Employment Law Clinic—Significant Achievements for 2019-20

During the past academic year, the Employment Law Clinic has continued its work in both individual and class employment discrimination cases as well as handling a few appeals in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

Individual Cases

In early 2020, the Employment Law Clinic finally concluded the case of Rosena Laude v. Charles Ifergan Coiffures Salons (Ill. H.R.C.). In this case, we represented, Rosena Laude, in her discrimination and retaliation claims against the Salon. After a three-day trial, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) of the Illinois Human Rights Commission (“HRC”) ruled against Ms. Laude on her claims. We appealed that decision to a three-member panel of the HRC. We were successful in that appeal and the HRC reversed the ruling against Ms. Laude on her retaliation claims, found in favor, and remanded the case to the ALJ for a determination of Ms. Laude’s damages.

On remand, the ALJ awarded Ms. Laude her lost back pay and damages for her emotional distress and also awarded the Clinic attorneys’ fees for its work on behalf of Ms. Laude. That decision was appealed to the HRC which affirmed the ALJ’s orders. The HRC also denied the Salon’s request that the case be reheard before the full Human Rights Commission. At this point in this very lengthy and hotly contested case, we were able to reach a favorable settlement for our client and avoid further appeals to the Illinois Appellate Court.

One of the new cases the Employment Law Clinic filed in late 2019 is Judi Brown v. Mac's Convenience Stores LLC. In this case, the Clinic along with the ACLU of Illinois, represents Judi Brown, an African American transgender woman. Ms. Brown alleges that she was subjected to a hostile work environment because of her race and her status as a transgender woman while employed at one of Circle K’s convenience stores. While employed at the store, Ms. Brown’s coworkers directed racial and transphobic slurs at her, including calling her a “man in a dress” and the “n”-word. Ms. Brown’s manager’s demeanor and conduct exacerbated the situation. The manager targeted Ms. Brown, asked invasive and offensive questions about Ms. Brown’s reproductive anatomy, refused to update company documents to reflect Ms. Brown’s chosen name, and sometimes used male pronouns to refer to her in company documents. Although Ms. Brown reported the treatment, Circle K did nothing.

After a year of escalating harassment, Ms. Brown was fired the day after her manager scheduled her for a shift on the Sunday of Chicago’s Pride Parade. The manager knew Ms. Brown was going to perform during the parade and could not work that Sunday, but scheduled her for that day anyway.

The case is currently in its early stages in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.

Class Actions

The Employment Law Clinic also continues to handle a number of class action employment discrimination cases. One of those class actions in Porter v Pipefitters Association Local Union 597 (N.D. Ill.), in which the named plaintiffs claim that the union discriminated against them and a class of African-American union members by operating and/or negotiating and implementing two hiring systems (the Hiring Hall and the Referral Hall) that disadvantaged African-American pipefitters with respect to their work hours and other benefits of employment.

The Employment Law Clinic recently received preliminary approval of a proposed settlement in this class action. The proposed settlement provides that Local 597 will pay a total of $3,000,000 to resolve the claims of the class and the class representatives, as well as the claims of the Clinic and its co-counsel’s for attorneys’ fees and costs. The proposed settlement also includes significant non-monetary relief, such as

  • a change in the percentage of pipefitters hired from the Referral Hall and an increase of the fines to violators of the Referral Hall system;
  • improved procedures for reporting, investigating, and resolving complaints of discrimination;
  • additional leadership classes for African-American pipefitters;
  • recruitment of African-Americans to these classes;
  • reinstatement of class members’ membership in Local 597;
  • hiring additional personnel to assist with recruitment of African-Americans to Local 597’s Apprenticeship Program and to aid in general compliance with the settlement; and
  • quarterly reports to the Court and class counsel on the progress made in implementing the non-monetary terms of the settlement.

Notice of the proposed settlement is being sent to the class and the fairness hearing on the settlement is set for later in 2020.

Appellate Cases

In addition to trial level cases, the Employment Law Clinic represents clients in a number of appeals in the U.S. Court Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. In these appeals, the Employment Law Clinic is recruited by the Court to represent pro se appellants in their appeals. Students working on these appeals write the briefs and present oral argument to the 7th Circuit. The students are supervised in these appeals by both Randall Schmidt and James Whitehead.

In Damon Stepp v. Covance Central Laboratory Services, Inc., 931 F.3d 632 (7th Cir. 2019), the Employment Law Clinic was recruited to represent Mr. Westbrook in his appeal of the district court’s entry of summary judgment for Covance. In the appeal, we argued that Mr. Stepp submitted evidence sufficient to persuade a jury that Covance refused to hire him permanently in retaliation for his earlier complaints about race and sex discrimination. The Court agreed and concluded that a reasonable jury could conclude that Covance refused to promote Mr. Stepp to permanent status because of the complaints. It therefore vacated the judgment and remanded the case to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana. Based on court records, it appears that the case was settled on remand.

In Curtis Westbrook v. Bridges Community Services (7th Cir.) the Employment Law Clinic was recruited to represent Mr. Westbrook in his appeal of the district court’s grant of summary judgment against him. In his pro se complaint, Mr. Westbrook alleged facts showing that Bridges discriminated against him on the basis of his disability and of his sex. The court analyzed Mr. Westbrook’s case as a Title VII employment discrimination case and ruled against Mr. Westbrook. But because Bridges was a federally funded program, it was our positon that the district court should have analyzed Mr. Westbrook’s case as claims of discrimination by a federally funded program against a participant, not claims of discrimination by an employer against an employee.

Prior to briefing, the case was scheduled for mediation before the 7th Circuit’s Mediation office. At the mediation, students from the employment Law Clinic explained our view of the error committed by the district court. The result was that we were able to reach a favorable settlement for Mr. Westbrook during the mediation.