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Thursday, May 23, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Making Trouble for Worker Will Cost Union

CHICAGO (CN) - A woman who claims a union targeted her for opposing discrimination against a black electrician can collect $200,000, the 7th Circuit ruled.

Susan Blue spent over 30 years and received consistently positive reviews as an administrative assistant for the Madison, Wis.-based International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 159.

But trouble started in early 2006 when electrician Alexander Philips filed a complaint of race discrimination with the Madison Equal Opportunities Commission (MEOC). Philips claimed he was removed from the union's referral book and had his initiation fee returned because of his race.

Blue learned of Philips' complaint when a copy arrived at the union offices. She questioned her supervisor Billy Harrelson about the incident, concerned that Harrelson had recently allowed a white electrician to sign the referral book without paying his initiation fee.

Harrelson did not respond well to questioning.

"Blue presented evidence that she was stripped of her essential job duties, denied overtime opportunities, and subjected to a hostile work environment," Judge Diane Wood wrote for a three-judge panel. As Philips's case at the MEOC progresses, Harrelson's harsh treatment of Blue intensified."

In April 2006, the commission sent questionnaires about the Philips incident to a selection of union employees, including Blue. Harrelson demanded that Blue fill out her questionnaire through the union's attorney. Worried that the attorney would modify her answers, Blue instead mailed her responses directly to MEOC.

Over the next year, Harrelson allegedly began to discipline Blue for minor infractions, including excessive tardiness despite evidence that she was usually timely and never more than five minutes late.

Blue was eventually temporarily suspended without pay and was later driven to take medical leave to escape the emotional stress of her work environment.

She later filed her own complaint with MEOC and brought the case to federal court. A jury found in her favor and awarded $202,396 in damages.

The union's appeal met little sympathy in the 7th Circuit, failing to show that details of Philips' case should have been excluded from Blue's trial. Blue had used the documents to prove retaliation and show the causal link between her activities and the adverse employment actions.

"The MEOC documentation helps to illustrate the cause-and-effect relation between action on Philips's complaint at the MEOC and the harsh retaliatory treatment endured by Blue," Wood wrote. "For example, the MEOC made an initial probable cause determination on Phillips's complaint on August 3, 2006. Four days later, Blue received a letter denying her overtime opportunities. She was entitled to present the probable cause determination to show, as she argued at trial, that the denial of overtime was a 'reaction to her participation in that case.'"

Blue was represented by Monona, Wis., attorney Mary E. Kennelly.

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