HILL v. POTTER (August 30, 2010)

Carla Hill has been an employee of the United States Postal Service in Hazel Crest, Illinois for several years. In the early 2000s, she filed a number of EEO complaints against her supervisors for discrimination. In late 2002, Hill hurt her back in a work related injury and went on "limited duty" status. Limited duty status employees are paid for a full day's work even if no qualifying work is available. Just as her limited duty status period was about to end, Hill claimed that she reinjured her back and reapplied. Her supervisor, Patrick Kavanaugh, wrote a letter to Dale Schultz of the Office of Workers' Compensation Programs. He communicated his belief that Hill’s injury was not as serious as she claimed. Schultz put Hill on "light duty" status. Light duty status employees are not guaranteed a full day's pay if qualifying work is not available. Hill lost 618 hours of pay while on light duty status -- even while other employees worked in excess of 800 hours of overtime. Hill, who was a letter carrier, also wanted a position as a window clerk. She submitted written applications in 2000 and 2003 and again documented her interest in 2004. Clerk positions became available in 2005, 2006, and 2007. She did not submit written applications at any of those times. On each of those occasions, the Postal Service offered the job to someone who had submitted a written application. Hill brought an action against the Postmaster General, alleging that the lost hours and failure to promote were in retaliation for her protected activities (her EEO complaints). Judge Coar (ND. Ill.) granted summary judgment to the defendant. Hill appeals.

In their opinion, Judges Flaum, Kanne, and Evans affirmed. The Court noted that Hill proceeded under the indirect method of proof -- which requires proof of a statutorily protected activity, a materially adverse job action, satisfactory job performance, and treatment worse than a similarly situated employee. The elements at issue here are whether there was an adverse job action (on the reduction in hours claim) and whether Hill was treated differently from similarly situated employees (on the failure to promote claim). The Court first addressed adverse job action. Although a reduction in hours can be an adverse job action, the reduction here came as a result of her light duty status. It does not amount to an adverse job action without other evidence. The Court rejected Hill's claim that Kavanaugh's letter to Schultz somehow imputed a retaliatory motive to Schultz under a "cat's paw" theory. There was no evidence in the record that the letter had any effect on Schultz -- let alone a dispositive one. Therefore, Hill's light duty assignment itself was not an adverse job action. The Court also concluded that sending her home without pay was also not an adverse job action. Although there was evidence in the record that other employees worked overtime, there was no evidence in the record that that overtime work fell within her work performance limitations. Finally, the Court rejected Hill's failure to promote theory of liability. In order to prevail, she had to establish that she properly applied for the promotion. The Postal Service presented evidence that its unofficial policy required an application in writing -- even though that unofficial policy was inconsistent with the written policy and the Postal Service presented no documentary evidence that supported it. Nevertheless, the Court concluded that Hill had not met her burden of establishing pretext. She failed to come forward with any evidence from which an inference could be drawn that the Postal Service evidence was not credible.