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Green v. City of Hughes

United States District Court, E.D. Arkansas, Eastern Division

May 17, 2017

KRISTY GREEN PLAINTIFF
v.
CITY OF HUGHES, ARKANSAS; GRADY COLLUM, Mayor, in his official and individual capacity; THOMAS CAMPBELL, in his official capacity as City Council Member; IRENE COMBS, in her official capacity as City Council Member; MALCOLM CURNE, in his official capacity as City Council Member; RUDOLPH ROBINSON, in his official capacity as City Council Member; JON TATE, in his official capacity as City Council Member; and JESSE WHITE, in his official capacity as City Council Member DEFENDANTS

          OPINION AND ORDER

          J. LEON HOLMES UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Kristy Green, a black female, was the Chief of Police for the City of Hughes, Arkansas. Grady Collum, a white male, was the mayor. Collum demoted, then terminated[1] Green. Thomas Campbell, Irene Combs, Malcolm Curne, Rudolph Robinson, Jon Tate, and Jesse White served on the city council at the time. Green alleges that Collum and the city council members discriminated against her due to her race and sex. Based on those allegations, she has asserted claims for a violation of equal protection pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and a violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981.[2] The defendants have filed a motion for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. For the following reasons, the motion is granted.

         I.

         A court should grant summary judgment if the evidence demonstrates that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The moving party bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine dispute for trial. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 2553, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). If the moving party meets that burden, the nonmoving party must come forward with specific facts that establish a genuine dispute of material fact. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587, 106 S.Ct. 1348, 1356, 89 L.Ed.2d 538 (1986); Torgerson v. City of Rochester, 643 F.3d 1031, 1042 (8th Cir. 2011) (en banc). A genuine dispute of material fact exists only if the evidence is sufficient to allow a reasonable jury to return a verdict in favor of the nonmoving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2510, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). The Court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and must give that party the benefit of all reasonable inferences that can be drawn from the record. Pedersen v. Bio-Med. Applications of Minn., 775 F.3d 1049, 1053 (8th Cir. 2015). If the nonmoving party fails to present evidence sufficient to establish an essential element of a claim on which that party bears the burden of proof, then the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Id.

         II.

         The following facts are undisputed. Green started working for the Hughes Police Department as a part-time patrol officer in February 2013. She was working full-time as a patrol officer by May 2013. Green was promoted to assistant police chief on November 26. She accepted the position of interim police chief on June 2, 2014. Green graduated from the police academy on December 2 and became the police chief on December 17. The parties agree that Green's responsibilities as chief included patrolling the streets of Hughes, writing reports and citations, appearing in court, making arrests, supervising officers, scheduling and covering shifts as needed, handling employee and citizen complaints, performing disciplinary actions, maintaining personnel files, helping the mayor make personnel decisions, familiarizing herself with the court, and developing a relationship with the county sheriff's department.

         Collum was elected mayor and took office on January 1, 2015. Collum is a medical doctor. Prior to his becoming mayor, the only direct interaction Collum had with Green was in the patient-doctor context. Once Collum became mayor, he met with Green on occasion to give her certain directives about the scheduling of shifts, the care of equipment, the hiring of certified personnel, the importance of being courteous and reasonable when dealing with citizens, and the avoidance of situations requiring the use of firearms. In early 2016, Collum ran an advertisement in two local publications, advertising that Hughes was accepting applications for police chief through February 20. On February 25, Collum wrote Green a letter to inform her that the Hughes Police Department was to be disbanded, effectively eliminating the position of police chief. Green continued working and the county sheriff provided her a schedule, which changed her work hours. Green was terminated[3] March 9. Green asked Collum to involve the city council in an attempt to appeal her termination, but Green remained terminated.

         III.

         Courts have held that the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment confers on an individual a right to be free of race and sex discrimination in public employment. Henley v. Brown, 686 F.3d 634, 642 (8th Cir. 2012); Tipler v. Douglas Cnty. Neb., 482 F.3d 1023, 1027 (8th Cir. 2007). Such a claim may be asserted under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Brown, 686 F.3d at 642-43. The Eighth Circuit “has held that a § 1983 claim based on alleged violation of equal protection in the employment context is analyzed in the same way as a Title VII claim of sex, race, or religious discrimination.” Mummelthie v. City of Mason City, Ia., 873 F.Supp. 1293, 1333 (N.D. Iowa 1995) aff'd 78 F.3d 589 (8th Cir. 1996). Likewise, the elements of a Title VII employment discrimination claim and a section 1981 claim in the employment context are identical inasmuch as section 1981 prohibits discrimination in the making and enforcement of private contracts. See Gregory v. Dillard's, Inc., 565 F.3d 464, 469 (8th Cir. 2009); Kim v. Nash Finch Co., 123 F.3d 1046, 1056, 1060 (8th Cir.1997). Therefore, to avoid summary judgment on her employment discrimination claims, Green must either produce direct evidence of discrimination or generate a genuine dispute of material fact for trial under the burden-shifting framework established in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802-05, 93 S.Ct. 1817, 36 L.Ed.2d 668 (1973). Floyd-Gimon v. Univ. of Ark. for Med. Sci., 716 F.3d 1141, 1149 (8th Cir. 2013).

         A. Direct Evidence

         Green argues that she has submitted direct evidence of race and sex discrimination. “Direct evidence is evidence that establishes ‘a specific link between the discriminatory animus and the challenged decision, sufficient to support a finding by a reasonable fact finder that an illegitimate criterion actually motivated the employer's decision.'” Twymon v. Wells Fargo & Co., 462 F.3d 925, 933 (8th Cir. 2006) (quoting Putman v. Unity Health Sys., 348 F.3d 732, 735 (8th Cir. 2003)). “‘[D]irect' refers to the casual strength of the proof, not whether it is ‘circumstantial' evidence.” Torgerson v. City of Rochester, 643 F.3d 1031, 1043 (8th Cir. 2011). Direct evidence may include remarks by a decisionmaker, but does not include “stray remarks in the workplace, statements by nondecisionmakers, or statements by decisionmakers unrelated to the decisional process itself.” Doucette v. Morrison Cnty., Minn., 763 F.3d 978, 986 (8th Cir. 2014).

         As direct evidence, Green first cites two comments[4] made by Collum, which she argues indicate his intent to discriminate against her based on race: (1) he stated that a black police officer should “go back to the fields”[5] and (2) in a public board meeting he stated to audience members asking questions that “you people are interrupting my meeting.”[6] Document #30 at 12. Collum denies making the comments, but the Court must view the evidence in a light most favorable to Green and avoid making credibility determinations, which are reserved for the jury. Assuming Collum made the comments, they do not “clearly point[ ] to the presence of an illegal motive” behind Green's termination. Griffith v. City of Des Moines, 387 F.3d 733, 736 (8th Cir. 2004).

         The “go back to the fields” comment is not race-neutral. Greens says Collum made the comment to her in the spring of 2015 during a conversation the two were having about sending an officer named Robert Thomas to the police academy. Collum directed Green to do what she wanted in regards to his continued employment but stated that Thomas was not going to the academy. Document #30-1 at 40. “Not all comments that may reflect a discriminatory attitude are sufficiently related to the adverse employment action in question” to permit the fact finder to infer that the discriminatory attitude was more likely than not a motivating factor in the employer's decision. Walton v. McDonnell Douglas Corp., 167 F.3d 423, 426 (8th Cir. 1999). See also Saulsberry v. St. Mary's Univ. of Minn., 318 F.3d 862, 867-68 (8th Cir. 2003) (stating that an “isolated, stray comment unrelated to the decisional process” is not direct evidence of discrimination, even if the comment is made by a decisionmaker). Collum's comment about Thomas is not connected to Green's termination; it is a stray comment, despite the fact that it was made by a decisionmaker. Twymon, 462 F.3d at 934.

         The “you people are interrupting my meeting” comment is race-neutral on its face, as well as in its context. See Twymon, 462 F.3d at 934 (“Facially race-neutral statements, without more, do not demonstrate racial animus on the part of the speaker.”). In Doucette v. Morrison Cnty. Minn., the employee's supervisor commented in a staff meeting that older people should not be in law enforcement. 763 F.3d at 986. The supervisor's audience was composed solely of older women. Id. The Eighth Circuit held that the comment was gender-neutral, but that even if it was not, the employee failed to demonstrate that the remark, “while made by a decision-maker, was connected to the ...


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