A federal court in Chicago dismissed an employee’s claims that her employer illegally retaliated against her for complaining about race discrimination where her allegations included that she was removed from a voluntary panel, subject to increased scrutiny and given a verbal warning. The Court also found that the claim of race discrimination was untimely. Nevertheless, the employee was allowed to pursue her retaliation claim to the extent it was based on a negative performance review. Trimble v. Alliance-DeKalb/Rock-Tenn Co. (N.D.Ill. Aug. 9, 2011).

Trimble, who is African-American, was hired in 1998 as a quality auditor. In November 2006, she complained that the general manager, Ron Bloomberg, was prejudiced against African-Americans based on an incident that occurred between the general manager and another African-American employee. April Alvarado, the human resources coordinator, conducted a thorough investigation into Trimble’s complaint, but was unable to corroborate Trimble’s allegations. However, in the course of the interviews, some employees reported that Trimble spent a lot of time talking to certain co-workers whenever she was on the production floor. Alvarado also learned that Trimble discussed her racism accusations during work hours and while production was running and that this behavior was creating a tense environment and lowering the morale of the other employees. Alvarado told Trimble that she was unable to corroborate her complaints of racism. Trimble contends that she was accused of bringing down morale because she made complaints, which the company denied. No disciplinary action was taken against her.

Applicants for hourly production positions were evaluated through a process that included being interviewed by a panel of employee volunteers, who did not receive any monetary benefit for their time. Trimble participated on these panels. According to Alvarado, Trimble acted “unprofessionally” in 2006 when she did not agree with the other panel members by snickering and becoming argumentative, so she sought other panel members. Trimble contends she was removed in retaliation for her complaints of discrimination.  

At the same time as Alvarado’s investigation of Trimble’s complaint, a group of line leaders met with Bloomberg and complained that Trimble spent too much time chatting and joking with certain line leaders. Bloomberg told them that he would watch for the behavior that they complained of. Four months later in March 2007, Bloomberg met with Trimble and verbally warned her that she needed to stop her excessive chatting and joking, do her job and stop distracting other employees.  

On February 23, 2007, Trimble filed a charge of race discrimination with the EEOC. She resigned in April 2007, claiming that she was constructively discharged and subjected to discrimination and retaliation. Her claims were based on her removal from the voluntary panel, Bloomberg’s alleged “excessive monitoring” and verbal warning and a negative performance evaluation in April 2007.  

The company performed performance evaluations twice a year, in October and April. Trimble’s April 2007 scores showed a significant decline from her evaluation in October 2006. Therefore, the Court refused to grant summary judgment in favor of the employer holding that it was a question for the jury to decide whether there was a causal connection between Trimble’s complaints and her negative evaluation. The timing of the poor evaluation also gave rise to an inference of causation, which the employer can try to rebut at trial.  

It is important to note that the Court’s ruling on the employer’s motion for summary judgment was based on and limited to the facts presented in this case. In other words, an employer’s “excessive monitoring” or verbal warning may be considered materially adverse depending on the particulars of the situation. In this case, Trimble presented no evidence, other than her own affidavit, to show she was subjected to increased scrutiny or how she was harmed by such alleged scrutiny or that the verbal warning was severe or threatening.