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Alaka-Muhammad v. Marion County Juvenile Detention Center

United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Indianapolis Division

December 7, 2017




         Plaintiff Nailah Alaka-Muhammad (“Muhammad”) brought this action against her former employer, defendant Marion County Juvenile Detention Center (“the Detention Center”), under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (“Title VII”), and the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq. (ADA). Before the Court is the Detention Center's motion for summary judgment. Dkt. 55. For the reasons below, the motion is granted.

         Facts and Procedural History

         With all evidentiary conflicts resolved and all reasonable inferences drawn in Muhammad's favor, the parties' designated materials reveal the following. The Detention Center is an arm of the Juvenile Division of Marion Superior Court in Marion County, Indiana. In May 2009, the Detention Center hired Muhammad for the position of “Youth Manager.” Dkt. 57 Ex. B. In late 2013, Muhammad's job title changed to “Central Control Staff” or “Central Control.” Id. Exs. A, G to I. It does not appear from the record whether this change in title reflected a change in duties, nor, if so, whether such change represented a promotion, a demotion, or neither. After working at the Detention Center for five years, Muhammad was informed by letter dated May 14, 2014, that she was being terminated from her employment with the Detention Center effective May 15, 2014.

         Muhammad is a middle-aged woman who, during the time she worked for the Detention Center, suffered from several physical and mental ailments. Specifically, Muhammad suffered from diabetes, high blood pressure, blood clots, and nagging injuries to her shoulder and knee, as well as from both depression and anxiety. At one time Muhammad had received testing for a brain disease, but the test did not lead to a diagnosis and Muhammad did not pursue treatment. Over the course of Muhammad's employment, the Detention Center was aware of at least some of Muhammad's ailments, based in part on the periods of medical leave she had taken to address the blood clots and her possible brain disease.

         During her time as an employee of the Detention Center, Muhammad accumulated a checkered disciplinary record, partly justified and partly not. Muhammad's first disciplinary sanction came on October 21, 2009, less than six months after she had first been hired, when she was “counsel[ed]”[1] for failing to follow Detention Center protocol in responding to an aggressive inmate. Dkt. 57 Ex. B.

         On November 1, 2009, Muhammad received a five-day suspension[2] for failing to properly supervise a group of inmates in her charge. This suspension appears to have been unjustified, however, as Muhammad was required to supervise twice as many inmates (sixteen) as was required of other staff members, who supervised eight, according to Detention Center policy or practice. Moreover, Muhammad's supervisor faulted her for entering an inmate's room and nearly shutting the door behind her, though Muhammad asserts that the door was “nowhere near closed.” Muhammad Dep. (Dkt. 59 Ex. 1) 126:21. Muhammad asked her supervisor for “either proper training or assistance” in supervising so many inmates, explaining that she felt “overlook[ed] and not utilized” to the full extent of her ability. Dkt. 57 Ex. C. Apparently her request went unheeded.

         On December 16, 2009, Muhammad was counseled for failing to correctly perform an assignment. Specifically, Muhammad was given a bag of potato chips to pass around as a reward to a group of inmates. Instead, Muhammad poured out some of the chips for herself, ate them, and, as it was the end of her shift that day, left the Detention Center without distributing the chips to the inmates.

         On June 8, 2010, Muhammad received a “1st Written Warning” for leaving an inmate in his room while she escorted others to the cafeteria, a violation of Detention Center policy in several respects. Dkt. 57 Ex. E.

         On October 5, 2011, Muhammad received a second “1st Written Warning” for her frequent lateness in arriving at work. Dkt. 57 Ex. F. Muhammad's attendance record reflected that she had been late to work six times in thirty days.

         On November 14, 2013, Muhammad received a “2nd Written Warning” (technically, Muhammad's third written warning), Dkt. 57 Ex. G, for her conduct on November 9, 2014. On that day, a group of people arrived at the Detention Center to attend a scheduled program. Muhammad was unaware of any scheduled program and unable to confirm such with on-duty Detention Center staff. Muhammad asked “Ms. Williams, ” apparently one of Muhammad's supervisors, Muhammad Dep. (Dkt. 59 Ex. 1) 149:1, whether Muhammad should call the Detention Center employee responsible for programming to inquire, though the employee was off duty that day and at home mourning the recent death of a family member. “Ms. Williams” replied that Muhammad should place the call. That instruction contravened a September 3, 2013, directive from the Detention Center that “Central Control Staff should not call staff for any reason.” Dkt. 57 Ex. G. Muhammad called the employee and discovered the program had been canceled. Sometime thereafter, Muhammad's phone call was characterized- inaccurately, says Muhammad-by the employee and a member of the clergy assisting the employee as “abrasive and overbearing . . . .” Muhammad Dep. (Dkt. 59 Ex. 1) 147:15. The same day, November 9, 2013, Muhammad reportedly also did not permit a “Supervisory Staff” person to “leave the floor to allow an employee to have their lunch break[, ]” and inquired with a supervisor whether “there was schedule flexibility because ‘a staff was not following the schedule.'” Dkt. 57 Ex. G. It does not appear from the record how this conduct constituted violations of Detention Center policy, as charged in the November 14, 2013, “2nd Written Warning.” Id. When Muhammad signed the written notice of the warning, she wrote “under duress” by her signature. Id.

         On December 3, 2013, Muhammad received a one-day suspension for using an “insubordinate” “tone” with her supervisor which the supervisor thought “display[ed] malicious intent.” Dkt. 57 Ex. H. On Friday, November 22, 2013, Muhammad had arranged with a colleague who worked the night shift for the colleague to work longer than scheduled on the following morning to cover for Muhammad, who worked the day shift, while she took her daughter to a doctor's appointment. In exchange, Muhammad agreed to stay later the same evening, so that the colleague could come in later than usual. Muhammad's supervisor e-mailed the colleague to confirm their arrangement, and then emailed Muhammad, allegedly falsely claiming that the colleague “will only be able to stay an hour” past the end of her shift, until 6:30 a.m. Id. Muhammad replied, “That is fine sir, I will call off and she [the colleague] can be mandated[, ]” id., that is, required by the Detention Center to stay up to four hours past the end of her shift in the absence of other available employees to relieve her. Muhammad Dep. (Dkt. 59 Ex. 1) 134:12-15. Muhammad's supervisor interpreted “[t]he tone of [her] response above [to be] insubordinate and [to] display[] malicious intent.” Dkt. 57 Ex. H. When Muhammad signed the written notice of her suspension, she added the words, “This is harrassment.” Id. (sic).

         Muhammad's perception of duress and harassment was tied to the fact that she had filed at least one charge of discrimination with the Indianapolis office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 2013. Muhammad viewed the unjustified or disproportionate disciplinary actions of November 14, 2013, and December 3, 2013, as the Detention Center's retaliation against her for contacting the EEOC in 2013.

         Muhammad continued to experience what she viewed as harassment. On February 5, 2014, Muhammad observed a coworker, “Mr. Mills, ” “being inappropriate towards [a] girl” at the Detention Center's reception desk. Muhammad Dep. (Dkt. 59 Ex. 1) 80:24- 81:4. After speaking with a supervisor, Muhammad submitted a written report of the incident on February 6, 2014. In an e-mail to Detention Center management on March 16, 2014, Muhammad described what happened next:

When I return[ed] back to work on February 10 or 11, 2014 the person whom [supervisors] wrote up walk[ed] pass control [where Muhammad was working] and hit the window with force and stood there staring at me[. H]e then took a few steps again hitting the window with force[.] I felt as though he was trying to intimidate me and his behavior afterward [was] harassing.

Dkt. 59 Ex. 4. Muhammad's frustrations prompted her plea for help:

[I]n my 40 plus years of working I have never felt so disrespected or mistreated; my spirits are broken and I can't seem to find my way back[.] I am both emotionally and mentally drain[ed] and before it becomes any more physical I know for certain I need help (therapy). Any[one's] assistance is needed.

Id. It does not appear that Muhammad received any assistance from the Detention Center or its staff in response to this request.

         Muhammad's final disciplinary citation was dated May 5, 2014 (“the May 5 disciplinary record”). Unlike the previous instances summarized above, this record was not signed either by Muhammad or her supervisor. It consists of three violations of Detention Center policy; none of the allegations was accurate, says Muhammad. The first allegation related to a complaint, dated April 29, 2014, submitted by a Detention Center employee describing Muhammad's unacceptable conduct on April 27, 2014. Muhammad allegedly had told the employee, “Yes, I have a problem and it's you and anybody else here trying to trying to tell me my job. I know my job very well.” Dkt. 57 Ex. J. The second occurrence related to a complaint, dated April 30, 2014, describing Muhammad's conduct “on the date reported . . . .” Dkt. 57 Ex. K. On that day, Muhammad allegedly said of a Detention Center employee in profane terms that she had a “MENTAL PROBLEM!!” and “look[ed] like one of those people that make they self throw up!!” Id. (sic passim). But Muhammad's time sheet for that day reflects that she did not work on April 30, 2014. The third violation related to a complaint, dated May 7, 2014, describing Muhammad's conduct on May 5, 2014, the date appearing on Muhammad's final disciplinary record. That complaint alleged that Muhammad had been “rude, ” “disrespectful, ” and “rough” with a Detention Center trainee. Dkt. 57 Ex. I.

         The May 5 disciplinary record noted that, “[d]ue to the nature of the above violations, [Muhammad's] employment has been terminated effective immediately.” Dkt. 57 Ex. I. Muhammad, though at work on May 5 and 6, 2014, does not appear to have learned of the May 5 disciplinary record or its contents on either of those days. Muhammad was not at work on May 7 or 8, 2014. On May 9, 2014, Muhammad took medical leave from the Detention Center to address her emotional health; Muhammad's physician and therapist recommended that she not return to work until May 23, 2014. Also on May 9, 2014, Muhammad filed a new charge with the EEOC (“the May charge”), alleging that the Detention Center had retaliated against her for filing her previous EEOC charges by imposing the November 2013 and December 2013 disciplinary sanctions, and that she had been subjected to a hostile work environment through the harassment of “Mr. Mills” and another coworker, “Mr. Powell.” Dkt. 57 Ex. N.

         The human resources director for the Detention Center scheduled a meeting with Muhammad on May 8, 2014, to discuss “a matter of [her] inappropriate conduct while at work.” Dkt. 57 Ex. M. Muhammad did not attend that meeting, however, because she had been told it needed to be rescheduled. A second meeting was scheduled for May 14, 2014, but Muhammad was never informed of it and thus did not attend. On or about the same day, Muhammad had her daughter deliver to the Detention Center certain documents, including a letter from Muhammad's physician recommending that Muhammad take leave from work and time sheets showing that Muhammad had not been at work on at least one of the dates mentioned in the May 5 disciplinary record.[3] On May 14, 2014, the human resources director e-mailed Muhammad requesting again to meet with her, but received no response. The staffer then mailed Muhammad a letter, dated May 14, 2014 (“the termination letter”), noting that, “[a]s of May 15, 2014, ” Muhammad had ...

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