Heags v. Department of Veterans Affairs
MEMORANDUM Opinion and Order. Signed by the Honorable Manish S. Shah on 11/13/2023: Defendant's motion for summary judgment, 31 , is granted. Enter judgment in favor of defendant and terminate civil case. [For further detail see attached order.] Notices mailed. (psm, )
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ILLINOIS
No. 21 CV 6212
DENIS R. MCDONOUGH, Secretary of
the U.S. Department of Veterans
Judge Manish S. Shah
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Malcolm Heags served as the Chief of Environmental Management Services at
the Hines Veterans Affairs Hospital; he was responsible for the cleaning and
maintenance of the entire Hines campus. When it was discovered that a company
owned by a sex offender had been hired to do emergency COVID-19 cleaning services,
the VA opened an investigation. The investigation concluded that Heags had failed
to appropriately supervise his staff, including in the oversight and administration of
contracts with outside companies. The Hines VA director gave Heags notice that he
would be fired for failure to effectively perform his supervisory duties, conflict of
interest, and lack of candor. Heags retired before he was formally fired. He now brings
this suit alleging that the termination of his employment is the result of race and age
discrimination. Because Heags cannot show that the reasons given for his
termination were not his employer’s legitimate, non-discriminatory beliefs, judgment
is entered for the VA.
A motion for summary judgment must be granted when “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). “‘Material’ facts are facts that
‘might affect the outcome of the suit,’ and a dispute as to those facts is ‘genuine’ if ‘the
evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving
party.’” Hunter v. Museke, 73 F.4th 561, 565 (7th Cir. 2023) (quoting Anderson v.
Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). Summary judgment is also appropriate
when “a party fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an
element essential to that party’s case, and on which that party will bear the burden
of proof at trial.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986).
“On summary judgment the inferences to be drawn from the underlying facts
… must be viewed in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion.”
Adickes v S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 158–59 (1970). The court does not, however,
make credibility determinations, weigh the evidence, or decide which inferences to
make from the facts; those are jury functions. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255.
Malcolm Heags, an African-American man, was employed by the Hines
Veterans Affairs Hospital in Chicago, Illinois for thirty-eight years.  ¶¶ 1–2. 1 At
Bracketed numbers refer to entries on the district court docket. The facts are largely taken
from the parties’ responses to Local Rule 56.1 statements of facts where both the asserted
the time his employment ended, Heags was the Chief of Environmental Management
Services, responsible for the cleaning and maintenance of the entire Hines VA
campus.  ¶¶ 2, 6. As the chief of EMS, Heags was responsible for the hiring and
firing of employees and external contractors; Heags supervised 252 employees. 
¶¶ 7–8, 28.
In 2019, Heags came to know a company called America’s Best at Work, and
the company’s owner, Ezekial Lopez.  ¶¶ 9–10. Heags recommended America’s
Best for COVID-19 emergency housekeeping services, and in April 2020, Lopez and
America’s Best at Work signed a contract to do emergency cleaning at the Hines VA.
 ¶¶ 15, 30. The VA point of contact for the America’s Best contract was Rommeal
Lear, who was Assistant Chief of EMS; he was assisted by Supervisory
Administrative Officer Frank Pease.  ¶¶ 13, 16. Heags was the direct supervisor
of Lear and Pease.  ¶ 16.
Contractors from America’s Best worked at the Hines VA from April 2020 to
approximately August 2020.  ¶ 17. In early July 2020, Heags, working with
fact and response are set forth in one document. , . Referenced page numbers are
taken from the CM/ECF header placed on the top of filings, except in the case of citations to
depositions, which use the deposition transcript’s original page number. Plaintiff attached
all of his exhibits as one file, [35-1], so I refer to both CM/ECF header and the page and line
number of a deposition transcript, for example: [35-1] at 7 (6:5–8). I disregard irrelevant and
redundant statements. See  ¶¶ 11, 19, 21, 40, 47–52, 56–66, 71 and  ¶¶ 15, 34–35. I
accept some of the statements with slight corrections. See  ¶¶ 15–18, 20, 23, 31, 32, 34,
36, 46 and  ¶¶ 3, 14, 26, 36. The following statements were not refuted by the party’s
response and are deemed admitted:  ¶¶ 12, 14, 25, 29, 30, 33, 35, 41, 42, 44, 68–70, 72
and  ¶¶ 1, 2, 5, 11, 13, 18, 24, 25, 27, 31–33, 39. Finally, N.D. Ill. L. R. 56.1(e)(2) prohibits
additional facts in a response to a statement of fact that are not fairly responsive to the
asserted fact, so I ignore additional facts. See  ¶¶ 19, 32, 44, 45, 69 and  ¶¶ 1, 8, 9, 13,
18–25, 32, 36, 37.
others, proposed to extend America’s Best’s contract through March 2021.  ¶ 18.
At some point in July 2020, news broke that Lopez was a convicted sex offender; Lopez
was removed from the Hines campus and the contract with America’s Best was
terminated.  ¶¶ 22–23. A VA official said, “There were probably 100 phone calls
that first few days when this stuff blew up. It was nuts. You had everybody from [the]
undersecretary down making phone calls and conference calls.”  ¶ 39.
The director of the Hines VA, James Doelling, convened an Administrative
Investigation Board to investigate several issues related to the America’s Best
contract.  ¶ 24. VA officials who did not work at the Hines campus comprised the
AIB.  ¶ 25. The Board was appointed to investigate “allegations of fraud, waste
and abuse related to inappropriate pre-existing relations with a vendor or receiving
any type of benefit related to award of a contract or aiding the vendor in
circumventing background check requirements; lack of oversight related to ensuring
background checks or pre-employment conditions were completed;” and how the
contract came to be awarded to a vendor who was a registered sex offender.  ¶ 24.
The AIB interviewed 19 VA employees under oath, including Heags, Lear,
Pease, and Heags’s wife.  ¶¶ 26–27. The AIB concluded its investigation in
October 2020 and issued a report with its findings.  ¶ 36; [33-4].
Contracting Officer’s Representative Certification
It was the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic when the VA entered into the
America’s Best contract, and the federal government had authorized “Emergencyrelated acquisition flexibilities” in the rules regarding government contracts.  ¶ 1.
Scott Ivy, the head of contracts at the regional acquisition center for the VA testified
to the AIB, “There’s really no template in the VA for something like this. Everybody
was kind of making it up as they went. This was probably one of the first contracts
that got awarded.” Id. He acknowledged, “we needed more teaching, I think, and some
training for this.”  ¶ 5.
Ivy testified to the AIB that under the emergency acquisition rules a
Contracting Officer’s Representative was not recommended or mandated for
contracts under $700,000.  ¶ 31. The America’s Best contract was initially
$71,500 and was increased to $352,800 in May 2020.  ¶ 33; [33-1] at 148. The AIB
found that Heags had failed to ensure that his employees had adequate contracting
credentials when assigning them as Contracting Officer’s Representatives,
specifically it found that Assistant EMS Chief Lear’s Contracting Officer’s
Representative certification had expired on July 3, 2018.  ¶ 41; [33-4] at 12–13.
Failure to do Background Check and Fingerprinting
All outside contractors had to be vetted and receive a Personal Identity
Verification badge to work on the Hines VA campus. See generally  ¶¶ 4–5, 20,
32–33;  ¶¶ 18, 20–22. In March 2020, Supervisory Administrative Officer Pease
emailed Jodi Yenerall, the head of HR, and cc’d Lear and Heags.  ¶ 24. 2 Pease’s
email informed Yenerall about the America’s Best contract and asked, “What will be
Defendant denies this assertion based on the fact that the quoted emails are on the page
following the cite, VA 5435 not VA 5436.  ¶ 24. The objection is overruled because
evidence on the very next page in the record supports the assertion; I ignore additional facts
in the response.
the protocol for [Personal Identity Verification] badging?” Id. Yenerall replied to all
and wrote, “They all need to be sponsored … We have to coordinate max 6 at a time
in PIV, please work directly with [the Personal Identity Verification officer] to
determine timeslots.” [35-1] at 232;  ¶ 22.
Yenerall testified to the AIB, “From there, [Pease] was supposed to get with
PIV staff and go ahead … I assumed it just happened, I don’t really micromanage PIV
staff.”  ¶ 23. Yenerall did not know that the America’s Best staff had not been
badged until July because she was “under the impression that it had already been
done.”  ¶ 23. 3
Lear, Pease, and Heags all testified to the AIB that the contracting officer at
the VA regional acquisition center had told them that background checks and
fingerprinting were not necessary for the America’s Best employees because it was a
temporary contract.  ¶ 25. The contracting officer testified to the AIB that he did
not tell Lear, Pease, or Heags that no background checks or fingerprinting were
needed for the America’s Best contract. See  ¶ 27; [35-1] at 179–80 (25:2–26:10).
But the contracting officer did tell the investigators that from the information he
received about the America’s Best contract, background checks were not required
because of “the time frame of it and what was required in the Statement of Work.”
[35-1] at 180 (26:11–17);  ¶ 27. The AIB investigators had some evidence that the
Defendant’s objection to paragraph 28 of Heags’s Local Rule 56.1 statement of facts is
sustained. See  ¶ 28. The cited portion of the record does not contain any discussion of
Pease sending ABAW employees to be fingerprinted. See [33-6] at 33:1–34:24.
background checks ordinarily conducted by the VA do not check for sex crimes. See
 ¶ 26; [35-1] at 35–36 (34:22–35:4).
The Personal Identity Verification officer in HR testified to the AIB that it was
his office’s responsibility to get contractors badged.  ¶ 18. 4 Yenerall testified to
the AIB that when a VA division hires an outside contract, “we just work closely with
the contracting rep. What they’ll do is email me and let me know there is a new
contract coming on campus … I’ll just defer that to my PIV office, and then they go
ahead and set that up with the point of contact and we get them fingerprinted
quickly.” [33-10] at 12:5–15;  ¶ 20. She also testified that the Contracting Officer’s
Representative would provide the list to the Personal Identity Verification office “and
work through myself, because they’re currently under me, to ensure we can get them
in timely, especially with COVID[.]”  ¶ 21.
Yenerall told the AIB that Heags, Lear, and Pease would have been aware that
America’s Best employees had to be fingerprinted and receive security clearances
before working at Hines.  ¶ 35. She testified that she became very concerned when
Heags told her that several America’s Best employees had trouble getting
fingerprinted in July 2020 because they had been working at Hines without being
fingerprinted or cleared. Id.
I disregard Heags’s conclusory allegation that the PIV officer and Yenerall were responsible
for the failure of America’s Best workers getting fingerprinted. See  ¶ 17. The material
cited to support the assertion is already discussed in  ¶ 18 or otherwise irrelevant to the
assertion. See [33-6] at 12 (11:14–24) (discussing purchase orders for contractors, not PIV
Heags testified to the AIB that he was unaware of the exact types of
background checks required for contractors, but he knew that a background check
needed to be done for a contractor to work at the VA.  ¶ 28. Heags received emails
in July 2020 from America’s Best employees stating that they had been turned away
when they went to get fingerprinted and submit their information for a background
check in April 2020. [35-1] at 121–24;  ¶ 29. 5
Assistant Chief Lear testified to the AIB that he never sent any contractors to
HR to be security screened, even before the emergency rules.  ¶ 19;  ¶ 32.
Pease, who was Heags’s assistant and worked on the America’s Best contract,
testified to the AIB that he was aware that all VA contractors had to be badged, he
was unaware of whether it had been done for the America’s Best contractors, and he
thought it was the Contracting Officer’s Representative’s responsibility to ensure the
contractors were cleared to work.  ¶ 33. To Pease’s understanding, Lear was the
Contracting Officer’s Representative for the America’s Best contract. Id.
The AIB concluded that America’s Best employees had been allowed to work
at Hines without the required fingerprinting and background checks, and that Heags
and his staff failed to conduct the appropriate oversight of the contract to ensure the
contractor complied with applicable VA regulations.  ¶¶ 37, 39; [33-4] at 10–11.6
Defendant’s objection to paragraph 29 of Heags’s Local Rule 56.1 statement of facts on the
basis of hearsay is sustained to the extent Heags seeks to use the emails as proof that the
America’s Best employees were actually turned away from the HR office. See  ¶ 29. The
emails and Heags’s testimony are competent evidence that Heags heard from the contractors
that they had been turned away from HR.
Plaintiff objects to ¶¶ 39–41 of defendant’s Local Rule 56.1 statement of facts, the AIB’s
conclusions, by disputing the facts underlying those conclusions. See  ¶¶ 39–41. The cited
materials support Plaintiff’s factual disagreements with the substance of the conclusions, but
The AIB found that this failure of oversight led to the omission of pertinent
information related to Lopez’s criminal history, which was relevant because Hines
had a childcare center on the campus.  ¶ 39; [33-4] at 11. The AIB also concluded
that Heags failed to adequately supervise his staff’s management of the America’s
Best contract because he never followed up with anyone after HR instructed him that
America’s Best contractors needed to complete the Personal Identity Verification
process.  ¶ 41; [33-4] at 13.
Family Working for America’s Best at Work
After America’s Best at Work got the contract to provide cleaning services at
Hines, Heags’s stepdaughter worked at America’s Best for about a week.  ¶ 31.
During the AIB investigation, Heags initially testified that none of his relatives
or anyone he knew personally worked at America’s Best.  ¶ 29. During a second
interview with the AIB, Heags testified, “I think I recall you might have asked did I
have anybody that was a relative that worked there prior to the contract being
awarded, which my answer would be no. But one of the things that I did, that I was
able to sit down and I was able to think about was my wife’s daughter did work there,
and she worked there for about a week and a half.” [33-6] at 6:15–22;  ¶ 13; 
Heags said during his second interview with the AIB that he did not think it
was a conflict of interest because he did not have a relationship with his wife’s adult
that does not controvert the fact that the AIB made the stated conclusions. Plaintiff’s
objections are overruled.
daughter and when he was informed about it, he asked his wife to relay to her
daughter that she should stop working at America’s Best.  ¶ 11. Heags’s wife
testified to the AIB that her daughter had worked for America’s Best after the
company was awarded the contract at Hines.  ¶ 34. Other Hines employees’
children and family members worked for America’s Best.  ¶ 34;  ¶ 8. 7
Ivy, the head of contracts at the regional acquisition center, testified to the AIB
that from his point of view, this “got blown out of proportion.”  ¶ 2. Ivy had been
told by Lopez that Heags’s stepdaughter never received a paycheck.  ¶ 12. 8
The AIB found that a number of Hines’s employees had children or family
members who worked for America’s Best and that Heags’s stepdaughter had started
working for America’s Best after the Hines contract was awarded.  ¶¶ 36, 38;  at 10.
AIB Recommendations and Termination Process
The AIB recommended increased training for EMS and HR staff and that
Heags develop a standard operating procedure for contracting with outside vendors.
Defendant’s objection to paragraph 10 of Heags’s Local Rule 56.1 statement of facts is
sustained because there is no competent evidence to support the assertion that a March 2020
OPM memo allowed the hiring of family members. See  ¶ 10. Heags’s letter in response
to the notice of removal is an unsworn and unverified statement and there is no copy of the
OPM memo attached. See [33-12] at 4. The other document cited appears to be an OPM memo
from March 2020, see [35-1] at 55–57, but it does not discuss hiring family members; it is
about fingerprinting requirements during the emergency period.
Defendant objects to the assertion that Lopez told Ivy that the stepdaughter had not
received a paycheck as hearsay.  ¶ 12. I do not consider the statement as proof that
Heags’s stepdaughter did not receive a paycheck; that would be hearsay. But the statement
is admissible evidence as context for why Ivy thought the conflict of interest issue was blown
out of proportion.
 ¶ 3; [33-4] at 13–14. The AIB did not recommend termination for anyone. 
¶ 3; [33-4] at 13–15.
In early January 2021, Heags’s boss, Jon Beidelscheis, proposed Heags’s
removal and listed three charges as the basis for termination: (A) failure to effectively
perform supervisory duties; (B) conflict of interest; and (C) lack of candor.  ¶ 42.
Beidelscheis recommended termination because of the seriousness of Heags’s
misconduct and the fact that he had similar incidents of supervisory misconduct. Id.
Beidelscheis testified that Yenerall drafted the notice of proposed removal after he
made the decision to recommend termination and that she had helped to gather
evidence, but he didn’t remember whether she had made a recommendation.  ¶ 6.
Yenerall said that she was not involved in recommending Heags be terminated and
she didn’t review a proposed removal; she did not remember who had been assigned
to handle the matter.  ¶ 7. Heags was given seven days to respond to the notice.
 ¶ 16. 9 Pease was also disciplined with a letter in his file; Lear retired in October
2020.  ¶ 36;  ¶ 32. 10
The VA objects to Heags’s assertion that he “was given a binder with over 3400 pages and
told he had seven days to rebut the recommendation of his removal” as unsupported by
competent evidence because it cites to Heags’s unsworn and non-verified written statement
submitted in response to the notice of removal.  ¶ 16. I agree, the letter (when offered by
Heags) is not competent evidence of the truth of what is asserted therein—that Heags was
given a binder with 3400 pages and seven days to respond. The other evidence cited to support
the assertion is the Notice of Removal itself and that indicates that Heags had seven business
days to respond, see [33-11] at 4 (¶ 3), but says nothing about the amount of evidence
enclosed. The VA’s objection is sustained in part and overruled in part.
The VA’s objection to ¶ 4 of Heags’s Local Rule 56.1 statement of facts is sustained because
the cited evidence does not support the assertion. See  ¶ 4. Beidelscheis’s deposition
testimony only supports the assertion that he did not know whether anyone other than Heags
or Pease was disciplined, not that no one else was disciplined. See [35-1] at 136–37 (36:20–
Heags submitted a written response to the notice and charges on January 13,
2021.  ¶ 42. A supervisory human resources specialist from a separate VA medical
center who had never worked with Heags reviewed the AIB file and consulted with
VA management and general counsel.  ¶¶ 53, 55. He assembled the evidence file,
prepared the proposed removal, reviewed Heags’s written response, and drafted
Doelling’s removal decision.  ¶ 55. Doelling, the director of the Hines VA medical
center, issued his decision on January 22, 2021, to uphold Heags’s proposed removal,
to be effective on January 30, 2021.  ¶ 43. Doelling’s decision was in writing and
he stated that he considered the seriousness of the offenses, Heags’s length of service,
and whether there were any mitigating or extenuating circumstances.  ¶ 44.
Doelling noted that because Heags was the chief of Environmental Management
Services, he was held to a higher standard of conduct. Id.
In his final decision, Doelling found that there was substantial evidence that
Heags did not provide sufficient oversight of his subordinates or the contracts he and
his staff were responsible for administering, which resulted in America’s Best
employees working at Hines for several months without obtaining Personal Identity
Verification badges.  ¶ 44. 11 Doelling found that Heags was an experienced
manager familiar with the requirement for background checks, and especially after
Yenerall sent an email stating that Personal Identity Verification badges were
Plaintiff objects to ¶¶ 44–45 of defendant’s Local Rule 56.1 statement of facts, Doelling’s
conclusions in the decision on removal.  ¶¶ 44–45. Plaintiff’s objections rely on disputes
of fact underlying the conclusions, for example who had ultimate responsibility to ensure
contractors were fingerprinted. See  ¶ 44. But none of the cited materials refute that
Doelling made those conclusions, so Plaintiff’s objections are overruled.
needed, Heags could not have reasonably continued to doubt that the America’s Best
employees needed to be badged. Id. Doelling stated that it was ultimately Heags’s
responsibility to ensure that the America’s Best employees were badged and that
even assuming America’s Best employees were turned away when they went to get
their Personal Identity Verification badges, Heags took no reasonable steps to
address the issue. Id. Doelling also found that Heags did not appropriately oversee
Lear because he allowed Lear to administer contracts after Lear’s Contracting
Officer’s Representative certification ended. Id.
Doelling concluded that Heags should have obtained ethics guidance before his
stepdaughter started working for America’s Best under its contract at Hines. 
¶ 45. Doelling found that Heags’s testimony before the AIB on August 17, 2020, that
he did not know anyone personally who worked at America’s Best, was not true. Id.
Doelling concluded by finding that the charges were supported by evidence, were
serious, and resulted in a loss of trust and confidence in Heags’s ability to perform
his duties. Id. He therefore found that removal was an appropriate discipline. Id.
Heags retired from the VA effective January 29, 2021.  ¶ 46. Heags had not
intended to retire from the VA until September 2025, when he would be 62.  ¶ 37.
The VA disputes this and asserts that Heags’s decision to retire was voluntary. See
 ¶¶ 2, 46, 54. Heags receives a pension from the VA.  ¶ 3.
Both parties offer evidence that was not presented to the AIB about the three
charges for which Heags was fired.
Contracting Officer’s Representative Certification
During 2019 and 2020, several Contracting Officer’s Representatives worked
in the EMS department.  ¶ 12. Being a Contracting Officer’s Representative or
Point of Contact was an ancillary task for EMS employees, so Heags recommended
Lear to be appointed to that position by the VA contracting office.  ¶ 14. The
parties dispute whether Lear was the Point of Contact or the Contracting Officer’s
Representative for the America’s Best contract, but he was the functional pointperson on the contract. See  ¶¶ 14, 21, 32 and  ¶¶ 31, 32, 38. 12
If a contract was for less than $300,000 and of a short duration, then the point
of contact for the contract did not need to be a Contracting Officer’s Representative
or take the associated training.  ¶ 32. At his deposition Heags testified that it was
not improper to assign Lear as the Contracting Officer’s Representative on the
America’s Best contract, even though his certification had lapsed, because the dollar
amount of the contract fell below $300,000.  ¶ 72. The parties dispute whether
Heags assigned Lear to a contract that required a Contracting Officer’s
Representative while Lear’s training was out of date,  ¶ 38, and who was
ultimately responsible for ensuring that a Contracting Officer’s Representative has
proper certification. See  ¶¶ 30, 40.
Plaintiff objects to ¶¶ 32, 44, 45, 68, 70 of the VA’s Local Rule 56.1 statement of facts
because the paragraphs contain multiple facts take up an entire page, in derogation of N.D.
Ill. L.R. 56.1(d)’s requirement of short and concise statements of facts. See  ¶¶ 32, 44, 45,
68, 70. I agree that the paragraphs are too long and contain too many facts, but I have
discretion whether to accept the statements despite the violation. In this case I do accept the
facts contained within the statements that are supported by competent evidence.
Badging for America’s Best Workers
Yenerall testified at her deposition that it was HR’s responsibility to ensure
the contracted employees were fingerprinted and had their background checked. 
Heags received an annual training on security from the VA, which included
reminders of the requirement that VA employees and contractors had to have a
security clearance to work at the Hines VA.  ¶¶ 4–5. The contract between
America’s Best and the VA stated, “All Contractor personnel requiring access to the
Clinic shall obtain employee identification badges and vehicle passes required by the
Government. Prior to the start of this contract, the Contractor shall submit to the
COR the names of all personnel employed in performing this contract and all
information required to prepare identification badges for all contractor personnel.”
[33-1] at 175;  ¶ 20. Heags did not know whether the names and necessary
information of the America’s Best employees had been submitted to Lear.  ¶ 20;
[33-1] at 63:7–25.
Heags testified that if Lear became aware of a security issue, he was supposed
to report it to Heags, as the chief of the service.  ¶ 65. Heags did not have firsthand
knowledge that the America’s Best workers were turned away from HR but was told
about it by Lopez and other America’s Best workers.  ¶¶ 68–70. Heags did not
follow up with either the Hines HR office, Lear, or Pease after he heard about the
America’s Best employees’ difficulties getting badged.  ¶ 68.
Stepdaughter Working for America’s Best
Heags found out that his stepdaughter was working at America’s Best when
his boss, Jon Beidelscheis, came to his office and told him that it didn’t look good for
her to be working at America’s Best at Work.  ¶ 9;  ¶ 67. Heags told his wife,
and she relayed the message to her daughter who stopped working at America’s Best
immediately.  ¶ 9. Beidelschies’s recollection was in accord with Heags’s and to
the best of Beidelschies’s knowledge, Heags’s stepdaughter stopped working at
America’s Best.  ¶ 14.
Sections 1981 and 1983 Claims
Judgment is appropriate as a matter of law on Heags’s §§ 1981 and 1983 claims
because neither claim can be brought against the federal government. See Espinueva
v. Garrett, 895 F.2d 1164, 1165 (7th Cir. 1990) (Section 1981) and McGuiness v.
United States Postal Service, 744 F.2d 1318, 1322 (7th Cir. 1984) (Section 1983).
Defendant’s motion for summary judgment is granted as to counts four and five of
Heags’s complaint alleges that defendant discriminated against him on the
basis of disability and invokes the Americans with Disabilities Act.  ¶¶ 46–54.
Federal workers are not covered by the ADA, see 42 U.S.C. § 12111(5)(B)(i), and
should use the Rehabilitation Act to bring a disability discrimination claim. See
Vargas v. DeJoy, 980 F.3d 1184, 1188 n.4 (7th Cir. 2020).
A claim under the Rehabilitation Act requires a plaintiff to show that (1) he is
a person with a disability within the meaning of the Act, (2) he is qualified to perform
essential functions of his job with or without a reasonable accommodation, and (3) he
suffered an adverse employment action solely by reason of his disability. See Swain
v. Wormuth, 41 F.4th 892, 899 (7th Cir. 2022). “To succeed on a claim under the
Rehabilitation Act, a plaintiff must meet the threshold burden of establishing that he
is disabled within the meaning of the statute.” Stein v. Ashcroft, 284 F.3d 721, 724
(7th Cir. 2002) (internal citation omitted). Heags has not submitted any evidence that
he is a person with a disability within the meaning of the Rehabilitation Act. Because
there is no basis for a reasonable jury to find proof of an essential element of Heags’s
claim, judgment as a matter of law is appropriate on count two of the complaint.
Race and Age Discrimination
To determine whether an employer discriminated against its employee because
the employee belonged to a protected class, a court should ask “whether the evidence
would permit a reasonable factfinder to conclude that the plaintiff’s race, ethnicity,
sex, religion or other proscribed factor caused the discharge or other adverse
employment action.” Ortiz v. Werner Enters., Inc., 834 F.3d 760, 765 (7th Cir. 2016).
Plaintiffs may organize their evidence in the McDonnell Douglas burdenshifting framework. See Khungar v. Access Cmty. Healthcare Network, 985 F.3d 565,
573 (7th Cir. 2021). Under that framework, a plaintiff makes a prima facie case of
discrimination when he shows, “(1) he is a member of a protected class, (2) he was
meeting the defendant’s legitimate expectations, (3) he suffered an adverse
employment action, and (4) similarly situated employees who were not members of
his protected class were treated more favorably.” Id. (internal citations omitted and
pronouns changed). Once a plaintiff makes a prima facie case, the burden shifts to
the defendant to give a “legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse
employment action, at which point the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to submit
evidence that the employer’s explanation is pretextual.” Id. (internal citations
omitted). The parties chose to employ the McDonnell Douglas framework in their
The threshold requirement for an employment discrimination claim is that the
employee experienced an “adverse employment action.” See Ortiz, 834 F.3d at 765.
The hiring and firing of employees are the classic examples of actionable employment
decisions. See Herrnreiter v. Chicago Hous. Auth., 315 F.3d 742, 743–44 (7th Cir.
2002) (tangible employment action is a “significant change in employment status,
such as hiring, firing[.]”). An employee can be “constructively discharged” when either
the working conditions of employment are unbearable or “an employer acts in a
manner so as to have communicated to a reasonable employee that she will be
terminated.” Wright v. Illinois Dep’t of Children & Family Svcs., 798 F.3d 513, 527
(7th Cir. 2015). Heags pled that he faced an adverse employment action when he was
“forced to retire” after receiving a decision that he would be terminated.  ¶¶ 32–
35. The VA argues that because Heags submitted paperwork to retire, he was neither
explicitly nor constructively discharged.
On January 22, 2021, the VA told Heags that it was going to remove him from
his employment effective January 30, 2021.  ¶ 43. This is a constructive
discharge, and the fact that Heags chose to retire so that he could maintain
retirement benefits does not change the analysis. See EEOC v. Univ. of Chicago
Hosps., 276 F.3d 326, 332 (7th Cir. 2002) (“When the employer acts in a manner so
as to have communicated to a reasonable employee that she will be terminated, and
the plaintiff employee resigns, the employer’s conduct may amount to constructive
The certainty of Heags’s dismissal is what distinguishes this case from Cigan
v. Chippewa Falls School Dist., where the plaintiff retired before she was certain that
her contract would not be renewed. Id., 388 F.3d 331, 332–34 (7th Cir. 2004); see also,
Wright, 798 F.3d at 529–32 (plaintiff who retired while employer’s decision on
termination was pending was not constructively discharged). Heags first received a
“notice of removal” and, after submitting his response package, received the letter
from Doelling, which stated “I have decided to remove you from VA employment
under the authority of 38 U.S.C. § 714, effective January 30, 2021.”  ¶¶ 42–43;
[33-13] at 2. The VA has not presented any evidence that another step had to be taken
before Heags would be terminated—“the handwriting was on the wall and the axe
was about to fall.” Kodish v. Oakbrook Terrace Fire Prot. Dist., 604 F.3d 490, 502 (7th
Cir. 2010) (internal citation omitted). When that is the case, “no reasonable trier of
fact could find that [Heags] was not constructively discharged.” Id. Heags suffered an
adverse employment action.
The McDonnell Douglas framework requires Heags to provide evidence that
the VA treated an otherwise similarly situated, younger, white employee better than
he was treated. See Khungar, 985 F.3d at 573. A comparator must be “similarly
situated with respect to performance, qualifications, and conduct. Typically, this
involves showing that the employees shared the same supervisor, performance
standards, and engaged in similar conduct.” Peirick v. Indiana Univ.-Purdue Univ.
Indianapolis Athletics Dep’t, 510 F.3d 681, 688 (7th Cir. 2007) (internal citations
omitted). When the issue is whether employees were treated differently after
misconduct, “the critical question is whether they have engaged in conduct of
comparable seriousness.” Peirick, 510 F.3d at 689. Heags relies on Yenerall and Pease
as the relevant comparators. 13
The VA argues that Yenerall and Pease are not appropriate comparators
because they had different supervisors than Heags.  at 5. The VA’s only evidence
that Yenerall had a different supervisor is given in its response to Heags’s Local Rule
56.1 statement of additional facts. See  ¶¶ 20–23. Because the identity of
Yenerall’s supervisor is not “fairly responsive” to those asserted statements of fact,
the additional facts are disregarded under N.D. Ill. L.R. 56.1(e)(2). Pease’s supervisor
was Heags.  ¶ 16. That establishes that Pease had a different level of
responsibility from Heags so as to make Pease an unsuitable comparator. See Senske
I can evaluate whether Yenerall and Pease are appropriate comparators even though
Heags did not include their names in discovery responses because the VA has not argued or
shown that it was prejudiced by the lack of disclosure. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 37(c)(1) (party
cannot use undisclosed information unless failure to disclose is harmless).
v. Sybase, Inc., 588 F.3d 501, 510 (7th Cir. 2009) (Employer “entitled to hold lowerranking employees to lower standards[.]”).
The VA also argues that “Yenerall … [was] not charged with the same
workplace misconduct as Heags following an AIB investigation.”  at 5. There is
undisputed evidence in the record to that effect—the AIB report found that Heags
and his staff “failed to conduct the appropriate oversight of the [America’s Best]
contract” and that Heags failed to properly supervise contract management in EMS.
[33-4] at 10, 13. The AIB concluded Yenerall notified EMS that the America’s Best
contractors needed to be badged, to coordinate with her staff members to do so, and
that Heags failed to follow up on those directions. [33-4] at 10–11, 13. The AIB made
different findings about the relative fault of Yenerall and Heags and that is a nondiscriminatory basis for the difference in treatment. See Peirick, 510 F.3d at 689
(“[T]he critical question is whether [the two employees] have engaged in conduct of
comparable seriousness.”). Heags has not presented evidence that similarly situated,
younger, white employees were treated better than he was; that piece of his
circumstantial case for discrimination fails.
Legitimate Expectations and Pretext
The parties focus their argument on whether Heags was fulfilling the VA’s
legitimate expectations for his position. Because the proffered non-discriminatory
reason for Heags’s removal was that he failed to meet those expectations, determining
whether Heags makes a prima facie case overlaps with the pretext analysis. A
reviewing court can consider both at once: “because the issue of satisfactory job
performance, which lies at the heart of this dispute, must be analyzed in detail at
both stages of the McDonnell Douglas test … we focus on pretext, while keeping in
mind that if the plaintiff did not present sufficient evidence of pretext, they also did
not show that they were meeting their employer’s expectations.” Hague v. Thompson
Distrib. Co., 436 F.3d 816, 823 (7th Cir. 2006); accord Gordon v. United Airlines, Inc.,
246 F.3d 878, 886 (7th Cir. 2001).
Pretext in the employment discrimination context is evidence that an employer
lied about the reason for their action, not merely that the employer was wrong.
Coleman v. Donahoe, 667 F.3d 835, 852 (7th Cir. 2012). The “task is to determine
whether these were [the employer]’s true reasons for discharging [plaintiff], not
whether they were wise bases for doing so.” Peirick, 510 F.3d at 692. A plaintiff may
show pretext by providing “evidence that the [proffered] reasons are without basis in
fact, did not actually motivate the challenged action, or were insufficient to motivate
the discharge.” Freeman v. Madison Metro. Sch. Dist., 231 F.3d 374, 379 (7th Cir.
First, Heags argues that some of Doelling’s conclusions were exaggerations of
the underlying facts, suggesting that Doelling’s conclusions were not honest.
Specifically, Heags’s “conflict of interest” was exaggerated because other Hines
employees had family members who worked at America’s Best and Heags resolved
the issue once he learned of it. See  at 6–7. Heags points to another senior VA
official’s testimony to the AIB that the situation was overblown and the stepdaughter
never received a paycheck.  ¶ 12. But reasonable disagreement about whether the
situation was indeed a conflict of interest or fraud is not evidence that Doelling did
not genuinely believe the situation to be improper. Furthermore, Doelling wrote in
the decision on removal that Heags should have obtained ethics guidance before his
stepdaughter started working for America’s Best at Hines,  ¶ 45, not that Heags
committed fraud. Heags has not provided evidence to suggest that Doelling did not
genuinely believe that Heags should have obtained ethics guidance before his
stepdaughter began working at America’s Best.
Additionally, Heags argues that the conclusion that he “lacked candor” was
exaggerated because he corrected himself during his second interview with the AIB.
See  at 8–9. There is a basis in fact for Doelling’s conclusion that during his first
interview Heags said something that wasn’t true. See  ¶¶ 29, 31. There is also
evidence in the record to suggest that Heags made a genuine mistake. See  ¶ 13.
That is a judgment call for Heags’s supervisor to make, not proof that Doelling did
not genuinely believe that Heags had told an untruth to the AIB. Pretext is an inquiry
into whether the employer believes the reason it gave for the termination, not
whether the reason was thoughtful or wise. See Peirick, 510 F.3d at 692.
Heags argues that there is evidence in the record to dispute the conclusion that
he failed in his supervisory duties—first, that Yenerall and HR were responsible for
contractors getting badged; second, that Heags and EMS received conflicting
accounts of whether the America’s Best contractors were required to be badged; and
third, that the America’s Best contract did not require a Contracting Officer’s
Representative, so Lear was an appropriate point person even though his certification
had lapsed.  at 9–13.
Heags points to testimony that HR was responsible for badging contractors,
see  ¶¶ 18, 20–22, and argues an inference could be drawn that it was Yenerall’s
dereliction of duty that caused the workers not to be badged.  at 10. Heags also
relies on the disputed fact of whether the EMS management team was told that no
badging was necessary for the America’s Best workers.  ¶¶ 25, 27;  at 10–11.
Doelling’s decision to hold Heags responsible for the fact that America’s Best
contractors were not badged was based on the fact that Heags had received an email
from Yenerall telling him that the contractors needed to be badged.  ¶ 44; [33-13]
at 2. In Doelling’s opinion, Heags should have followed up to ensure the contractors
were badged, even after he learned the contractors were turned away by HR. 
¶ 44; [33-13] at 2. Heags does not dispute that he received the email from Yenerall.
See  ¶ 23; see also [35-1] at 232. Doelling’s judgment that Heags, given his position
and tenure, should have had the experience and inclination to follow up, is not
undermined by the dispute over who was truly responsible. Even accepting that
Yenerall and her office were responsible for the badging and that Heags received
conflicting accounts of whether the contractors needed to be badged, those facts do
not provide a basis to believe that Doelling was lying when he concluded that once
Heags received Yenerall’s email, it was Heags’s responsibility (ultimately) to ensure
that the America’s Best workers were badged. Heags has not provided evidence on
which a reasonable jury could rely to find that Doelling was lying, so this dispute does
not suggest pretext.
Heags’s third factual challenge is to Doelling’s conclusion that he allowed Lear
to serve as Contracting Officer’s Representative when Lear was not properly certified.
 at 11–12. Doelling wrote in his decision that “there is substantial evidence that
you failed to provide appropriate oversight of Deputy Chief Lear with respect to
administering the [America’s Best at Work] contract and his assignment to other
contracts after his [Contracting Officer’s Representative] certification had expired.”
[33-13] at 4. There is evidence in the record that, at the time the contract was signed,
the America’s Best contract did not require a Contracting Officer’s Representative.
See  ¶¶ 31–33. Heags submits a signed affidavit in which he avers that he “never
assigned a Contracting Officer’s Representative to a contract for which they were not
eligible and certified to oversee.”  ¶ 38; [35-1] at 215. But there is no evidence that
Doelling had this affidavit when he made his decision, so it cannot serve as evidence
that Doelling knew he was wrong when he concluded that Heags hadn’t ensured Lear
was properly certified for the assignments Heags gave Lear.
Finally, Heags argues that who drafted the notice of removal is a disputed
material fact because if Yenerall drafted the notice of removal, an inference could be
drawn that the reasons given within the notice were phony. This is akin to a “cat’s
paw” theory of liability where a biased employee who is not in a decision-making
position is able to influence a decisionmaker. See Brooks v. Avancez, 39 F.4th 424,
439 (7th Cir. 2022). “To show age-based discrimination under this ‘cat’s paw’ theory
of liability, [plaintiff] must have evidence that the biased non-supervisor actually
harbored discriminatory animus against [him] and that the employee’s scheme
proximately caused [his] termination.” Id. Heags has not offered any evidence that
Yenerall was motivated by ageist or racist beliefs. The inference that Heags invites
with his argument is that because Yenerall was ultimately responsible for the failure
to badge America’s Best workers she wanted to shift the blame on to Heags. But a
desire to shift blame onto another, without more, is not evidence of a discriminatory
animus. See Widmar v. Sun Chem. Corp., 772 F.3d 457, 462–63 (7th Cir. 2014) (Even
if plaintiff was not responsible for cited failures, he still must show that employer
blamed him because of his protected status). Ultimately, even taking as true the fact
that Yenerall drafted the notice, that does not provide a basis to believe that Doelling
did not genuinely believe the conclusions in his letter.
At the end of the day, to survive summary judgment, the plaintiff must show
that there are issues of fact in the record, which if resolved in favor of the plaintiff,
could allow a reasonable jury to find that Heags was fired because of his race and age.
See Ortiz, 834 F.3d at 765. There are some disputed facts in the record, namely
whether EMS management was told that the America’s Best workers did not need to
be badged, whether the contract required a certified Contracting Officer’s
Representative, and who drafted the notice of removal. Resolving these facts in favor
of Heags, they all serve as reasons why Doelling’s conclusions about Heags’s
responsibility may have been mistaken or imprudent. But these critiques of Doelling’s
judgment do not provide a basis for a reasonable jury to find that Doelling’s
conclusions were not his honest beliefs, and that’s what matters in the pretext
analysis. See Coleman, 667 F.3d at 852. And even if a jury found that Doelling’s
reasoning was dishonest somehow, there is no evidence in the record to suggest that
Doelling’s “explanations are a pretext for the prohibited animus.” Hitchock v. Angel
Corps, Inc., 718 F.3d 733, 740 (7th Cir. 2013).
Considering all of the evidence together, Heags presents as proof of
discrimination: (1) he is a member of protected classes and (2) his employer’s
judgment that he should be fired was mistaken. He has no evidence of comparable
employees being treated better than he was, so his protected characteristics coupled
with bad reasons for his termination do not allow for an inference of discrimination.
See Widmar, 772 F.3d at 465 (where plaintiff offers nothing more than speculation
that employer’s justification for dismissal was a mask for discrimination, summary
judgment is appropriate).
Defendant’s motion for summary judgment, , is granted. Enter judgment
in favor of defendant and terminate civil case.
Manish S. Shah
United States District Judge
Date: November 13, 2023
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