Terre Haute denied summary judgment on ex-employee’s retaliation, negligence claims

A man who claims he was fired from his employment with the city of Terre Haute for defending a co-worker partially defeated a motion for summary judgment, with a judge finding the man’s claims of negligent supervision and retaliation under the Americans with Disabilities Act can proceed to trial.

Monty Stillman worked as a heavy equipment operator for Terre Haute in its Street Department for roughly 10 years before his termination in 2016. At some point between 2013 and 2014, Stillman noticed other employees in the department harassing Terry Fish, a maintenance worker with a cognitive impairment.

At one point, Stillman witnessed several employees “messing with” Fish and proceeded to yell at everyone present to “leave Terry alone.” Following the confrontation, several employees began verbally harassing Stillman, which he reported to city transportation director Brad Miller numerous times. Miller continually told Stillman to “ignore it.”

Over the course of the next two years, Stillman made several additional reports to Miller and to the Human Resources Department, which continued to respond without action. Then in February 2015, an employee that verbally abused Stillman shoved him while on the job, causing Stillman to suffer physical injuries and miss work for several days.

That employee was criminally prosecuted and convicted of battery but was not terminated from his employment with the city. The director of human resources later visited the department and concluded Stillman was the common denominator in the issues with other employees and suggested to the city attorney that Stillman be terminated.

Meanwhile in November 2015, Fish filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging disability-based discrimination against the city and naming Stillman as a witness in the action. Then in April 2016, 27 Street Department employees requested that the city provide a “safe, non[-]hostile work environment regarding the harassment and false accusations by Terre Haute Street Department employee Monty Stillman.” The letter stated the employees were “tired of being relentlessly harassed by Monty Stillman over the past 10 years.”

Stillman was eventually terminated in May 2016, two weeks after returning from medical leave. An unsigned “Corrective Action Form” indicated Stillman was terminated for “Harassment/Intimidation of a fellow Street Department Employee” and “False Allegations Against Co-Workers with Intent to Defraud.”

Stillman responded with a complaint alleging discrimination in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and state law claims for slander and negligent supervision. Although the court awarded the city summary judgment on the slander claim, it denied summary judgment on the other two claims in Monty Stillman v. City of Terre Haute, 2:17-cv-00394.

On the retaliation claim, the Indiana Southern District Court found that Stillman’s presented circumstantial evidence was sufficient to establish a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether his protected activities were a but-for cause of either a retaliatorily hostile work environment or his termination.

“Quite simply, the evidence presented by the City does not specify who made the decision to terminate Mr. Stillman’s employment or why,” Chief Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson wrote. “…There is ample evidence in the record suggesting that interpersonal problems plagued the Street Department, and that Mr. Stillman was a difficult and perhaps disliked employee and coworker. A factfinder could conclude that any harassment that Mr. Stillman suffered was unrelated to any protected activities.

“But the evidence establishes a genuine dispute of material fact regarding causation — the only substantive basis upon which the City moves for summary judgment,” Magnus-Stinson continued. “A reasonable inference from the undisputed evidence presented is that Mr. Stillman’s coworkers viewed him as a ‘snitch’ for attempting to protect Mr. Fish, and for reporting instances of harassment.”

The court thus permitted Stillman’s ADA retaliation claim to proceed.

Likewise, Stillman’s negligence claim alleging the city tolerated a hostile work environment and “failed to properly train and/or supervise Terre Haute Street Department supervisors” was also permitted to proceed for the same reasons as the ADA claim, the court ruled.

“The City argues that Mr. Stillman has not provided evidence of the violation of a statutory right, because he has failed to provide evidence of any violation of the ADA,” Magnus-Stinson wrote. “As the Court described above, genuine disputes of material fact exist regarding the connection between Mr. Stillman’s protected activities (assuming as it must that some exist) and the harassment he alleges.”

However, Magnus-Stinson also noted compensatory and punitive damages are not available to Stillman.

Thus, the court granted and denied in part the summary judgment motion, but requested that Magistrate Judge Doris L. Pryor confer with the parties regarding a possible resolution of the matter short of trial.

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