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Hutchens v. Chicago Board of Education, No. 13-3648 (7th Cir. Mar. 24, 2015)

In an organization otherwise blanketed in paper, it raises eyebrows when the employer's complaints about a worker's performance find no support in the records. The Seventh Circuit vacates summary judgment in this pro se case, and remands for a trial of Title VII and § 1983 claims, where the performance-based reasons offered for a black teacher's termination were at odds with the employer's files and were bolstered mostly by sharply-disputed witness testimony.

Hutchens v, Chicago Board of Education, No. 13-3648 (7th Cir. Mar. 24, 2015): The Board faced a choice during a layoff between the plaintiff and a white teacher (Glowacki), and chose to fire the black plaintiff, Hutchens. Both worked in the Professional Development Unit. Both were on the layoff list until their director (Anderson) removed Glowacki.

On the face of the summary judgment record, Hutchens made a fairly persuasive case that - on the straight merits - she had the stronger background of the two: more post-graduate education and teaching certifications; longer tenure with Chicago Public Schools, including five years at the esteemed Lincoln Park High School and six years teaching juvenile jail detainees; private sector experience in career coaching; and longer service in the unit.

Hutchens alleged that another manager, named Rivera, engineered her termination (and rescued Glowacki) by misleading Anderson into thinking that the plaintiff was not knowledgable about the National Board Certification program. Hutchens, in fact, had a National Board Certification - a year before Glowacki.

The Board contended in litigation that Hutchens tended to be withdrawn at work, did not volunteer, and had inferior interpersonal skills. Yet the Board did not submit the plaintiff's written performance evaluations as exhibits, relying instead on witness testimony. Complaints that Hutchens bickered with co-workers were also belied by the co-workers' own testimony, and found no support in any documents. A manager who supposedly fielded the complaints about bickering "did not herself observe bickering; she just listened to complaints about it, apparently making no effort to evaluate the accuracy of the complaints. Hers was thus not the best evidence-in fact was mainly hearsay." There were also complaints about tardiness but, again, these were unsupported by documents.

Documentation such as did exist tended to be supportive of Hutchens. One of her supervisors, named Cushing, testified critically about the plaintiff's lack of interpersonal and writing skills. Yet Cushing also wrote Hutchens "a rave letter of recommendation" to support her job search, which she later testified was essentially true in all respects. The plaintiff also collected "emails by her coworkers to her which indicated that she was cooperative and her work for the Professional Development Unit good."

So the Seventh Circuit is incredulous that this textbook swearing-contest did not go to trial:

"Remarkably in light of our summary of the record, the district judge, in granting summary judgment said that the honesty of the defendants' beliefs about the relative qualities of Hutchens and Glowacki could not reasonably be questioned. In fact, as our summary of the evidence reveals, There is considerable doubt about the honesty of River and Cushing, the main witnesses for the defense...."

Moreover, the district court "did not remark the surprising fact that the defendants
failed to submit a single document that might have corroborated any of the testimony of Rivera or Cushing." Overall, the court concludes that a reasonable jury could find that Hutchens was the target of racial discrimination. "[A] reasonable jury might deem Rivera's and Cushing's testimony a tissue of lies (the polite term is 'pretext'), Hutchens distinctly better qualified for retention than Glowacki (about whom the record contains little information), and the latter's being retrained instead of Hutchens a consequence (for why else all the lies?) of a preference for a person of the same race, by the persons who testified against Hutchens."

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