Friday, May 6, 2016

Winnebago County Prevails in Title VII Race Discrimination Lawsuit

Another victory for public employers in the on-going battle against employment discrimination lawsuits. Last week, in Wells v. Winnebago County, Illinois, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld judgment in favor of Winnebago County in race and disability discrimination lawsuit filed by a County employee. The plaintiff, Barbara Wells worked as a “computer navigator” at the Winnebago County courthouse.  Plaintiff’s job was to help pro se litigants who came for assistance at the County’s “Legal Self-Help Center.”  

Wells complained to her employer that many of the pro se litigants became abusive when she told them she was not a lawyer and could not act as their counselor. To deal with this situation, Wells requested that her employer create a barrier wall between her and the public similar to walls used in banks. The County declined her request and left her exposed to direct public contact. Wells alleged several other instance of discrimination including lack of access to the court’s break room and a delayed raise.

Plaintiff alleged that county officials discriminated against her on the basis of race (Wells is black) and disability (Wells suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome). With respect to plaintiff’s race discrimination claim, the Court ruled that Wells failed to produce any evidence that her race played any role in the employer’s decisions. Rather, the Court found that Wells was treated the same as the other computer navigators, who were white. There was no evidence that Wells’ supervisor said anything about race or used language with racial connotations. As a result, the County was entitled to summary judgment on plaintiff’s race claim. 
The Seventh Circuit also rejected the plaintiff’s ADA claim based on her chronic fatigue syndrome disability where (1) plaintiff failed to produce evidence indicating that she requested any accommodation based on her disability; and (2) plaintiff failed to provide defendant with any medical evidence that would link her requested alterations of her work area to her chronic fatigue syndrome disability.