Updates to our Terms of Use

We are updating our Terms of Use. Please carefully review the updated Terms before proceeding to our website.

Monday, May 20, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Prison Counselor Loses Hiring Retaliation Case

CHICAGO (CN) - A prison counselor cannot sue her would-be employer for retaliation after it allegedly did not hire her because she supported a former colleague's sex discrimination claim, the 7th Circuit ruled.

Connie Orton-Bell was a substance abuse counselor at a maximum security prison, when an investigator discovered that night-shift employees were having sex on Orton-Bell's desk.

Outraged, she asked the investigator what they ought to do next, and he advised her to wash off her desk in the morning.

Superintendent Alan Finnan also told her he was not concerned about night shift employees having sex with one another at work.

But Finnan was not so blasé when he discovered Orton-Bell was having an affair with Major Joe Ditmer, who was in charge of custody - and having sex on Ditmer's desk.

Both Orton-Bell and Ditmer were fired, but Ditmer was soon allowed to work at the prison again as a contractor.

In July, the 7th Circuit ruled that Orton-Bell could sue for sex discrimination, as well as for a hostile work environment.

But the Chicago-based appeals court was not amenable to related claims brought by Orton-Bell's colleague Diane Ripberger, who allegedly told Orton-Bell how to filed a sex discrimination grievance and appeared with Orton-Bell at the hearing on her discrimination complaint.

Ripberger claims she lost her job as a substance abuse counselor because she supported Orton-Bell.

But the 7th Circuit said the prison's decision to privatize counseling services, and the associated reduction of staff, did not target Ripberger in retaliation for her support of Orton-Bell.

"Ripberger has not established that Finnan had any say in Corizon's hiring decisions. It is clear from the evidence that [Substance Abuse Director Mick] Schoenradt made the hiring decisions for [private contractor] Corizon, and Ripberger has provided nothing beyond her own speculation that Finnan had some 'say so' in the decision-making," Judge Ilana Rovner said, writing for the three-judge panel.

A Corizon employee allegedly told Ripberger that her support of Orton-Bell may have doomed her chance to keep her job, but the court said this statement was mere "speculation."

Instead of Ripberger, Corizon hired a less qualified substance abuse counselor, Randy Smith, to fill one of the empty positions. But this fact alone is not evidence of sex discrimination, the court ruled.

"Ripberger points to Smith's later termination as evidence of sex discrimination. But the fact that in hindsight Ripberger may have been a better choice than Smith does nothing to establish that he was hired over Ripberger because she is a female," Rovner said. "If anything, it may demonstrate Corizon's short-sightedness in prioritizing continuity of care over experience and certification, but as discussed above, it is not our province to assess the wisdom of Corizon's personnel decisions."

Categories / Uncategorized

Subscribe to Closing Arguments

Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.