EVERETT v. COOK COUNTY (August 24, 2011)

Cook County, Illinois faced a severe budget crisis in 2006. The County President instructed the Chief of the Bureau of Health to submit budget cut recommendations. One of the Bureau of Health functions was the Cermak Health Services, which provided medical and dental services to Cook County Jail inmates. The budget team identified Cermak’s dental program as a good source of some budget cuts. The Bureau Chief agreed to a recommendation that reduced the number of dentists from five to one. In deciding whom to keep among the five, the County looked for management experience, flexibility, productivity, and skills. The County ultimately chose Dr. Ronald Townsend as the dentist who best met those criteria. One of the five dentists who was not chosen was Dr. Carol Everett, a Caucasian woman who had been with Cermak for almost 25 years. Dr. Everett filed an appeal, which was denied. Everett filed suit under Title VII, alleging ethnicity discrimination, and under § 1983 and the Shakman decree, alleging political discrimination. Judge Kendall (N.D. Ill.) granted summary judgment to the County. Everett appeals.

In their opinion, Seventh Circuit Judges Kanne, Evans (who, due to his death, did not participate in the decision), and Sykes affirmed. The Court first addressed and rejected Everett's spoliation argument that the County destroyed certain documents containing notes concerning the layoffs. First, she did not identify any evidence of bad faith, a requirement before a negative inference is imposed. Second, the record does not support a conclusion that the documents were destroyed to eliminate adverse evidence. On the merits, the Court first addressed her political activity discrimination claim, in which she alleges that the decision to retain Everett was due to his political donations. The Shakman decree and the First Amendment prohibit firing an employee for political reasons. Under both theories, however, the plaintiff must show a causal relationship between the employment decision and the political considerations. Everett relied on procedural irregularities in the process to establish that causal relationship. The Court concluded, however, that her evidence was insufficient to establish such a relationship. Even if such a relationship had been established, however, Everett would still fall short because there is no evidence in the record that the decision-makers were aware of the political activity -- or lack thereof -- of either Everett or Townsend. The Court turned to the ethnicity discrimination claim. It concluded that Everett failed to show pretext. Although she provided some evidence of her possible superiority to Townsend in some areas, it was insufficient to show that the reasons the County gave for selecting Townsend were suspect. At most, they could show that the County made a hurried, poorly researched, and possibly poor decision. That is not enough to show pretext.