke with Principe. During the second call, Principe recalled Smid's mother stating she did not want Williams near the Smid house. Smid's mother also asked Principe if she should call the police. Principe told her to do so if Smid felt threatened, harassed, or stalked. Smid's mother called the police that same day. Principe later told Gillispie and Jayne Duewerth, the manager of post office operations, about the incident as reported by Smid's mother. Principe did not discuss the incident with Williams.

         On May 29, USPS placed Williams on off-duty status without pay, also called an emergency placement, based on the information USPS received from the Smid family. Gillispie signed the emergency placement letter. Williams testified that, in connection with this incident, Gillispie commented that Williams was “40 something years old and talking to an underage girl while on [his] route.” Doc. 39-2 at 88:21-23. Williams also claims Principe and Walsh made similar comments.

         After USPS issued the emergency placement, USPS' Office of the Inspector General (“OIG”) investigated the incident. In a report dated June 25, 2013, OIG concluded that “Williams engaged in conduct which did not reflect favorably upon the USPS in that he gave his name, telephone number, and name of a clothing line which solicited female models to an 18 year old girl while engaged in the performance of his official duties.” Doc. 39 ¶ 29. On July 11, after the OIG's investigation, USPS issued Williams a notice of removal, signed by Walsh and Gillispie. The notice charged Williams with unacceptable conduct arising from the May 24 interaction with Smid, specifying Williams violated USPS' standard of conduct, including ELM sections 665.11, 665.16, 667.16, and 667.331, as well as City Delivery Carrier Duties and Responsibilities (“M-41”) section 112.28, 112.6, and 112.61.

         Williams filed grievances with his union related to his emergency placement and removal. An arbitration took place on June 4, 2014. The parties settled before the arbitration concluded. As part of the settlement, the notice of removal converted to a seven-day suspension, with Williams receiving fifty percent of his back pay. The settlement also indicated Williams would return to work on June 6, 2014. Angela Davenport, a labor relations specialist for USPS, signed the settlement on behalf of USPS. Corey Walton, a union representative from the National Association of Letter Carriers, signed the settlement on Williams' behalf. Williams disagreed with the terms of the settlement agreement.[4] Williams claims that no one told him that he should return to work on June 6 until he saw the pre-arbitration settlement agreement directing him to do so sometime between June 9 and 11, when he received the settlement documentation from a union official.

         When Principe learned of the agreement to return Williams to work, she expressed her displeasure to a colleague in Florida. She told him that “[a] jerk got his job back, ” referring to Williams as “the biggest !!!! you know what!, ” the “[b]iggest jerk, ” an “[i]diot . . . out on EP soliciting a high senior, ” and a “SCUM BAG.” Doc. 47-7 at 1-2.

         VI. Williams' Scheduled Return to Work and Subsequent Removal Williams did not report to work on June 6, 2014, as provided for in the pre-arbitration settlement. That day, USPS sent Williams two letters to his address of record (on South King Drive in Chicago, Illinois), directing him to report to work on June 6 at the Glen Ellyn Post Office. Gillispie also sent Williams another letter that day, directing him to report to work on June 9. That letter was delivered to Williams' address of record on June 7. But Williams did not report to work on June 9 either. Instead, after receiving the pre-settlement arbitration letter, Williams called the USPS Integrated Voice Recognition (“IVR”) system, an automated attendance call center, to request leave. This sent a notification to Principe and Gillispie that Williams had requested eighty hours of leave from June 9 through 24. Although Williams made this request, his supervisors had to approve it.

         Because Williams sought more than three days of sick leave, USPS policy required him to submit medical documentation to support the leave request. Specifically, the USPS ELM provides that supervisors may accept employees' statements explaining their absence for sick leaves of three days or less, but that, for requests of over three days, the employee must provide medical documentation or other acceptable evidence. For extended medical leave requests, employees need not submit such evidence more frequently than once every thirty days. The ELM also provides that, if employees fail to provide acceptable documentation, the absence may be charged to annual leave, LWOP, or AWOL. It also provides that failure to regularly attend work may result in discipline, including removal.

         After Williams did not show up to work on June 9, Principe sent him a request for medical documentation to substantiate his absence, with the letter explaining that the failure to respond may result in the absence being classified as AWOL. Williams did not respond to the letter. USPS then sent Williams another request for documentation on June 17. That letter noted that Williams had called requesting leave but did not have any injury claims open. Williams again did not respond or report to work. Instead, Gillispie and Principe received notification on June 21 that Williams had requested another eighty hours of leave from June 20 to July 7 through the IVR system. Gillispie then sent Williams a notice of investigatory interview on June 26, instructing Williams to appear for an investigatory interview on July 1 at 11:00 a.m. at the Glen Ellyn ...


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