October 22, 2018
from the United States District Court for the Northern
District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 15-cv-01281-
Matthew F. Kennelly, Judge.
Flaum, Easterbrook, and Scudder, Circuit Judges.
Abrego, a former dental assistant at a Veterans Affairs
("VA") dental clinic, brought an employment
discrimination action pursuant to Title VII against the
Secretary of Veterans Affairs (the
"Secretary"). He alleged: (1) he was discriminated
against based on his gender (male) and race (Hispanic); (2)
he was retaliated against for filing EEO complaints; and (3)
he faced a hostile work environment. The district court
granted summary judgment in favor of the Secretary. We
19, 2011, Abrego began work as a dental assistant at a VA
dental clinic in North Chicago, Illinois. He was initially
assigned to work with Dr. William Strampe. According to
Abrego, Strampe treated him poorly. He claims Strampe
"harassed" him and was "short tempered."
Additionally, he maintains Strampe did not allow him to
schedule patients, use computer resources, or make ward
visits. Based on this tension, Strampe and Abrego met with
Dr. Peter Bidny, the head of the clinic, to "turn
things around." However, Abrego described the meeting as
"kind of unfair," and according to Strampe, Abrego
interrupted Strampe, raised his voice, and abruptly left.
Bidny's warning that Abrego could be terminated during
his initial probationary period for his inability to work
well with others, conflict continued. On October 8, 2011,
Abrego became angry when, while he was in the bathroom,
Strampe knocked on the door because patients were waiting. On
January 3, 2012, a patient called Abrego
"retarded," and Abrego says Strampe did not support
him or allow him to defend himself. And also in January,
Strampe was "short tempered" after Abrego left work
about an hour early due to an approaching blizzard, even
though Strampe had another patient. On January 26, 2012,
Bidny, Strampe, and Abrego had another meeting, and
eventually, in March 2012, Abrego was assigned to a different
dentist. Abrego claims Strampe treated his new female
assistant more favorably; for example, he says Strampe
brought her on ward exams.
9, 2012, Abrego received a letter of counseling that
referenced three instances of inappropriate conduct: (1)
interrupting Strampe at a meeting; (2) arguing with a
patient, clenching his fists when told to stop, and refusing
to work with the patient in the future; and (3) shouting at a
coworker. Shortly thereafter, on August 27, 2012, Abrego
filed a complaint with the EEO. In it, he alleged race and
sex discrimination amounting to a hostile work environment.
He identified nineteen incidents from 2011 and 2012, mostly
involving his interactions with Strampe.
October 15, 2012, Abrego's supervisor sent him a letter
of inquiry. This letter asked for an explanation about three
incidents: (1) telling a coworker that he "like[s] tall
woman" and "everyone is the same height in
bed"; (2) a discussion with coworkers about race that
involved yelling; and (3) an aggressive meeting with a
coworker. On December 21, 2012, Abrego received a formal
reprimand for yelling at a coworker.
Abrego received "fully successful" ratings on his
2011, 2012, and 2013 performance evaluations, the reviews
also discussed Abrego's combative workplace behavior. On
the 2011 evaluation, Strampe emphasized instances when Abrego
"lost his composure and was overly resistant to working
with other dentists." Likewise, on the 2012 evaluation,
Strampe wrote that "Abrego has worked very hard,"
but there were "a number of incidents where he ha[d]
lost his composure that ha[d] significantly detracted from
his overall performance." Strampe concluded that to be
successful, Abrego needed to "focus more on the patient
and on assisting his dentist," and also "maintain
a good attitude, ... maintain his composure and control his
temper, ... learn to accept constructive criticism, and ...
develop a respect for authority." Likewise, Bidny
commented on Abrego's "issues regarding corporate
citizenship, specifically in reference to communication with
Dr. Strampe ... as well as confrontations with a number of
coworkers." As for his 2013 review, Abrego claims Dr.
Fredrickson, the assistant director of dental services,
forced the rating to be changed from "outstanding"
to "fully successful."
January 17, 2014, the VA suspended Abrego for fourteen days
for illegally recording his supervisor. About a month later,
on February 7, 2014, Abrego filed a second EEO complaint. He
alleged that his 2013 evaluation and fourteen-day suspension
were in retaliation for filing his first EEO complaint.
in June 2014, Abrego had several incidents with his new
supervisor, Cari Pietrzyk. The conflicts include: Pie-trzyk
questioning Abrego when he arrived late to the clinic;
Pietrzyk attempting to locate Abrego when he was absent
during work hours; Pietrzyk ending an all-assistants meeting
due to Abrego's disrespectful and disruptive behavior;
Pietrzyk following up on Abrego's incomplete assigned
tasks; and Pietrzyk investigating other coworkers'
complaints about intimidation by Abrego. Additionally,
tension arose because Pietrzyk told Abrego to limit time
spent volunteering during work hours due to the impact his
absences were having on patient care.
August 6, 2014, Abrego's supervisor issued him a letter
of inquiry related to these conflicts. The letter asked for
an explanation about three "[i]nappropriate actions
against a supervisor" and four "[a]ctions where
jobs [were] not done in a timely manner." On October 9,
2014, he received another letter of inquiry about conflict
October 3, 2014, Abrego filed a third EEO complaint. He
alleged gender discrimination, retaliation, and a hostile
work environment. On November 19, 2014, the clinic issued
Abrego a proposed notice of removal based on the conduct
outlined in the August 6, 2014 letter of inquiry. Abrego
issued a written response and met with Dr. Holt, the director
of the clinic, to give an oral response. Holt sustained the
charges, and Abrego's ...