SCHANDELMEIER-BARTELS v. CHICAGO PARK DISTRICT (February 8, 2011)

Cathleen Schandelmeier-Bartels, a Caucasian, began working for the Chicago Park District in early 2006. She reported to Andrea Adams (an African-American) who reported to Alonzo Williams (an African-American) who reported to Megan McDonald (a Caucasian). [Taking the facts in a light most favorable to Smith] During the summer of 2006, Schandelmeier-Bartels was supervising summer camp. One day, she heard what she thought was the sound of flesh being struck and a child's screams. Upon investigation, she came upon a young African-American child who had been suspended from summer camp. The child's aunt was kneeling over him with her arm raised and a belt in her hand. The child was crying and had visible welts on his arm. When Schandelmeier-Bartels told the aunt to stop, the aunt and the child left. Schandelmeier-Bartels reported the incident to Adams. Adams stated that what happened was acceptable discipline in their culture. Schandelmeier-Bartels reported the incident to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services and, on their advice, to the police. The next morning, Adams, in the company of the child's aunt, confronted Schandelmeier-Bartels. Adams screamed at her, criticized her for sending the police to the aunt’s house, repeated her statement about the acceptability of that type of discipline in her culture, and ordered Schandelmeier-Bartels out of her office. Adams immediately sent a memo to McDonald complaining of Schandelmeier-Bartels’ poor performance. She recounted several examples, including failure to supervise, failure to report an emergency, and poorly written incident reports. The last example she gave was the incident with the young child. The Park District fired Schandelmeier-Bartels by the end of the day. Schandelmeier-Bartels filed suit for race discrimination under Title VII. A jury awarded her $200,000 in compensatory damages. Judge Coar (N.D. Ill.) granted the Park District’s motion for judgment as a matter of law. He concluded that Adams' racial animus did not affect the termination decision. Schandelmeier-Bartels appeals. The Park District cross-appealed the court's conditional denial of its motion for a new trial (although the Court pointed out that the cross-appeal was unnecessary).

In their opinion, Judges Manion, Williams, and Hamilton affirmed in part and reversed in part. The Court first addressed Schandelmeier-Bartels’ appeal. It noted that the case was based on a "cat's paw" theory. There was evidence of a racial animus on the part of Schandelmeier-Bartels’ supervisor but not on the part of the decision-maker. The Court noted the lack of consistency in recent cases regarding what is necessary to bridge that causal gap. Is evidence that the biased employee exerted "singular influence" over the decision-maker required or will something less suffice? The Court concluded that it need not resolve that issue since it found that a reasonable jury could have found for Schandelmeier-Bartels even under the more stringent test. Viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to Schandelmeier-Bartels, the jury could have found that Adams' input was decisive and that neither McDonald nor the human resources representative conducted an independent investigation. The Court thus reinstated the jury's verdict on liability. It turned to the Park District’s motion for a new trial. First, it rejected the argument that the district court should have modified a jury instruction in response to a jury question during deliberations. The objection came too late in the proceedings and, given the entirety of the instructions, there was no plain error. Second, the Court addressed the admittedly improper suggestion by plaintiff’s counsel during closing argument that an important e-mail actually had been created after the fact. Although the suggestion was without merit and even baseless, the Court noted that closing argument remarks rarely require a new trial. This remark was no different -- it was not an abuse of discretion for the district court to deny the new trial. Finally, the Court addressed the amount of the compensatory damage award. Although the Court found a rational connection between the evidence and a significant compensatory damage award, it concluded that the evidence did not support the $200,000 award. It relied on similar cases from the circuit to reduce the award to $30,000 (noting that, but for the district court judge’s retirement, it would have remanded the issue to him for redetermination).