Circuit Court Finds IBEW Retaliated Against Employee Opposed to Racial Discrimination



No. 11-1484.

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit.

Argued September 20, 2011.

Decided April 2, 2012.

Before ROVNER, WOOD, and WILLIAMS, Circuit Judges.

In 2009, Susan Blue sued her former employer, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 159 (IBEW), alleging retaliation for opposing the discrimination of an African-American electrician. The jury found in favor of Blue and awarded her $202,396.76 in damages. IBEW filed several post-trial motions with the district court, seeking a new trial or relief from the judgment on the grounds that the district judge erred in admitting certain evidence and that the weight of the evidence favored IBEW. The district court denied IBEW’s motions, and now IBEW appeals. Although, as we explain below, our jurisdiction on this appeal is limited, we find no error with the district court’s decisions, and we therefore affirm.


For over 30 years, Blue was an administrative assistant at IBEW. There is ample evidence that Blue’s work was excellent: Union members frequently relied on Blue for information on union benefits or obligations; her colleagues described her as professional, knowledgeable, and reliable; and at least one former supervisor described her job performance as “outstanding.” During the events at issue in this case, Blue’s supervisor at IBEW was Billy Harrelson, and until the contested period, there is no indication that Harrelson ever criticized or disciplined her.

In early 2006 Alexander Phillips filed a complaint of race discrimination against IBEW with the Madison Equal Opportunities Commission (MEOC). Phillips’s complaint alleged that his information was removed from the IBEW referral book and his union initiation fee was returned to him because of his race (African-American). Blue learned of the complaint’s contents after it was mailed to the IBEW office. Around the same time, Blue also discovered that Harrelson had allowed a white electrician to sign the referral book without paying his initiation fee. Concerned about this disparity, Blue questioned Harrelson about the apparent discrimination.

Harrelson retaliated: Blue presented evidence that she was stripped of her essential job duties, denied overtime opportunities, and subjected to a hostile work environment. As Phillips’s case at the MEOC progressed, Harrelson’s harsh treatment of Blue intensified. The MEOC mailed several questionnaires to IBEW to be filled out by selected workers, including Blue. Harrelson demanded that Blue go through IBEW’s attorney before answering the MEOC’s questions. Blue, however, was worried that the attorney would modify her answers, and so, on April 6, 2006, she mailed her responses directly to the MEOC and sent a copy to IBEW’s lawyer. At that point, Harrelson began to discipline Blue for minor infractions. He accused her of being “excessively tardy” despite evidence that Blue was usually on time and never more than five minutes late. On February 14, 2007, the MEOC scheduled a public hearing on Phillips’s case, and a few days later, IBEW took four disciplinary actions against Blue—all of which were eventually vacated by Harrelson’s successor. Over the next several months, Harrelson’s campaign of retaliation escalated: Blue received additional formal disciplinary measures, she was suspended without pay, and she was driven to take medical leave to escape the emotional stress wrought by her work environment. Blue finally filed her own complaint with the MEOC, alleging retaliation, and she later brought her case to the District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin.

Before trial, IBEW moved to exclude from evidence the MEOC’s file on Phillips’s complaint. The district court denied the motion, and four documents from the file were used at trial: Phillips’s original complaint; Blue’s statement; the MEOC’s finding of probable cause; and the MEOC’s notice of hearing. Blue used these documents, along with other evidence, to demonstrate that Harrelson had a motive to retaliate against Blue and to prove the causal link between her protected activities and her adverse employment actions. The jury credited her evidence and, on August 5, 2010, it returned a judgment in favor of Blue.


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