Reid v. Neighborhood Assistance Corp., 13–1768.

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (7th Circuit)
Writing for the CourtMANION
Citation749 F.3d 581
PartiesKendall REID and Bradley Sears, Plaintiffs–Appellants, v. NEIGHBORHOOD ASSISTANCE CORPORATION OF AMERICA, Defendant–Appellee.
Docket NumberNo. 13–1768.,13–1768.
Decision Date01 April 2014


Michael L. Tinaglia, Attorney, Park Ridge, IL, for PlaintiffAppellant.

Darren M. Mungerson, Attorney, Littler Mendelson Chicago, IL, for DefendantAppellee.

Before BAUER, MANION, and SYKES, Circuit Judges.

MANION, Circuit Judge.

Plaintiffs Kendall Reid and Bradley Sears allege that Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America discharged them in retaliation for making protected complaints, in violation of Illinois law. It is undisputed that the plaintiffs made protected complaints and were discharged, but the district court granted summary judgment to NACA, concluding that plaintiffs had not offered sufficient evidence of causation—that is, whether they were discharged in retaliation for their complaints. Plaintiffs appeal, arguing that the district court failed to view the evidence (and draw all reasonable inferences) in the light most favorable to them. We affirm.

I. Factual Background
A. Plaintiffs' Employment

Plaintiffs Kendall Reid and Bradley Sears were hired as at-will employees by Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America (NACA) in October 2007 and May 2010, respectively. They worked out of NACA's Chicago office. NACA is a nationwide not-for-profit corporation that helps potential homeowners—especially those facing discriminatory or predatory lending—obtain mortgages to purchase homes. Reid and Sears worked as mortgage consultants and reported to an office manager in the Chicago office, Norma Martinez. Martinez answered to a regional operations director in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Donald Meadows. As mortgage consultants, plaintiffs were responsible for counseling potential homeowners, helping them assemble mortgage applications, and for forwarding the applications initially to underwriting and, eventually, to lenders. Mortgage consultants are required by federal law to hold a license in order to prepare mortgage applications. See12 U.S.C. § 5103 (Supp.2013). Reid and Don Meadows (the regional manager) were the only people tied to the Chicago office who held the appropriate licenses. Sears had held a license, but it had not been properly registered by NACA, so he was not appropriately licensed.

As part of preparing the mortgage applications, mortgage consultants handle documents containing the private personal information of NACA's clients. Accordingly, NACA had a Document Security Policy (the “paperless policy”) that required employees to scan documents into a secure digital system and shred the paper originals to protect the client's information—paper files for clients were not to be kept. Evidence shows that the policy had been at least emailed to managers, but it had not been enforced in the Chicago office during the time plaintiffs worked there.

B. Plaintiffs' Complaints

While working for NACA, plaintiffs made a number of complaints about NACA's business practices. First, they complained about being paid less than Illinois' minimum wage. Effective July 1, 2010, Illinois raised its minimum wage to $8.25 an hour ($1 above the federal minimum wage). 820 ILCS 105/4 (Supp.2013). Before the effective date of the increase, Reid asked whether NACA would pay the new minimum wage and received mixed answers from different managers. Soon thereafter, another (unspecified) employee brought up the complaint at a company meeting and NACA's CEO, Bruce Marks, replied that NACA “will pay you what we have to pay....” Reid Dep. at 73–74. Throughout that July, Reid complained to the office manager and the regional manager that he and other employees were not being paid the new minimum wage, and on at least one occasion, that he was not paid overtime when he should have been.

Second, plaintiffs complained on several occasions that NACA violated state and federal law in handling mortgage applications. Specifically, they complained that mortgage applications were being prepared by unlicensed mortgage consultants and signed by licensed mortgage consultants. They also complained that when this happened, NACA was splitting the commissions between licensed and unlicensed mortgage consultants and the company itself. During an audit of NACA in February and March of 2010, Reid spoke with state and federal regulators who told him that these practices were illegal. After learning the practices were illegal, Reid complained to NACA management as early as April and May 2010. He made several complaints to NACA management over the next few months, including his last complaint in late September 2010. Sears also brought similar complaints to management throughout that time, making his last complaint on October 11, 2010. Sears's complaints were along different lines. This time he complained that NACA had dropped the ball during his licensing process, and as a result, he was not properly licensed and was not receiving the full commission from NACA for applications signed by other, licensed mortgage consultants. Nonetheless, Sears's complaints contained the same argument that the practices were illegal.

In sum, plaintiffs' complaints spanned a period of five to six months. But they were not alone in their complaints. At least four other individuals complained about not being paid minimum wage, others complained about not receiving proper overtime pay, and at least five others complained about splitting commissions on mortgage applications prepared between licensed and unlicensed mortgage consultants. Further, at least three people complained about both minimum wage and commission splitting. All of these other complaining employees were also in the Chicago office and none of them was fired.

C. Plaintiffs' Termination

On Friday, October 8, 2010, Reid left the NACA office early to attend a Chicago Bulls game. According to Reid, he received permission from the office manager, Martinez, on the condition that he work the whole weekend. That weekend, NACA's Chicago office was operating as a back-up call center for another NACA office that was hosting an event. However, when Reid came in to work on Saturday morning, October 9, Martinez told him that he was being suspended for leaving early the night before. Martinez denies that she gave Reid permission to leave, but at least one other witness corroborates Reid's story, so—because we view the evidence in the light most favorable to Reid—we must assume that he had permission to leave, but was suspended regardless.

On Monday, October 11, Rachelle Pride, NACA's National Real Estate Director, visited the Chicago office as part of a nationwide effort to train NACA-affiliated real estate agents. On that day, the office was closed for business and staffed only by the skeleton crew of Sears, Martinez, and another mortgage consultant, Mariola Jasinska.1 Martinez gave Pride a tour of the office. During the tour, Pride noticed a number of violations of NACA's policies, including alcoholic beverages in Reid's office and volumes of paper copies of documents with confidential information visible throughout the Chicago office, in violation of the paperless policy. Pride called Marks to get instructions. He told her to coordinate with Human Resources (“HR”) and then ask that Sears and Jasinska turn in their office keys and leave the office for the remainder of the day. After talking to Christine Cannonier in HR, Pride met with Sears and Jasinska individually to explain the violation of the paperless policy, receive their keys, and ask them to leave, which they did. Pride explained to Jasinska that she was not fired at that time, but that she did need to leave for the day. Sears testified that Pride told him he was fired as soon as she saw the violations of the paperless policy, but Pride denies that. In any event, Sears received formal notice of his termination on October 14.

Then, pursuant to Cannonier's instructions, Pride photographically documented the violations of the paperless policy. The photos revealed that every employee in the office but one was in violation of the policy. Marks and Cannonier asked Pride to stay in Chicago a while longer to interview the office's customers. During those interviews, Pride discovered that applications assembled by Reid had not been timely forwarded and, as a result, all of the customers' information had expired and would need to be redone. That delay was also a violation of NACA policy. Pride passed all this information along to Marks, who also spoke with Cannonier and Meadows. Through some of the conversations and conference calls, Marks was made aware that Sears's client service was poor, though at the time of his deposition he could not recall from whom he had heard that.

Faced with an entire office in violation of its paperless policy, NACA asserts that it decided to fire three people: Jasinska and plaintiffs Reid and Sears. In an early response to an interrogatory asking for the names of “all” people involved in making the decision to fire the plaintiffs, NACA listed only Cannonier, Meadows, and Pride. However, there is conflicting evidence concerning how and by whom the firing decision was made, with deposition testimony indicating that it was either just Bruce Marks or a group of managers. NACA later updated its interrogatory answer to include Marks among those involved in making the decision (consistent with the prior deposition testimony of Meadows, and Cannonier and the later testimony of Marks and Pride). NACA insists (and Marks testified) that, though Marks consulted with other managers, he alone made the final decision to fire plaintiffs. It is undisputed that he was not aware of plaintiffs' complaints. Nonetheless, viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, in addition to Marks, at least Meadows, Cannonier, and Pride had a hand in making the decision and Cannonier and Meadows had...

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