Cook County Record

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Ex-sewage worker wins chance to argue Metro Water District fired him for being black, with 'alcohol disability'


By Dan Churney | Jun 19, 2019

1280px stickney water reclamation plant
MWRD sewage treatment plant, Stickney, Ill. | brewbooks from near Seattle, USA [CC BY-SA 2.0 (]

A Chicago federal appellate court has reversed the dismissal of a suit by a man who claims the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago fired him because he is black and allegedly disabled by alcoholism, saying the man has presented plausible arguments for his case to continue, but not necessarily to prevail.

The June 14 decision was delivered by Chief Judge Diane Wood, with agreement from Judges Frank Easterbrook and Ilana Rovner, of the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. The ruling reversed the dismissal of an action brought by Shaka Freeman, who worked for the reclamation district for several months before he was fired while on probationary status.

About three months after Freeman was hired, he was charged with driving under the influence of alcohol and his license was suspended for six months, according to his suit. Freeman told supervisors about the arrest and suspension, and told them he was seeing a counselor for his alcohol problem. Freeman's job called for him to collect and transport water samples across the mile-long sewage plant, driving a district vehicle. The job did not require a driver's license.

U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Judge Diane P. Wood |

However, to avoid any difficulties, Freeman said he bought a bicycle with which to carry samples around the plant, and asked the district if he could also operate a John Deere go-cart, for which a license is not required on private property. Further, Freeman sought from the state an occupational driving permit, which would have let him drive a district vehicle while working. The state agreed, contingent on the district's approval, but the district refused the accommodation and fired him for "unsatisfactory performance," court papers said.

Freeman alleged the real reasons for his termination were he is black and was considered an alcoholic. Freeman, serving as his own attorney, then filed a suit in 2017 in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, alleging he was discriminated against because he is black and disabled by alcoholism. As the suit proceeded, Freeman hired four  attorneys in succession, but one after the other, they withdrew, because of differences with Freeman. He is now back to representing himself.

U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber threw out the suit, saying Freeman was short on substance, such as failing to show the district treated him less favorably than non-black employees and not indicating how his alcoholism substantially limited his activity or caused his firing.

Judge Wood determined Leinenweber wanted more from Freeman than was necessary.

"We conclude that the district court erred by demanding too much specificity in Freeman’s complaint. A plaintiff alleging race discrimination need not allege each evidentiary element of a legal theory to survive a motion to dismiss. We emphasize that we are holding only that these allegations suffice to initiate Freeman’s litigation. Later proceedings will determine whether he can prove them," Wood said.

Contrary to Leinenweber, Wood found Freeman put forth adequate arguments the district may have regarded Freeman as an alcoholic in light of his DUI, then decided his alleged alcoholism impaired his ability to work safely. Such alleged impairment could be interpreted as a disability, Wood reasoned.

Wood pointed out Freeman will have to prove that his claimed alcoholic disability and his request for accommodation from the district were behind his termination.

Leinenweber also dismissed the suit on grounds Freeman failed to make a "short and plain statement of the claim." Wood described Freeman's 70-page amended complaints as "sprawling" and "unwieldy," but also overturned this basis for dismissal, saying Freeman "adequately states his claims," so "we and the district court may ignore the excess."

MWRD in-house attorney Susan Morakalis is representing the district. There were no oral arguments on appeal. Instead, the appeals court relied on written briefs and the case record.

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U.S. District Court for the Northern District of IllinoisU.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh CircuitMetropolitan Water Reclamation District

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