Williams v. Office of the Chief Judge of Cook Cnty., s. 15-2325 &amp

Decision Date11 October 2016
Docket NumberNos. 15-2325 &amp,15-2554,s. 15-2325 &amp
Citation839 F.3d 617
Parties Paula Y. Williams, Plaintiff–Appellant, v. Office of the Chief Judge of Cook County, Illinois and Michael Rohan, Defendants–Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Seventh Circuit

Jonathan B. Piper, Bock, Hatch, Lewis & Oppenheim, LLC, Chicago, IL, for PlaintiffAppellant.

Maureen O'Donoghue Hannon, Office of the Cook County State's Attorney, Chicago, IL, for DefendantsAppellees.

Before Wood, Chief Judge, and Bauer and Williams, Circuit Judges.


, Circuit Judge.

Paula Williams was told she was fired from her position as a probation officer for abandoning her job. She brought this lawsuit alleging that she was actually fired for contesting a workers' compensation claim, reporting another employee's misconduct, being African–American, and reporting co-workers for racial hostility. Because Williams has failed to establish a material factual dispute as to any of her claims, we affirm the district court's grant of summary judgment to the defendants.


Williams began working for the Juvenile Probation Department of the Office of the Chief Judge of Cook County (OCJ) in November 1995. OCJ has more than two thousand employees and seven departments, one of which is the Juvenile Division. At the time she was fired, OCJ was run by Michael Rohan, who had the final say in all termination decisions. Starting in 2008, Williams had a series of interactions with the personnel department which she contends caused her termination.

A. Race Discrimination Complaint

In December 2008, Williams, who is African American, reported an incident of racial intimidation by two white coworkers. She wrote a memorandum to Charles Young, the deputy director of the Juvenile Probation Department, stating that one of the co-workers called her over and the other said to her, “When you go black you never go back and when you are white, you are always right.” Williams found this comment to be “venomous.” Two days later, Williams received a memo from Rohan acknowledging receipt of her report, apologizing for the behavior she described, and informing her that he was opening an investigation into the matter. Williams claims that later that month, Rohan approached her at the Probation Department's holiday party, and instructed her not to mention her memorandum to anyone outside of the building. Rohan does not recall such a conversation.

Eventually (the timing is disputed), the co-workers were interviewed, denied that their remarks were racially motivated, and were counseled not to make such remarks again. Over a year after the investigation was finished, Young created a memorandum of his investigation and placed it in Williams's personnel file. He testified he forgot to do so right after he finished his investigation.

B. Complaint to Office of Inspector General

In March 2010, Williams reported a supervisor in her department who was making phone calls about union matters to her work phone and to her parents' home. The Office of the Inspector General investigated the report as a potential misuse of County resources to support union candidates. The supervisor was eventually disciplined with a short suspension.

C. Workers' Compensation Dispute

In May 2010, Williams was injured at work by Anthony Jordan, a co-worker. Jordan yanked a door open while Williams was holding it, causing her to injure her shoulder. During the incident, he yelled, “Why don't you report this too, b* *ch?” She took a medical leave for the injury, filed a workers' compensation claim, and began receiving temporary total disability (TTD) benefits. At the start of her leave, Rose Golden, the director of Human Resources for the department, sent Williams a letter asking her to let Golden know when she was able to return.

In December 2010, Williams received an independent medical evaluation (IME) from the Cook County Medical Office, which determined she was capable of returning to work. No one noticed the report until June 2011, when Jason Henschel, a claims adjuster for the risk management department, saw the report in Williams's workers' compensation file. Henschel informed Golden about the IME, and Golden sent Williams a letter asking her to return to work on August 2. It also directed her to obtain a return to work certification from the Medical Office and a release to return to work from her personal physician. The letter warned that if Williams failed to return to work, the Department would consider it an implied resignation, which was grounds for termination.

Williams went to the Medical Office for an evaluation on August 1. The county doctor approved Williams to return to work, but the form releasing her to return to work also noted that her personal physician provided a note stating that she was not able to return to work.

Meanwhile, Williams's attorney, Jason Marzal, was negotiating her TTD benefits with Andrew Schwartz, an attorney for the risk management office. Based on the IME, Schwartz informed Marzal that the County would only pay benefits through August 2. Marzal responded with a letter from Williams's personal physician stating she was unable to work until August 10. On August 16, Marzal sent Schwartz a new note from Williams's physician, stating she would be allowed to return to work on September 3. On approximately August 22, the attorneys discussed the case at the Illinois Workers' Compensation Commission, and Marzal testified that the two orally agreed that Williams would return to work on September 6. Schwartz denies reaching this agreement, and says the conversation was only about settling the benefits dispute. A couple of days later, Marzal sent Schwartz a fax informing him that Williams would return to work on September 6 and demanding reinstatement of her benefits.

During these negotiations, Williams did not inform Golden of her new return to work date. Golden testified that she did not know the negotiations were taking place at all. After consulting with Rohan, Golden sent Williams a termination letter on August 30, stating that based on Williams's failure to communicate any intent to return to work, and the apparent expiration of her workers' compensation benefits, OCJ was terminating her for implied resignation.

On September 6, Williams went to Golden and told her she did not think she was supposed to return to work until that day. Surprised, Golden called Schwartz to ask if he had authorized a September 6 return to work date, and he denied doing so. Golden reaffirmed the termination decision. On September 22, Marzal and Schwartz finalized a settlement agreement which provided Williams a lump-sum award and 6 weeks of TTD benefits for her workers' compensation claim. That agreement listed Williams's return to work date as September 6.

D. Proceedings Below

Williams brought this suit alleging that OCJ and Rohan terminated her for a variety of unlawful reasons. She sued under the Illinois Workers' Compensation Act, the Illinois Whistleblower Act, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981

and 1983. She also brought breach of contract and promissory estoppel claims. At the close of discovery, she moved for summary judgment on her workers' compensation claim, and the defendants moved for summary judgment on all of her claims. The district court granted the defendants summary judgment on all of her claims, and she appeals.


On appeal, Williams argues that the district court erred in granting summary judgment to the defendants on each of her claims, and by denying her summary judgment on her workers' compensation claim. We review a district court's grant of summary judgment de novo, and construe all facts and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party. Ellis v. DHL Express, Inc., 633 F.3d 522, 525 (7th Cir. 2011)


A. Williams Failed to Meet Causation Requirement of Workers' Compensation Retaliation Claim

The Illinois Supreme Court has recognized a common-law cause of action for retaliatory discharge when an employee is terminated because of his actual or anticipated exercise of workers' compensation rights. Kelsay v. Motorola, Inc. , 74 Ill.2d 172, 23 Ill.Dec. 559, 384 N.E.2d 353, 357 (1978)

. That cause of action is codified under the Illinois Workers' Compensation Act, 820 ILL. COMP. STAT. 305/4(h). In order to prevail on a retaliatory discharge claim, an employee must show (1) that he was an employee before the workplace injury, (2) that he exercised a right granted by the Act, and (3) that he was discharged for a reason that was causally related to his filing a claim under the Act. Clemons v. Mech. Devices Co., 184 Ill.2d 328, 235 Ill.Dec. 54, 704 N.E.2d 403, 406 (1998)

. For example, a discharge based on a dispute about the extent or duration of a compensable injury can be retaliation under the Act. Id ;see also

Hollowell v. Wilder Corp. of Del. , 318 Ill.App.3d 984, 252 Ill.Dec. 839, 743 N.E.2d 707, 712 (2001) (holding employer may not discharge an employee by unilaterally relying on independent physician's favorable diagnosis while at the same time dismissing employee's unfavorable diagnosis by his own physician). Even when an employee's filing of a claim only proximately causes the discharge, the employee can sustain a retaliatory discharge claim. Clark v. Owens–Brockway Glass Container , Inc., 297 Ill.App.3d 694, 232 Ill.Dec. 1, 697 N.E.2d 743, 746 (1998). But that does not mean an employer can never discharge an employee who has filed a claim. So long as the reason for a discharge is wholly unrelated to an employee's claim for benefits, the employer is not liable for retaliatory discharge. See id. ; see also

Horton v. Miller Chem. Co., Inc., 776 F.2d 1351, 1359 (7th Cir. 1985) (termination based on employer's incorrect assumption that employee could never perform job duties again not retaliatory); Thomas v. Zamberletti , 134 Ill.App.3d 387, 89 Ill.Dec. 387, 480 N.E.2d 869, 871 (1985) (no retaliatory discharge when plaintiff...

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