Contreras v. Suncast Corp. et al

Decision Date13 February 2001
Docket NumberNos. 00-1977,00-2493,s. 00-1977
Citation237 F.3d 756
Parties(7th Cir. 2001) Antonio S. Contreras, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Suncast Corporation, an Illinois Corporation, Thomas Tisbo, John Baunach, Randall Guillotte, and Michael Hamilton, Defendants-Appellees
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Seventh Circuit

Appeals from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 96 C 3439--Ann Claire Williams and Suzanne B. Conlon, Judges. [Copyrighted Material Omitted] Before Flaum, Chief Judge, and Easterbrook and Rovner, Circuit Judges.

Flaum, Chief Judge.

Antonio Contreras was injured in a forklift accident while employed by Suncast. After repeated violations of Suncast's safety protocols, work attendance policies, and acts of insubordination, Contreras was dismissed by the company. Contreras thereafter filed suit alleging a multitude of claims, primarily revolving around the assertion that Suncast had discriminated against him in violation of both Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"). The district court granted Suncast summary judgment on all of Contreras's claims, denied Contreras's cross-motion for partial summary judgment and dismissed Contreras's remaining state law claims. The court also awarded Suncast a partial bill of costs. Contreras now appeals both the summary judgment determinations as well as the award of costs. For the reasons stated herein, we affirm.

I. BACKGROUND

Antonio Contreras, born in Monterrey, Mexico, is a naturalized citizen of the United States. Beginning in November of 1994, Contreras was employed as a forklift operator for Suncast Corporation ("Suncast"), a manufacturer and distributor of lawn and garden equipment. During Contreras's employment stint, Thomas Tisbo was Suncast's President, Michael Hamilton was the Vice President, John Baunach was the Manager of Human Resources, and Randall Guillotte was a Production Flow Supervisor responsible for supervising forklift drivers.

Contreras's physical problems began on June 21, 1995, when he was injured on the job in a forklift accident. Contreras filed a workers compensation claim, and as a result of his injuries, was instructed by his physician not to drive a forklift for more than four hours a day and to spend the remainder of the day on light work duty. Suncast complied with these restrictions though Contreras argues that Suncast's accommodations were inadequate. On December 18, 1995, Contreras was again injured when he stood up quickly and struck his head on a metal rack after hearing Guillotte call out his name. Contreras's work limitations became permanent on January 12, 1996.

Contreras's disciplinary problems began on July 20, 1995, when he was given a verbal, followed by a written warning for violating forklift safety procedures. On November 7, 1995, Guillotte observed Contreras and two co-workers violating forklift safety rules. Guillotte met with the three as a group and gave each of them a copy of the safety rules to review. As Guillotte walked away from the meeting he heard Contreras say "chingado," from which he understood Contreras to be calling him a "motherfucker." Contreras maintains that what he actually uttered was "vamanos a la chingada," an idiom for "let's get the hell out of here." Regardless, Guillotte gave Contreras a verbal warning for his insubordination. Contreras also repeatedly violated Suncast's attendance policies. Between January 3, 1996, and February 8, 1996, Contreras violated attendance policies seven different times and was caught falsifying a Suncast time card in an attempt to cover up one of these violations. When Contreras was caught falsifying the time card, he was suspended. At that point, he filed an EEOC charge claiming that Suncast was discriminating against him on the basis of national origin. On February 12, 1996, Contreras violated the company attendance policy for an eighth time in a little over one month. Having been progressively disciplined for these multiple offenses, Suncast discharged Contreras on February 13, 1996. The following day, at the behest of Contreras's union representative, Suncast offered to reinstate Contreras. Contreras informed the company that he was not interested in returning to work, but that he wished to pursue legal action instead.

Contreras brought suit in the district court raising a litany of claims against Suncast. Specifically, Contreras alleged (1) that he was wrongfully terminated and not given a light work duty in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; (2) that Suncast retaliated against him by discharging him, after he filed an EEOC charge, in violation of Title VII; (3) that he was not reasonably accommodated after his injury and discriminated against for requesting accommodations, in violation of the ADA; (4) that Guillotte assaulted him by intentionally causing him to bang his head on the metal rack; (5) that Suncast was negligent in supervising Guillotte and directing Guillotte to stalk and assault Contreras; (6) that Suncast wrongfully discharged him after he filed a workers compensation claim. On March 15, 2000, the district court granted summary judgment to Suncast on all federal claims, and dismissed the state law claims without prejudice. Those state law claims have been refiled in the district court under 28 U.S.C. sec. 1332. On May 22, 2000, after this case had been reassigned, the district court partially granted Suncast's Bill of Costs. Contreras appealed the grant of summary judgment along with the judgment granting the Bill of Costs. These two appeals have been consolidated and we now address them.

II. DISCUSSION
A. Contreras's Title VII Claims

Contreras contends that the district court erred in granting summary judgment to Suncast on his national origin discrimination claims under Title VII. We review a district court's grant of summary judgment de novo, viewing the facts and drawing all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. See Stockett v. Muncie Indiana Transit Sys., 221 F.3d 997, 1000 (7th Cir. 2000). Summary judgment is appropriate only where "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and . . . the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); see James v. Sheahan, 137 F.3d 1003, 1006 (7th Cir. 1998).

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it unlawful for an employer "to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin." 42 U.S.C. sec. 2000(e)-2(a)(1). A plaintiff may meet his burden of proof under Title VII by offering either direct proof of discriminatory intent or by proving disparate treatment through the indirect, burden-shifting method outlined by the Supreme Court in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973). See Stockett, 221 F.3d at 1000-01; Plair v. E.J. Brach & Sons, Inc., 105 F.3d 343, 347 (7th Cir. 1997). In this case, Contreras offers no direct proof of discrimination but attempts to meet his burden through showing discriminatory treatment under the McDonnell Douglas test.

Under the McDonnell Douglas burden shifting method, the plaintiff must raise an inference of discrimination by offering sufficient evidence to make out the prima facie case. Pafford v. Herman, 148 F.3d 658, 665 (7th Cir. 1998). To establish a prima facie case under McDonnell Douglas, the plaintiff must demonstrate that (1) he belongs to a protected class; (2) he performed his job satisfactorily; (3) he suffered an adverse employment action; and (4) his employer treated similarly situated employees outside of his protected class more favorably. See Stockett, 221 F.3d at 1000-01; Plair, 105 F.3d at 347. If a plaintiff is able to make the prima facie showing, there is a presumption that the plaintiff was discriminated against, and the employer must come forward with a legitimate non- discriminatory reason for the employment action. See McDonnell Douglas, 411 U.S. at 802. At this stage, the employer need not prove that it was actually motivated by the proffered reason. Rather, an employer "need only produce admissible evidence which would allow the trier of fact rationally to conclude that the employment decision had not been motivated by discriminatory animus." Texas Dep't of Community Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 257 (1981). Once the defendant has met this burden of production, the plaintiff must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the reason offered by the defendant is merely a pretext for discrimination. Id. at 253. While the McDonnell Douglas approach is often called a "burden shifting" method of proof, "[t]he ultimate burden of persuading the trier of fact that the defendant intentionally discriminated against the plaintiff remains at all times with the plaintiff." Id.

The majority of Contreras's argument on his Title VII claims is devoted to showing that similarly situated individuals outside the protected class were treated more favorably than Contreras. In fact, Contreras goes so far as to frame the issues for review as if the "similarly situated" prong of McDonnell Douglas is the only burden keeping him from establishing the prima facie case, and thus the dispositive issue in determining whether the district court decision should be reversed. We are unpersuaded. Perhaps Contreras's strategy is a recognition that he cannot establish the prima facie case. The district court granted Suncast summary judgment, finding that Contreras could not meet both the second and fourth prongs of the McDonnell Douglas prima facie case; namely that Contreras could not prove that he was meeting Suncast's...

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