Moses et al v. Sloan Valve Company et al
MEMORANDUM Opinion and Order written by the Honorable Gary Feinerman on 9/1/2017.Mailed notice.(jlj, )
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ILLINOIS
DERRICK MOSES and DODD DAVIS,
SLOAN VALVE COMPANY,
16 C 9972
Judge Gary Feinerman
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
In this suit against their former employer, Sloan Valve Company, Derrick Moses and
Dodd Davis allege disparate treatment and a hostile work environment in violation of Title VII
of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., and Moses alleges breach of contract.
Doc. 13. Sloan moves under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) to dismiss the hostile
work environment and contract claims. Doc. 19. The motion is denied as to the hostile work
environment claim and granted as to the contract claim.
On a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the court must accept the operative complaint’s well-pleaded
factual allegations, with all reasonable inferences drawn in Plaintiffs’ favor, but not its legal
conclusions. See Smoke Shop, LLC v. United States, 761 F.3d 779, 785 (7th Cir. 2014). The
court must also consider “documents attached to the complaint, documents that are critical to the
complaint and referred to in it, and information that is subject to proper judicial notice,” along
with additional facts set forth in Plaintiffs’ brief opposing dismissal, so long as those additional
facts “are consistent with the pleadings.” Phillips v. Prudential Ins. Co. of Am., 714 F.3d 1017,
1020 (7th Cir. 2013) (internal quotation marks omitted). The facts are set forth as favorably to
Plaintiffs as those materials permit. See Meade v. Moraine Valley Cmty. Coll., 770 F.3d 680,
682 (7th Cir. 2014). In setting forth those facts at the pleading stage, the court does not vouch
for their accuracy. See Jay E. Hayden Found. v. First Neighbor Bank, N.A., 610 F.3d 382, 384
(7th Cir. 2010).
Moses and Davis joined Sloan in the late 1980s. Doc. 13 at ¶¶ 10, 12. Both men are
African-American and at all relevant times were members in good standing of Local 7999 of the
United Steel, Paper & Forestry, Rubber, Manufacturing, Energy Allied Industrial & Service
Workers International Union, AFL-CIO. Id. at ¶¶ 1, 11, 13.
On or about February 24, 2012, a Sloan manager found an anonymous note suggesting
that he review “receiving cameras on feb. 09 around 11 a” because they showed three AfricanAmerican employees, including Moses, “stealing drums of rod ends.” Id. at ¶ 14; Doc. 13-1 at 5.
Rod ends, the remnants of brass rods used by Sloan to manufacture many of its products, are
typically stored in large barrels, called “drums,” before they are recycled or sold to a scrap metal
dealer. Doc. 13 at ¶ 9; Doc. 13-1 at 4. On or about March 1, 2012, after conducting an
investigation, Sloan fired Moses and the two other African-American employees named in the
note, and asked Franklin Park police to arrest them. Doc. 13 at ¶ 16. Moses ultimately was
acquitted of all charges. Id. at ¶ 17.
The Union grieved Moses’s termination. In September 2013, an arbitrator ruled that
Sloan had failed to “demonstrate by a clear and convincing preponderance of the evidence that
Moses stole anything from his employer,” and ordered that Moses be reinstated “to his previous
position.” Doc. 13-1 at 29-30. The Union filed suit to enforce the arbitration award; the suit was
resolved by a “Settlement Agreement and Release,” and Moses resumed his position at Sloan in
May 2014. Doc. 13 at ¶¶ 23-25. The agreement provided, in relevant part, that the parties “fully
release[d] and discharge[d] each other … from any and all claims and liabilities, whether known
or unknown at this time, arising out of the arbitration award, occurrences and transactions that
were the subject of the Lawsuit in this case.” Doc. 13-2 at 3.
In July 2016, the manager who received the anonymous note back in February 2012
resumed his investigation into the thefts. During an interview with a Sloan employee, the
manager “stat[ed] that he had questioned 40 other people [regarding the thefts] and demanded to
know what Moses had told [the employee] about the alleged thefts.” Doc. 13 at ¶ 28.
On or about August 8, 2016, the manager, accompanied by a Sloan lawyer and an
“unknown investigator,” met with Davis. Id. at ¶ 29. The manager told Davis that he “had been
told by unknown parties that [Davis] was ‘the lookout guy’” and advised Davis that it would be
“in his ‘best interests’ to cooperate” and explain “how the thefts were perpetrated.” Id. at ¶¶ 2930. The manager, lawyer, and investigator repeatedly called Davis “a fucking liar” during the
meeting and, at its conclusion, the manager told Davis that he was suspended. Id. at ¶¶ 30-31.
The following day, the manager, a Sloan lawyer, and an “unknown law enforcement
representative” asked Moses if he “had ever stolen anything from the Company.” Id. at ¶ 32.
When Moses refused to respond, the manager told him that he was fired because he had “‘new
evidence’ regarding the 2012 thefts, in the form of affidavits and statements.” Id. at ¶¶ 34-35.
After Moses reminded the manager of the arbitration award that had resulted in his
reinstatement, the manager told Moses that he was suspended. Id. at ¶ 36. Sloan did not provide
Moses or Davis with any of this “new evidence” and, on October 20, 2016, it notified them both
that they were terminated. Id. at ¶¶ 38-39.
Plaintiffs’ Title VII Hostile Work Environment Claim
Plaintiffs allege that they were subjected to a hostile work environment. Doc. 13 at
¶¶ 57-68. Sloan seeks dismissal on the ground that the complaint fails to allege facts sufficient
to state such a claim. Doc. 21 at 5-8. (Sloan initially sought dismissal on exhaustion grounds as
well, id. at 4-5, but it withdrew that argument in open court, Doc. 38, in light of Plaintiffs’
supplemental filing, Doc. 30.)
Title VII prohibits discrimination “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). “This prohibition
encompasses the creation of a hostile work environment that is severe or pervasive enough to
affect the terms and conditions of employment.” Lord v. High Voltage Software, Inc., 839 F.3d
556, 561 (7th Cir. 2016) (internal quotation marks omitted). For Plaintiffs’ hostile work
environment claim to survive dismissal, they must allege: “(i) that [their] work environment was
objectively and subjectively offensive; (ii) that the harassment was based on [their] race; (iii) that
the harassment was pervasive or severe; and (iv) that a legal basis exists for holding [Sloan]
liable.” Cable v. FCA US LLC, 679 F. App’x 473, 476 (7th Cir. 2017); see also Cole v. Bd. of
Trs. of N. Ill. Univ., 838 F.3d 888, 895-96 & n.6 (7th Cir. 2016) (same).
Sloan focuses on the third element, that the harassment be pervasive or severe. Doc. 21
at 5-8; Doc. 24 at 4-8. That element “is in the disjunctive—the conduct must be either severe or
pervasive.” Vance v. Ball State Univ., 646 F.3d 461, 469 (7th Cir. 2011), aff’d, 133 S. Ct. 2434
(2013). This means that “one extremely serious act of harassment could rise to an actionable
level[,] as could a series of less severe acts.” Haugerud v. Amery Sch. Dist., 259 F.3d 678, 693
(7th Cir. 2001); see Hall v. City of Chicago, 713 F.3d 325, 330 (7th Cir. 2013). A court
addressing whether a work environment is hostile must consider “factors like the frequency of
improper conduct, its severity, whether it is physically threatening or humiliating (as opposed to
a mere offensive utterance), and whether it unreasonably interferes with the employee’s work
performance.” Boss v. Castro, 816 F.3d 910, 920 (7th Cir. 2016); see also Ellis v. CCA of Tenn.
LLC, 650 F.3d 640, 647 (7th Cir. 2011). In so doing, the court must bear in mind that Title VII
does not impose a “general civility code” in the workplace and that “simple teasing, offhand
comments, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not amount to discriminatory
changes in the terms and conditions of employment.” Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, 524 U.S.
775, 788 (1998) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted); see also McPherson v. City of
Waukegan, 379 F.3d 430, 438-39 (7th Cir. 2004).
The parties dispute whether allegations falling outside the 300-day window preceding
Plaintiffs’ EEOC charge can be considered in determining whether they have stated a viable
hostile work environment claim, but the dispute is immaterial because allegations falling within
that period—conduct occurring on or after November 5, 2015—suffice. Plaintiffs allege that
Moses was repeatedly referred to as a “thief” and that Davis was called a “fucking liar” by Sloan
employees. Doc. 13 at ¶¶ 30, 45. Plaintiffs further allege that when they were “accused of
stealing in August of 2016 … [they were] verbally threatened, verbally abused, and defamed,”
and that this harassment was based on their race “and/or improper stereotypes about their race.”
Id. at ¶¶ 60-61, 67. These instances of harassment, which (with reasonable inferences drawn in
Plaintiffs’ favor) had a racial angle, have the requisite severity and frequency to state a claim, at
least at the pleading stage. See Huri v. Office of the Chief Judge of the Circuit Ct. of Cook Cnty.,
804 F.3d 826, 834 (7th Cir. 2015) (noting that it was “premature at the pleadings stage to
conclude just how abusive [the plaintiff’s] work environment was”); Amand v. Cort Furniture
Rental Corp., 85 F.3d 1074, 1081-83 (3d Cir. 1996) (reversing a defense summary judgment
where the plaintiffs had shown that African-American employees were told not to “steal”; that a
manager, “after slamming his hand on [a plaintiff’s] desk, told her that he knew all about her and
two other employees,” whose only common characteristic was their race; and that the plaintiffs
were “subjected to apparently false accusations of favoritism [and] incompetence”); Frazier v.
Harris, 266 F. Supp. 2d 853, 862, 867-68 (C.D. Ill. 2003) (denying dismissal where a hostile
work environment plaintiff was “called ‘the poster child for the NAACP’” and was harassed via
Moses’s Breach of Contract Claim
Moses’s contract claim alleges that Sloan breached the Settlement Agreement and
Release’s release provision by firing him in 2016 because of his alleged involvement in the 2012
rod ends thefts. Doc. 13 at ¶¶ 69-81. The release provision states:
Release. Each party to this Agreement, on behalf of their agents,
representatives, attorneys and predecessors, successors and assigns of each of
them, fully release and discharge each other party, their affiliates, agents,
employees, representatives, officers, attorneys, successors and assigns, from
any and all claims and liabilities whether known or unknown at this time,
arising out of the arbitration award, occurrences and transactions that were the
subject of the Lawsuit in this case.
Doc. 13-2 at 2 (emphasis added).
Settlement agreements are contracts and are “interpreted according to the law of the
jurisdiction in which the contract was created”—here, Illinois. In re Motorola Secs. Litig., 644
F.3d 511, 517 (7th Cir. 2011); see also Newkirk v. Vill. of Steger, 536 F.3d 771, 774 (7th Cir.
2008). A court interpreting a contract looks first to its text and, “[i]f the language of the contract
is facially unambiguous, then the contract is interpreted by the trial court as a matter of law
without the use of parol evidence.” Air Safety, Inc. v. Teachers Realty Corp., 706 N.E.2d 882,
884 (Ill. 1999); see also Camico Mut. Ins. Co. v. Citizens Bank, 474 F.3d 989, 993 (7th Cir.
2007) (“If the language of the contract is clear and unambiguous, we interpret the contract
without the use of parol evidence … and contract terms are interpreted according to their plain
meaning unless otherwise defined.”); Gallagher v. Lenart, 874 N.E.2d 43, 58 (Ill. 2007) (“A
court must initially look to the language of a contract alone, as the language, given its plain and
ordinary meaning, is the best indication of the parties’ intent.”). “If, however, the trial court
finds that the language of the contract is susceptible to more than one meaning, then an
ambiguity is present” and the court may look to extrinsic evidence. Air Safety, 706 N.E.2d at
884; see also Brooklyn Bagel Boys, Inc. v. Earthgrains Refrigerated Dough Prods., Inc., 212
F.3d 373, 380 (7th Cir. 2000) (“Notwithstanding the parol evidence rule, extrinsic evidence can
be admitted to discover the parties’ genuine intent when a contract is ambiguous.”).
Sloan argues that the Agreement’s mutual “release” from “claims and liabilities …
arising out of … occurrences and transactions that were the subject of the Lawsuit in this case”
refers only to a “release of legal claims” arising out of the grievance arbitration award and the
lawsuit the Union brought to enforce it. Doc. 21 at 9-10. Moses, by contrast, asserts that the
release was “intended by both Moses and the union representatives who negotiated the contract
to prevent Sloan from returning to the 2012 theft allegations for any purpose.” Doc. 13 at ¶ 73.
He contends that the release is ambiguous because the parties dispute its scope. Doc. 22 at 6-7.
Sloan’s position prevails. Contrary to Moses’s submission, a “provision is not rendered
ambiguous simply because the parties do not agree on its meaning.” Johnstowne Ctr. P’ship v.
Chin, 458 N.E.2d 480, 481 (Ill. 1983); see also Emergency Med. Care, Inc. v. Marion Mem’l
Hosp., 94 F.3d 1059, 1061 (7th Cir. 1996) (“[T]he fact that the parties disagree over the precise
meaning of a contractual provision does not render the contract ambiguous.”). And the “claims
and liabilities” language in the release is unambiguous. As relevant here, a “claim” is “[t]he
assertion of an existing right; any right to payment or to an equitable remedy, even if contingent
or provisional,” “[a] demand for money, property, or a legal remedy to which one asserts a right;
esp., the part of a complaint in a civil action specifying what relief the plaintiff asks for,” or “[a]n
interest or remedy recognized at law; the means by which a person can obtain a privilege,
possession, or enjoyment of a right or thing,” such as, for example, a “claim against [an]
employer for wrongful termination.” Black’s Law Dictionary (10th ed. 2014); see Chapman v.
Engel, 865 N.E.2d 330, 333 (Ill. App. 2007) (referring to Black’s Law Dictionary to determine
the “plain, ordinary, and popular meaning of the word ‘default’” and “breach of contract” when
interpreting a contract); Hammel v. Ruby, 487 N.E.2d 409, 414 (Ill. App. 1985) (same for the
term “sale”). A “liability” is “[t]he quality, state, or condition of being legally obligated or
accountable; legal responsibility to another or to society, enforceable by civil remedy or criminal
punishment,” or “[a] financial or pecuniary obligation in a specified amount.” Black’s Law
Dictionary (10th ed. 2014). The unambiguous meaning of a release provision extending to “any
and all claims and liabilities,” therefore, is a release from any legal remedies or obligations that
one party might assert against the other in a contested proceeding.
Given this, the release simply barred Sloan and Moses from pursuing further legal action,
meaning litigation or arbitration, regarding the events surrounding the 2012 thefts and
subsequent arbitration and lawsuit. It did not prohibit Sloan from either investigating those
thefts further or terminating Moses if further investigation implicated him. It follows that the
release does not cover the actions Sloan took during and after its 2016 investigation into the
thefts, and therefore that Moses’s contract claim fails as a matter of law.
For the foregoing reasons, Sloan’s partial motion to dismiss is denied as to Plaintiffs’
hostile work environment claim and granted as to Moses’s contract claim. Because the contract
claim cannot be saved by repleading, it is dismissed with prejudice. Sloan shall answer the
surviving portions of the operative complaint in their entirety by September 19, 2017.
September 1, 2017
United States District Judge
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