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Tibbs v. Administrative Office of Illinois Courts

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

June 19, 2017

Autumn Tibbs, Plaintiff-Appellant,
Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts, Defendant-Appellee.

          Argued April 25, 2017

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois. No. 13-3193 - Richard Mills, Judge.

          Before Posner, Kanne, and Hamilton, Circuit Judges.

          Hamilton, Circuit Judge.

         Plaintiff Autumn Tibbs worked as an administrative assistant in the Illinois court system. She was suspended the day she returned to work after taking leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, 29 U.S.C. §§ 2601 et seq. She was then fired after she chose not to attend a disciplinary meeting. Tibbs sued the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts. She contends that this agency employed her and that she was fired in retaliation for taking FMLA leave. The district court granted summary judgment for the agency, reasoning that it never employed Tibbs and thus could not have discharged her, and that in any event, there is no evidence of retaliation. We affirm because Tibbs cannot point to evidence from which a jury could reasonably infer that any of her supervisors harbored retaliatory animus against her. We do not resolve the question whether the Administrative Office employed Tibbs.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         Because we are reviewing a grant of summary judgment, we accept as true the evidence offered by Tibbs, the non-moving party, and she is entitled to the benefit of conflicts and the evidence and any reasonable inferences in her favor. Whitaker v. Wisconsin Dep't of Health Servs., 849 F.3d 681, 682 (7th Cir. 2017). We summarize the facts without vouching for their objective accuracy, but in light of the applicable summary judgment standard.

         Before she was fired in September 2012, Tibbs worked as the administrative assistant to the Chief Judge of the Circuit Court of the Seventh Judicial Circuit, which covers six counties in Illinois, including Sangamon County where Tibbs worked. The Chief Judge of the circuit, who serves for two years, is responsible for the administrative functions of the entire circuit. Each county also has a Presiding Judge who is responsible for administrative functions within that county. When Tibbs was fired, Judge Richard Mitchell was coming to the end of his two-year term as Chief Judge of the circuit. Judge Leslie Graves was the Presiding Judge of Sangamon County at the time, and she supervised Tibbs's "day-to-day functions." Barbara Mabie, the trial court administrator for the Chief Judge, also supervised Tibbs.

         Tibbs twice took unpaid leave under the FMLA because of health issues-first from March to May 2011 and later from June to August 2012. The day she returned from leave in August 2012, Judge Graves gave her a letter saying she was being placed on paid administrative leave pending a disciplinary meeting with Chief Judge Mitchell. This disciplinary letter described several instances of misconduct. First, the letter noted, more than a year earlier, in March 2011, Tibbs had tried to change the assignment schedule for court reporters. Assigning court reporters was one of Tibbs's primary responsibilities, but she had asked the court reporters to keep this new system "quiet" while she tried it out. The change led to harsh criticism from one judge and controversy among the courthouse staff. The disciplinary letter from Judge Graves said that Tibbs had lacked authority to make the change and accused her of "insubordination, bringing the Court [into] disrepute or attempting to discredit the Court; and conduct unbecoming a judicial employee."

         The second instance of misconduct described in the disciplinary letter had also occurred a year earlier, when Tibbs was preparing to return to full-time status after her first FMLA leave. Judge Graves had asked Tibbs to meet with her about returning to work full time, but according to the letter, Tibbs "disregarded" this instruction and instead contacted Chief Judge Mitchell about the issue. This action, too, was described as "insubordination" and "conduct unbecoming a judicial employee."

         The disciplinary letter also described an incident that had occurred immediately before Tibbs took her second period of FMLA leave beginning in May 2012. A former court reporter, Lynn Ruppert, needed to retrieve notes for transcription from the vault area of the Sangamon County Courthouse. She contacted Tibbs to gain entry. Ruppert twice looked for the box containing her notes, and at some point she reported to courthouse security that the box was missing. Tibbs herself later found the box, but in an unusual location in the vault and with the words "jury commission" written on the side visible to onlookers. The other side of the box had Ruppert's name and the case number on it. Tibbs concluded that the box had been recycled and simply misplaced. Tibbs used a marker to line through the words "jury commission" and then showed Ruppert where she had found the box in the vault. They then put the box "back up on the shelf the way that it should have been in the first place."

         The disciplinary letter said that Tibbs had committed misconduct by failing to notify anyone that a box was missing from the vault and by taking Ruppert to the vault without authorization. Judge Graves apparently had told Tibbs several days earlier that another employee, Sandra Merrill, not Tibbs, was to "handle all of the vault requests" going forward. The letter also said that Tibbs had reshelved the box improperly "in such a way as to further inhibit its discovery."

         Finally, the disciplinary letter said that Tibbs had "repeatedly attempted to undermine" her supervisor's authority by "making disparaging comments" to co-workers. Neither the comments nor the recipients of them have been disclosed.

         The letter invited Tibbs to respond to the allegations at a meeting with Chief Judge Mitchell and others. The letter also said that Tibbs could respond in writing, but it warned that the meeting would proceed with or without her. Tibbs wrote Chief Judge Mitchell saying she would not attend. In that letter, she did not address the accusations against her. ...

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