Watkins v. Learn It Systems
MEMORANDUM Opinion and Order Signed by the Honorable John Z. Lee on 9/20/16. Mailed notice(ca, ).
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ILLINOIS
LEARN IT SYSTEMS,
Judge John Z. Lee
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Plaintiff Michael Watkins claims that his former employer, Defendant Learn
It Systems (“LIS”), terminated his employment because of his race in violation of
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. LIS has moved for summary judgment .
For the reasons given below, the Court grants the motion.
LIS is a company that provides educational services to low-income children
and children with special needs. See Def.’s SOF ¶ 1, ECF No. 33. During the 2012–
2013 school year, LIS contracted with schools in Illinois to provide Supplemental
Education Services, a tutoring program, to qualifying students. See id. ¶¶ 7–8. LIS
employed two Supplemental Education Services teams in Illinois. See id. ¶ 12. Each
team was led by an Area Manager and staffed by two Program Managers. See id.
Watkins, an African-American man, applied for a Program Manager position
with LIS in early August of 2012. See Am. Compl. ¶ 1; Def.’s SOF ¶ 4. Program
Managers’ responsibilities included delivering tablets and Wi-Fi cards to students,
monitoring each student’s progress, communicating with parents and students
about uncompleted lessons, retrieving tablets, and providing technical support. See
id. ¶¶ 25–28. Some of these obligations required visiting students’ homes. See id.
After Watkins applied, one of the two Illinois Area Managers, Trisha Irvin,
an African-American woman, interviewed him and emailed her supervisor in
Miami, Christian Ruiz, to express her strong approval of Watkins for the position.
See Def.’s SOF ¶¶ 4, 13, 18, 59. Irvin then hired Watkins for her team, and his
employment began August 28, 2012. See Def.’s SOF ¶¶ 4, 13. Irvin also hired
another African-American man, Kendall Berry, to fill the second Program Manager
position on her team. Id. ¶ 13.
The other Illinois team was led by Area Manager Marlon Orozco, a Hispanic
man. Id. ¶ 14. His two Program Managers were Ruby Magdaleno, a Hispanic
woman, and Aaron Jenkins, an African-American man. Id.
The two Area Managers, Irvin and Orozco, decided between them which
districts their teams would service. Id. ¶ 21. Irvin selected the City of East St. Louis
and some Southside schools in the Chicago Public Schools (“CPS”) system. See id.
¶¶ 9, 22–23. Orozco selected other Southside CPS schools as well as schools on the
Westside of Chicago and in the Chicago suburbs. Pl.’s Resp. Def.’s SOF ¶ 57.
LIS’s contracts with CPS and East St. Louis required services to be provided
to students outside of school hours. See Def.’s SOF ¶¶ 10–11. In his deposition for
this case, Watkins testified that working evening hours in the neighborhoods he
serviced was dangerous because of high rates of crime. See id. ¶ 33, 48, 56, 58–65.
He also testified that Orozco’s team did not have to work late hours in dangerous
areas like East St. Louis. See id. ¶¶ 6, 48, 57–58, 60–61; Pl.’s SOAF ¶¶ 26, 28–31.
He did not know what kind of hours Orozco’s team worked, but he believed that
none of the areas that team serviced were as crime-ridden as East St. Louis. See
Pl.’s Ex. 1, Watkins Dep. at 215–18. That said, Watkins has not identified any
objective evidence that the areas he serviced were more dangerous than the areas
Orozco’s team serviced, although he testified that he did report his safety fears to
Irvin. Pl.’s SOAF ¶ 27; Pl.’s Ex. 1, Watkins Dep. at 52, 209. In response, Irvin
relayed to him that her boss, Ruiz, had said, “Hey, I don’t care. Dangerous or not,
get it done. Do it.” Pl.’s Ex. 1, Watkins Dep. at 210; see also Def.’s SOF ¶¶ 59–60.
During the first two months of Watkins’s employment with LIS, Irvin twice
thanked him via email for his contributions to the team. See Pl.’s SOAF ¶ 22; Pl.’s
Ex. 6, 10/26/12 Email of Irvin to Watkins; Pl.’s Ex. 7, 9/29/12 Email of Irvin to
Watkins. By November, however, Irvin had begun sending emails to Watkins
describing problems with his performance and asking him to make improvements. 1
See Def.’s SOF ¶¶ 36–39; Def.’s Ex. 11, 11/3/12 Email of Irvin to Watkins; Def.’s
Ex. 12, 1/22/13 Email of Irvin to Watkins; Def.’s Ex. 13, 2/13/13 Email of Irvin to
Watkins; Def.’s Ex. 14, 2/13/13 Email of Irvin to Watkins.
In late February 2013, about six months after Watkins was hired, Irvin
presented him with a Corrective Action Plan. See Def.’s SOF ¶ 16; Def.’s Ex. 15,
Corrective Action Plan. Chequita Whitaker, the Operations Manager for LIS’s
Watkins challenges the unfavorable emails as hearsay. Pl.’s SOAF ¶ 36. His
argument is addressed in the analysis below.
Illinois office, attended the meeting during which the plan was presented to
Watkins. See Def.’s SOF ¶ 16; Def.’s Ex. 15, Corrective Action Plan.
Irvin asked Watkins to sign the plan, but he refused. See Def.’s SOF ¶¶ 40–
41; Def.’s Ex. 15, Corrective Action Plan; Pl.’s SOAF ¶¶ 23–24. According to
Whitaker, Watkins also called the plan “bullshit” and crumpled it up. Def.’s Ex. 9,
Whitaker Dep. at 52. Watkins denies the profanity and the crumpling, but he
admits that he refused to sign. Pl.’s Resp. Def.’s SOF ¶¶ 42–43.
Following the meeting, Irvin sent an email to LIS’s Human Resources
Manager, Erica Rivas, informing her that Watkins had refused to sign the
Corrective Action Plan. Def.’s SOF ¶ 43; Def.’s Ex. 16, 2/25/13 Email of Irvin to
Rivas. In an affidavit, Rivas recounts that, “after Ms. Irvin reported that Mr.
Watkins had refused to sign his Corrective Action Plan,” Irvin “decided to terminate
him and recommended termination to me, as HR manager.” Def.’s Ex. 10, Rivas Aff.
¶¶ 2–3. Whitaker similarly attests that Irvin said she “wanted [Watkins] gone”
because “she just felt he wasn’t pulling his weight.” Def.’s Ex. 9, Whitaker Dep. at
A few days after Watkins’s refusal to sign the Corrective Action Plan, LIS
terminated his employment. See Def.’s SOF ¶¶ 35, 44. The termination took place
during a meeting attended by Irvin and Orozco, with Ruiz and Rivas participating
by phone. See Def.’s SOF ¶ 44; Pl.’s Ex. 1, Watkins Dep. at 206. Watkins testified
that Irvin and Rivas were the ones who “did the talking,” explaining to him simply,
“‘We feel that we’re not gonna need your services any longer.’” Pl.’s Ex. 1, Watkins
Dep. at 206.
Sometime after Watkins was fired, both Irvin and Ruiz were fired as well.
Def.’s SOAF ¶¶ 2–3. Neither of them was deposed for this case.
“The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is
no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment
as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The Court gives “the non-moving party the
benefit of conflicts in the evidence and reasonable inferences that could be drawn
from it.” Grochocinski v. Mayer Brown Rowe & Maw, LLP, 719 F.3d 785, 794 (7th
To defeat a motion for summary judgment, the nonmoving party must “do
more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material
facts.” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986).
The nonmoving party “must establish some genuine issue for trial such that a
reasonable jury could return a verdict in her favor.” Gordon v. FedEx Freight, Inc.,
674 F.3d 769, 772–73 (7th Cir. 2012).
Watkins claims that LIS discharged him because of his race in violation of
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 7–8. Title VII 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. § 2000e-2(a)(1). Although Watkins
hints at a retaliation claim in some of his filings, see, e.g., Pl.’s SOAF ¶ 32, 2 his
amended complaint unambiguously includes only a wrongful-termination claim, see
generally Am. Compl, ECF No. 2. Because a plaintiff’s response to a motion for
summary judgment cannot add claims to his complaint, Shanahan v. City of Chi.,
82 F.3d 776, 781 (7th Cir. 1996), the Court will consider only Watkins’s wrongfultermination claim.
LIS has moved for summary judgment on Watkins’s claim, contending that
he has not presented evidence from which a reasonable jury could find for him.
Watkins responds to LIS’s motion by arguing that he has satisfied the burdenshifting method for defeating a motion for summary judgment that was first
articulated in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973). He also
argues that LIS’s motion for summary judgment should be denied because, in his
view, he has presented direct and circumstantial evidence from which a reasonable
jury could conclude that LIS fired him because of his race. This latter method is the
standard way to defeat a motion for summary judgment, as was recently reiterated
by the Seventh Circuit in Ortiz v. Werner Enterprises, Inc., No. 15-2574, 2016 WL
4411434, at *5 (7th Cir. Aug. 19, 2016). As explained below, the Court concludes
that neither of Watkins’s arguments has merit.
In his statement of additional facts, Watkins asserts that he was terminated “because
he complained to Trisha Irvin that he was being treated differently than similarly situated
non-African-American employees.” Pl.’s SOAF ¶ 32.
A. McDonnell Douglas Method
In McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, the Supreme Court laid out one
method by which a plaintiff in an employment-discrimination case can defeat a
defendant’s motion for summary judgment. The plaintiff must first present evidence
satisfying the elements of a prima facie case, which are that (1) he is a member of a
protected class; (2) he was satisfying his employer’s legitimate expectations; (3) he
suffered an adverse employment action; and (4) similarly situated employees
outside his protected class were treated more favorably. McGowan v. Deere & Co.,
581 F.3d 575, 579 (7th Cir. 2009). Under certain circumstances, the “legitimate
expectations” and “similarly situated” inquiries will collapse into one another. See
Orton-Bell v. Ind., 759 F.3d 768, 777 (7th Cir. 2014) (“Where an employee who
failed to meet expectations claims that she has been treated differently from a male
employee who similarly failed to meet expectations, the second element merges into
If the plaintiff makes this prima facie showing, the burden shifts to the
defendant to articulate a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the adverse
employment action. Mills v. Health Care Serv. Corp., 171 F.3d 450, 454 (7th Cir.
1999). If the defendant articulates such a reason, the burden then shifts back to the
plaintiff to show that the stated reason is a pretext. See id. A pretext is defined as
“a lie, specifically a phony reason for some action.” Jackson v. E.J. Brach Corp., 176
F.3d 971, 983 (7th Cir. 1999).
Watkins contends that he has made out a prima facie case under McDonnell
Douglas. Resp. Br. at 6–13. As to the first and third requirements, Watkins is
indisputably a member of a protected class, and he suffered a classic adverse
employment action when he was fired. A thornier question is whether he met his
employer’s legitimate expectations, the second requirement under McDonnell
Douglas. Watkins contends that he did, see Def.’s SOAF ¶¶ 12–18, and although
there is substantial evidence that Irvin disagreed, no one was deposed for this case
who could speak directly to Watkins’s actual performance. This question, however,
need not be resolved because, as explained below, Watkins has failed to identify a
similarly situated comparator to satisfy the fourth element of a prima facie case.
Factors courts consider to determine whether employees are similarly
situated include whether they “(i) held the same job description, (ii) were subject to
the same standards, (iii) were subordinate to the same supervisor, and (iv) had
comparable experience, education, and other qualifications.” Bio v. Fed. Express
Corp., 424 F.3d 593, 597 (7th Cir. 2005). To serve as a comparator, a similarly
situated employee must be someone from outside the plaintiff’s protected class who
was treated more favorably than the plaintiff in that the employee did not suffer the
adverse action forming the basis for the plaintiff’s claim. See Good v. Univ. of Chi.
Med. Ctr., 673 F.3d 670, 675 (7th Cir. 2012) (explaining that a comparator helps
isolate discriminatory animus behind an adverse action because, “if an employer
takes an [adverse] action against one employee in a protected class but not another
outside that class, one can infer discrimination”), overruled on other grounds by
Ortiz v. Werner Enterprises, Inc., No. 15-2574, 2016 WL 4411434 (7th Cir. Aug. 19,
The only potential comparators Watkins identifies are the Program
Managers on Orozco’s team. One of those Program Managers, Aaron Jenkins, was
African-American, meaning that he was within Watkins’ protected class, and so
cannot serve as a comparator. That leaves Ruby Magdaleno, who was Hispanic. But
Watkins has presented no evidence that Magdaleno was treated more favorably
than he was. Watkins does point out that he was sent to East St. Louis, while
Orozco’s team was not. But, even if Watkins could point to facts demonstrating that
being assigned to East St. Louis constituted an adverse employment action (which
he does not do), it is Watkins’ discharge, not his area assignment, that forms the
basis of his Title VII claim. See Amended Compl. ¶ 7-10 (alleging that Watkins was
discharged in violation of Title VII). As such, the question relevant under
McDonnell Douglas is whether Magdaleno was retained, rather than fired, even
though she performed similarly to Watkins. Watkins, however, does not explain
whether Magdaleno was discharged or whether she performed similarly to him.
Magdeleno thus cannot serve as a similarly situated comparator, and without a
comparator, Watkins cannot proceed under McDonnell Douglas.
A plaintiff who cannot meet the requirements of McDonnell Douglas may
nevertheless defeat a motion for summary judgment. See Ortiz, 2016 WL 4411434,
at *3. The plaintiff need only show that a reasonable jury could find from admissible
evidence that his employer would not have taken the adverse employment action
but for the plaintiff’s membership in a protected class. Id.
Watkins argues that he has presented direct and circumstantial evidence
from which a reasonable jury could conclude that he was fired because of his race.
See Resp. Br. at 5. Such evidence “must relate to the motivation of the
decisionmaker responsible for the contested decision.” Cheek v. Peabody Coal Co., 97
F.3d 200, 203 (7th Cir. 1996); see also Schandelmeier-Bartels v. Chi. Park Dist., 634
F.3d 372, 379 (7th Cir. 2011) (Title VII plaintiffs must present evidence “that the
decisionmaker has acted for the prohibited reason”).
The evidence that Watkins primarily relies upon is, once again, his testimony
that Irvin’s team, which was made up exclusively of African Americans, was
pressured by Ruiz to work late hours in East St. Louis and other “dangerous areas.”
Resp. Br. at 5. Watkins also contends that Ruiz played some role in his firing,
pointing to the Corrective Action Plan, which came from Irvin and Ruiz jointly. See
Def.’s Ex. 15, Corrective Action Plan. In addition, Watkins points to an email
written by Rivas, the Human Resources Manager, in which she says she is “onboard
with letting Michael [Watkins] go today” after speaking with Ruiz about Watkins’s
failure to meet certain goals. See Pl.’s Ex. 3, 2/26/13 Email from Rivas to Whiting &
Hannan. Watkins’s argument, though he does not clearly spell it out, seems to be
that Ruiz’s insistence that Irvin’s team work in dangerous areas establishes that
Ruiz harbored racists beliefs against African Americans, which might permit an
inference that Ruiz caused Watkins to be fired because he too was African
The Court concludes, however, that a reasonable jury could not find from the
evidence in the record that Watkins was fired because of his race. First, Watkins
himself testified in his deposition that, in his view, his firing was not racially
motivated. He was asked directly, “Do you contend that the actual termination of
your employment, the February 26th termination, that that was the product of
racism as well?” He answered, “To me, that has nothing to do with East St. Louis,
and putting me—my life in danger.” Pl.’s Ex. 1, Watkins Dep. at 229. Asked to
confirm that his answer was “no,” he agreed. Id. Similarly, Watkins testified at
another point in his deposition that the only race discrimination he suffered was
being sent to work in dangerous areas:
[O]ther than the testimony you’ve already given
about East St. Louis and making deliveries also in
Chicago, there’s no other act of discrimination
that’s the basis for your complaint?
Correct. That’s good enough.
Id. at 63. Yet Watkins’s amended complaint unambiguously includes only a
single claim that he was fired because of his race. See generally Am. Compl.
Second, the admissible evidence in the record establishes that Irvin
was the person who pushed for Watkins to be fired and that she did so
because of her perception that he was performing poorly. Watkins’s own
statement of facts calls Irvin the “person who was the ultimate decision
maker who fired Michael Watkins.” Pl.’s SOAF ¶ 1. And Irvin’s belief that
Watkins was performing his job poorly is well documented. She repeatedly
criticized his work performance in emails to him and, according to Whitaker,
in conversation with her. See Def.’s SOF ¶¶ 36–38; Def.’s Ex. 11, 11/3/12
Email of Irvin to Watkins; Def.’s Ex. 12, 1/22/13 Email of Irvin to Watkins;
Def.’s Ex. 13, 2/13/13 Email of Irvin to Watkins; Def.’s Ex. 14, 2/13/13 Email
of Irvin to Watkins; Def.’s Ex. 9, Whitaker Dep. at 34–35. Irvin also emailed
Rivas to complain about Watkins’s negative reaction to the Corrective Action
Plan. Def.’s SOF ¶ 43; Def.’s Ex. 16, 2/25/13 Email of Irvin to Rivas.
Watkins concedes that the emails in the record were sent by Irvin, but
he seeks to exclude them as hearsay. Def.’s Resp. Pl.’s SOF ¶¶ 36–38; Resp.
Br. at 4–5. Presumably he would have the same objection to Rivas and
Whitaker’s testimony about what Irvin said to them about him.
Hearsay statements cannot be used to support a motion for summary
judgment any more than they can be used at trial. Eisenstadt v. Centel Corp.,
113 F.3d 738, 742 (7th Cir. 1997). To constitute hearsay, however, statements
must be offered for the truth of the matter asserted. Fed. R. Evid. 801(c)(2).
In this case, that means Irvin’s statements are hearsay only if they are
offered as evidence that Watkins actually performed his job poorly. But they
are not; they are offered as evidence of Irvin’s view of Watkins’s job
performance. Irvin’s statements thus are not hearsay. See E.E.O.C. v. Univ.
of Chicago Hosps., 276 F.3d 326, 333 (7th Cir. 2002) (employee’s statement
that “it looked like she was going to get fired” not hearsay because offered to
show her state of mind rather than for statement’s truth); Komal v. Arthur J.
Gallagher & Co., 833 F. Supp. 2d 855, 860 (N.D. Ill. 2011) (documents
referring to plaintiff’s “inadequate job performance” were admissible to show
that supervisors claimed the performance was inadequate rather than to
show that plaintiff “actually was performing inadequately.”).
It is possible, of course, that Irvin did not truly believe that Watkins
was performing poorly but said so to hide her racist beliefs or those of Ruiz.
To support such a proposition, Watkins stresses that Irvin had also praised
him during his time at LIS. See Resp. Br. at 10. He believes that she only
sent the critical emails “to cover herself,” and “in case she ever received
pressure from upper management,” meaning Ruiz. Pl.’s Ex. 1, Watkins Dep.
at 174, 236–37. He does not offer an explanation for the Corrective Action
The problem with Watkins’s reliance on Irvin’s positive comments to
call into question the sincerity of her criticisms is that the praise came in
September and October of 2012, while the pertinent question in a Title VII
case is the employer’s assessment of the employee’s performance at the time
of discharge, here February 2013. See Grayson v. O'Neill, 308 F.3d 808, 818
(7th Cir. 2002). In fact, Irvin began criticizing Watkins as early as November
2012, when she first emailed him with concerns about his job performance,
and the criticism continued through the time of his termination.
Watkins’s argument that Irvin’s criticisms were only a cover up for
racially biased intentions fairs no better. His description of Irvin’s supposed
true motive, aside from being vague, is entirely speculative, and, without
more, a plaintiff cannot defeat a motion for summary judgment in a Title VII
case by “speculating as to an employer’s state of mind.” Widmar v. Sun Chem.
Corp., 772 F.3d 457, 460 (7th Cir. 2014).
In short, Watkins has not presented evidence from which a reasonable
jury could conclude that Irvin chose to terminate his employment because of
his race. She attributed her decision to Watkins’s job performance, and even
assuming that her assessment of his performance was unfair, Watkins
himself testified that he did not believe racism motivated Irvin to send him
the critical emails that preceded his termination. Pl.’s Resp. Def.’s SOF ¶ 53;
Pl.’s Ex. 1, Watkins Dep. at 192. 3 And, even if Irvin’s statements about
Watkins’s job performance were inadmissible, the fact would remain that the
record is devoid of evidence from which a reasonable jury could infer that
Irvin fired Watkins because of his race.
Nor could a reasonable jury find that Ruiz caused Watkins to be fired
and that he did so because of Watkins’s race. The chain of inferences required
The following exchange took place during Watkins’s deposition:
The e-mails we’ve discussed so far where Ms. Irvin in
November of 2012 and then in February, for example, of
2013, et cetera, in sending these e-mails that she had
some sort of racist intent? Ms. Irvin? Or that she was a
racist in any way?
I could not, would not say that, no.· That wouldn't be –
Pl.’s Ex. 1, Watkins Dep. at 192.
to reach that conclusion fails at each step. Watkins’s evidence that Ruiz was
racist against African Americans is confined to Ruiz’s purported lack of
concern for the safety of Irvin’s team. But there is no evidence that Ruiz had
any greater concern for Orozco’s team, and the fact that Irvin’s team worked
in the particular areas in which it worked is undisputedly the result of Irvin’s
decision to serve those particular areas. Def.’s SOF ¶¶ 21–22; Pl.’s Resp.
Def.’s SOF ¶¶ 21–22. And even if Ruiz did have less concern for the safety of
Irvin’s team, which was made up of two African-American Program
Managers, than he had for Orozco’s team, which was made up of one
Hispanic and one African-American Program Manager, it is not clear why
that would cause him to fire Watkins. Additionally, there is no evidence from
which a reasonable jury could infer that Ruiz, rather than Irvin, was the
driving force behind Watkins’s firing. It is small wonder then that Watkins
himself testified in his deposition that he did not believe racism played any
role in his firing. See Pl.’s Ex. 1, Watkins Dep. at 63, 229.
LIS may well have failed to show proper concern for the safety of its
employees, but Title VII was not designed to remedy unsafe working
conditions. Without direct or circumstantial evidence that Irvin, Ruiz, or
anyone else at LIS caused Watkins’s to be fired because of his race, no
reasonable jury could find in Watkins’s favor on his claim. As a result, LIS’s
motion for summary judgment must be granted.
For the reasons stated herein, LIS’s motion for summary judgment  is
IT IS SO ORDERED.
John Z. Lee
United States District Judge
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