Sharon Johnson Coleman
Sharon Johnson Coleman

A federal judge cleared the way for a former 911 dispatcher to pursue a lawsuit accusing the village of Alsip of passing her over for a new position because of her age.

In a written opinion this week, U.S. District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman declined to throw out the suit Marlene Schumacher filed against the southwest suburban village under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

Coleman did not rule on the merits of Schumacher’s allegation that a discriminatory motive lay behind the village’s failure to consider her for the job of traffic records clerk after her position as a dispatcher was eliminated.

But Coleman held Schumacher presented enough evidence to go to trial on her claim that the village’s explanations for not hiring her amounted to pretext for age discrimination.

In April 2018, Alsip eliminated all its full-time dispatcher positions. Schumacher was 54 years old and had worked for the village for more than 30 years.

Five months earlier, the village board authorized a job posting for the position of a traffic records clerk in the police department.

A collective bargaining agreement required Alsip to hire “the most senior qualified bidder” who applied by the deadline “unless a less senior bidder possesses demonstrably superior skill and ability required by the position.”

After the village hired a 36-year-old woman named Catherine Gonzalez for the job, Schumacher filed a discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She filed her suit in December 2018.

In the position paper it submitted to the EEOC, Alsip cited Schumacher’s failure to file her application in time as the reason she was not hired.

In its initial discovery disclosures in the suit, Alsip mentioned it believed Gonzalez had superior qualifications but emphasized the missed deadline.

Schumacher, however, contends her application was late because the village failed to follow the collective bargaining agreement’s requirements for posting job openings.

The agreement requires openings to be posted on all bulletin boards in the police department for five working days.

Instead, Schumacher contends, the job opening for records clerk was posted only on the bulletin board in the hall outside of the police chief’s office and not for the required number of days.

She and another dispatcher did not see the posting, Schumacher alleges, because they checked only the bulletin boards near the time clock for dispatchers and records clerks.

Gonzalez was told about the opening by the police chief’s assistant, Schumacher alleges.

In her opinion Monday, Coleman concluded Schumacher had offered enough evidence of pretext to defeat Alsip’s motion for summary judgment.

“Pretext is more than faulty reasoning or bad judgment; pretext is a lie or a phony reason,” Coleman wrote, citing Barnes v. Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois, 946 F.3d 384 (7th Cir. 2020).

Evidence that the village did not follow the collective bargaining agreement’s requirements for posting job openings, Coleman wrote, “suggests Alsip’s reason for its hiring decision is unworthy of credence.”

The police chief’s testimony that Gonzalez was the superior candidate is “suspect,” she wrote, because “it is undisputed that he did not consider Schumacher’s qualifications or compare them to Gonzalez’s before his hiring decision.”

Also suspect is Alsip’s emphasis on Schumacher’s failure to meet the application deadline before switching its focus to Gonzalez’s purportedly superior qualifications, Coleman wrote.

“Alsip’s shifting explanations,” she wrote, “support a reasonable inference in Schumacher’s favor.”

And Schumacher offered evidence, Coleman wrote, “that had she remained employed by Alsip for a few more months until she turned 55, her health insurance retirement benefits would have vested with a substantially lower cost to her.”

The case is Marlene Schumacher v. Village of Alsip, No. 18 C 8087.

Schumacher is represented by Joel A. D’Alba and Matthew J. Pierce, both of Asher Gittler & D’Alba Ltd.

Pierce described Coleman’s opinion as “thorough and well-reasoned.”

“It has been disappointing to see how the village of Alsip has treated its former employee, who spent more than 30 years as a dedicated 911 dispatcher for the village,” he said in a statement.

“We are pleased that the court recognized the numerous holes in the village’s story, which suggest that the village’s shifting explanations for its actions were fishy and unworthy of credence.”

Alsip is represented by Elizabeth M. Attard and Michael G. Cainkar, both of Louis F. Cainkar Ltd.

“I respect the judge’s decision,” Cainkar said in a statement.