Discrimination, retaliation claims fail in 7th Circuit termination case

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed a district court’s denial of a woman’s discrimination and retaliation claims against her prior employer, finding insufficient evidence to support her claim that she was terminated for taking medical leave.

In March 2010, Angela Riley was granted intermittent leave from her position as a front desk clerk at the Kokomo Housing Authority for her medical conditions of bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and frontal lobe seizures. Then in 2012, Riley began filing complaints about her coworkers for inappropriate conduct and hygiene, while her coworkers regularly complained that Riley treated them in a “negative and demeaning manner.”  

Riley received additional leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act in the fall of 2013 and medical leave in early 2014, when she was allowed to attend medical appointments despite having used up all of her available leave. But in March 2014, after arranging for a friend/KHA tenant to transfer to another unit without following the proper procedure, Riley was written up for insubordination.

Then, after reporting a co-worker to the Department of Housing and Urban Development for an unsubstantiated claim of fraudulent activity, KHA chief operating officer Debra Cook decided to terminate Riley, citing her aggressive and unprofessional behavior toward KHA property managers, her history of misconduct and her mistreatment of coworkers. Prior to learning of her termination, Riley requested two days of vacation/medical leave, which she took before learning that she had been fired in May 2014.

Riley then sued, asserting KHA had discriminated and retaliated against her for requesting leaves of absence due to her medical conditions, ultimately leading to her termination. The Southern District Court ruled against all of Riley’s claims and entered summary judgment in favor of KHA, which the 7th Circuit Court affirmed in Angela Riley v. City of Kokomo, Indiana, Housing, 17-1701.

Among other things, Riley argued on appeal that KHA “improperly interfered with her ability to take FMLA leave and disciplined and fired her in retaliation for seeking” it, violating the Family and Medical Leave Act. But the 7th Circuit found there was insufficient evidence to prove Riley was fired because of her request, as Cook had already decided to terminate her before the request was even made. It also found that although Riley had requested leave in February 2014 for medical appointments and was informed her leave had been exhausted, she was still allowed time off for her appointments.

“Without more, these events, in and of themselves, are insufficient to establish a genuine issue of material fact to survive summary judgment,” District Judge John Z. Lee, sitting by designation from the Northern District of Illinois, wrote for the panel.

The 7th Circuit further found that Riley’s assertions of KHA’s failure to make reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were invalid due to Riley’s unorganized presentation of the facts supporting her claims. It also noted that the district judge was not required “to do Riley’s work for her” in sorting out which facts supported which claims and how they acted to defeat summary judgment. 

“Riley’s brief darted from topic to topic with no frame of reference to guide the district court in its analysis of the claims. Her scattershot approach also ignored significant issues raised by KHA,” Lee wrote. “Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of Riley’s response brief was the conflation of her discrimination and retaliation claims. We cannot fault the district court for refusing to expend its limited judicial resources to unknot this impenetrable tangle.”

Lastly, the 7th Circuit concluded Riley was not subjected to retaliation for engaging in protected activity in violation of the Fair Housing Act. Finding her arguments undeveloped, the 7th Circuit determined Riley did not present facts from which a rational jury could find she had engaged in protected activity when she called HUD to report what she believed to be fraudulent activity and was told to contact HUD’s civil rights department.

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