Patterson v. Mobile County Commission et al
ORDER AND MEMORANDUM OPINION, GRANTING Defendant's 37 Motion for Summary Judgment. Signed by Senior Judge Callie V. S. Granade on 8/3/2017. (mab)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
SAM COCHRAN, as Sheriff of
Mobile County, Alabama
CIVIL NO. 16–00019–CG–C
ORDER AND MEMORANDUM OPINION
This matter is before the Court on the Defendant’s Motion for
Summary Judgment and brief in support (Docs. 37, 38, 39), Plaintiff’s
Response (Doc. 43) and Defendant’s Reply (Docs. 48, 49). For the reasons
detailed below, the motion is due to be granted.
Plaintiff Kelvin Patterson (“Patterson”), an African-American male,
first began working at the Baldwin County, Alabama Sheriff’s Office in
February 1995 as a deputy. (Doc. 44-1, ¶ 3). In November 2004, he received a
promotion to the rank of corporal. Id. In the intervening thirteen or so years,
Patterson has worked on patrol, in support services in the civil division, and
in “intel.” (Doc. 39-1, p. 4). The Mobile County Sheriff’s Office conducts
annual service ratings reports for its officers. The officer receives a ranking
from (1) to (4) at the following levels: (1) exceptional job performance, (2) high
quality job performance, (3) satisfactory job performance, or (4)
unsatisfactory job performance. (See, e.g., Doc. 39-1, p. 24). In November
2014, Patterson received a rating of “(3) satisfactory job performance” from
his supervisor. Id. Patterson received verbal coaching on improving his
decision-making skills. Id. at p. 9. Patterson received the same rating in both
November 2013 and 2015. Id. at pp. 10,23.
In his complaint, Patterson alleges he was passed over for a promotion
to sergeant between December 2015 and February 2017 based on race
discrimination and in retaliation for his protected activity. (See generally
Docs. 1, 18).
A. Disciplinary Reprimands
In 2014, Lieutenant Chris Evans, a Caucasian male, became
Patterson’s line supervisor. (Doc. 1, p. 5). Patterson alleges Lt. Evans
harassed him by singling him out, due to his race, over the course of his
assignment in his unit. (See generally Doc. 1; Doc. 18; Doc. 23). In August
2015, Lt. Evans initiated an internal reprimand against Patterson for “failure
to follow orders.” (See Doc. 39-1, p. 29). The events leading up to this internal
disciplinary action concerned a crime report from August 15, 2015, in which
Lt. Evans ordered Patterson “to send a couple of cars [to the scene]” and to
take necessary action of issuing warrant slips and/or arresting the
individuals in question. (Doc. 39-5, p. 3). Patterson did not send the units to
respond as directed and admitted he “‘failed to follow the crime report
properly.’” Id. Lt. Evans thus concluded:
By his own admission, I find that Corporal Kelvin
Patterson failed to follow policy for the Crime Reports by
not sending units to check on the situation and by failing
to report back via email on the findings.
By his own admission, I also find Corporal Patterson
failed to follow my verbal direct order to send units to the
address and assess the situation.
Id. at p. 4. Lt. Evans recommended Patterson “receive a ‘Counseling
Statement’ for failure to follow policy and verbal orders.” Id. Captain Frank
Cassidy initially concurred in the recommendation, but upon Chief Deputy
David Wilhelm’s inquiry as to “Patterson’s reason(s) for his failure to obey a
direct order,” Cpt. Cassidy obtained an updated report from Lt. Evans. Id. at
pp. 3, 6). After the updated report, Cpt. Cassidy concurred with the findings
but recommended Patterson receive a “LOR” or Letter of Reprimand, a more
severe disciplinary action. Id. at p. 4. On September 14, 2015, Defendant
Sheriff Sam Cochran issued a letter to Patterson to “serve as an official
reprimand for your actions on August 15, 2015 as it related to your failure to
follow orders given by Lieutenant Chris Evans.” (Doc. 39-1, p. 29). Patterson
received notice of the LOR on September 21, 2015. Id. at p. 30.
On August 26, 2016, Patterson received a second LOR for “attempting
to serve a warrant that was no longer active.” (Doc. 39-5, p. 10). Lieutenant
Roderick Bonner submitted the initial write-up of the offense, and Sheriff
Cochran concurred in Lt. Bonner’s recommendation for a LOR. Id. at p. 15.
Patterson fully admitted he “did not verify if [the warrant] was still active—
[he] only assumed it still was.” Id. at p. 19.
B. Patterson’s Internal Grievance
On September 21, 2015, Patterson filed an internal grievance against
Lt. Evans to Cpt. Cassidy. (Doc. 39-1, p. 28). He claimed Lt. Evans “has
continually called me into his office for minimal offenses at the worst and
made this a hostile work environment for me.” Id. He further stated, “Lt.
Evans is known to have issues with black supervisors[.]” Id. He also alleged
his LOR from September 2015 was illegitimate: “Lt. Evans pursued an
insubordination reprimand on me which was totally unfair because
insubordination is a willful neglect of a direct order which wasn’t the case
involving a crime report.” Id.
Cpt. Cassidy conducted an investigation into Patterson’s claims that
Lt. Evan’s reprimand was racially motivated. (Doc. 39-1, p. 11). Cpt. Cassidy
spoke with both Patterson and Lt. Evans, collected documentation, and
removed Patterson from Lt. Evans’s direct supervision. Id. at pp. 11–13, 31.
After the investigation, the Sheriff’s Office concluded “the complaint [was]
unfounded” and advised Patterson of his right to appeal to the Personnel
Board. Id. at p. 31. Patterson appealed, instead, directly to Sheriff Cochran in
a “face-to-face meeting” in late October 2015. Id. at p. 14, 16. In that meeting,
Patterson alleges Sheriff Cochran assured him the September 2015 LOR
would not “affect any promotional opportunity” in the Sheriff’s Office. Id. at
C. Patterson’s EEOC Filings
After receiving the Sheriff’s Office’s decision on his internal grievance
against Lt. Evans, Patterson filed an EEOC charge of discrimination (no.
425–2015–01185) on October 1, 2015.1 (Doc. 39-1, p. 33). In the charge, he
alleged he received the LOR “because [he is] Black.” Id. After not receiving a
promotion to sergeant, see infra, Patterson filed a second EEOC charge (no.
425–2016–00216) alleging retaliation for his first EEOC charge. (Doc. 39-4, p.
The EEOC issued a Dismissal and Notice of Rights to the first charge
on October 16, 2015. (Doc. 1, p. 12). Patterson filed his initial complaint on
January 12, 2016, within the ninety-day deadline. (Doc. 1). Patterson alleges
the second charge was also dismissed. (Doc. 18, ¶ 10).
D. The Sergeant Promotions
The Mobile County Sheriff’s Office promoted nine individuals to the
rank of sergeant between December 2015 and February 2017. (Doc. 39-3, ¶ 9).
These individuals were selected from a pool of fourteen applicants, who were
selected by the Mobile County Personnel Board after taking a written test.
(Doc. 39-2, p. 22). The successful applicants were ranked according to their
written test score, education, and seniority. Id. (“60 percent of that score was
written test, 20 percent was education, and 20 percent was seniority.”).
Patterson was ranked number four on the final candidate list. (Doc. 39-8, p.
2). In December 2015, five sergeant positions were available. (Doc. 39-3, ¶ 9).
The local EEOC office received the charge on October 1. Patterson dated the
charge on September 26, 2015. (Doc. 39-1, p. 33).
One more position became available in January 2016, and three positions
opened in January and February of 2017. Id.
Defendant Sheriff Cochran appointed Chief Deputy Wilhelm, Major
Eddy Burroughs, and Director of Human Resources Cynthia Coleman2 to a
panel to interview the applicants for the sergeant position in late November
2015. (Doc. 39-2, pp. 12–13; Doc. 39-3, ¶ 8). Chief Deputy Wilhelm testified
both he and Ms. Coleman knew of Patterson’s first EEOC charge at the time
of the interview. (Doc. 44-2, pp. 6–7). The panel interviewed all fourteen
candidates, each for approximately thirty minutes. (Doc. 39-3, ¶ 8; Doc. 29-1,
p. 18). The panel further reviewed each candidate’s personnel file and
discussed the candidates’ responses to interview questions. After assessing
all of the information, the panel as a whole ranked the candidates “as to who
the panel believed were the best qualified based upon their answers to the
questions asked at the interview, their presence during the interviews, their
demeanor during the interviews[,] and their history as reflected in their
personnel file.” (Doc. 39-3, ¶ 8; see also Doc. 39-2, p. 22). The panel discussed
their impressions of all the candidates and provided Sheriff Cochran with a
recommendation of who should be promoted. (Doc. 39-2, p. 31). The panel reranked Patterson at a lower position based primarily on his performance in
the interview. Id. at p. 25.
Both Chief Deputy Wilhelm and Maj. Burroughs are Caucasian males; Ms.
Coleman is an African-American female. (Doc. 39-3, ¶ 8).
The interview panel collectively concluded Patterson performed
unsatisfactorily in the interviews. Ms. Coleman stated in her affidavit,
Mr. Patterson had the poorest responses to the
questions given during the interview[,] and his
overall demeanor was the weakest of all the
candidates. Mr. Patterson’s responses to the
interview questions were indecisive, he rambled[,]
and he did not demonstrate the qualities and
characteristics needed to be a First Line Supervisor.
Patterson had some recent disciplinary issues[,] and
his service ratings and achievements were less than
those candidates selected.
(Doc. 39-3, ¶ 8). In comparison, the selected candidates “presented
themselves better at the interview, gave a clearer and more concise response
to the questions[,] and had outstanding and/or exceptional service ratings for
the years preceding their selection.” Id. Chief Deputy Wilhelm testified
Patterson “was non responsive to the question” and seemed “not [to]
understand the question and would answer in another way” during his
interview. (Doc. 39-2, p. 26). Further, he noted several of the promoted
candidates had received commendations for their work in the department,
such as Deputy of the Year or Deputy of the Month awards. Id. at p. 33.
The following corporals were promoted to Sergeant in December 2015:
Patrick Bolton (Caucasian male); Terri Hall (African-American female);
Richard Murphy (Caucasian male); Frederick Reed (African-American male);
and Larry White (Caucasian male). (Doc. 39-3, ¶ 9). Roy Emmons (Caucasian
male) received a promotion to sergeant in January 2016, and Davis Smith,
Johnny Miller, and Jerry Hurst (all Caucasian males) were promoted in
January and February of 2017. Id. The same initial list of candidates was
used for all promotions in the relevant timeframe. (Doc. 39-2, p. 27). Of the
original fourteen candidates, five—including Patterson—did not receive a
promotion. (Doc. 39-8, p. 2).
II. Standard of Review
Summary judgment should be granted only if “there is no genuine
dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a
matter of law.” FED. R. CIV. P. 56(a). The party seeking summary judgment
bears “the initial burden to show the district court, by reference to the
materials on file, that there are no genuine issues of material fact that should
be decided at trial.” Clark v. Coats & Clark, Inc., 929 F.2d 604, 608 (11th Cir.
1991). The moving party may meet its burden in either of two ways: (1) by
“negating an element of the non-moving party’s claim” or (2) by “point[ing] to
materials on file that demonstrate that the party bearing the burden of proof
at trial will not be able to meet that burden.” Id. “Even after Celotex it is
never enough simply to state that the non-moving party cannot meet its
burden at trial.” Id.; accord Mullins v. Crowell, 228 F.2d 1305, 1313 (11th
Cir. 2000); Sammons v. Taylor, 967 F.2d 1533, 1538 (11th Cir. 1992).
“If the party moving for summary judgment fails to discharge the
initial burden, then the motion must be denied and the court need not
consider what, if any, showing the non-movant has made.” Fitzpatrick v. City
of Altanta, 2 F.3d 1112, 1116 (11th Cir. 1993); accord Mullins, 228 F.2d at
1313; Clark, 929 F.2d at 608. “If, however, the movant carries the initial
summary judgment burden . . ., the responsibility then devolves upon the
non-movant to show the existence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Id. “If
the nonmoving party fails to make ‘a sufficient showing on an essential
element of her case with respect to which she has the burden of proof,’ the
moving party is entitled to summary judgment.” Clark, 929 F.2d at 608
(quoting Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986) (footnote omitted);
see also FED. R. CIV. P. 56(e)(2) (“If a party fails to properly support an
assertion of fact or fails to properly address another party’s assertion of fact
as required by Rule 56(c), the court may . . . consider the fact undisputed for
purposes of the motion . . . .”). In deciding a motion for summary judgment,
“[t]he evidence, and all reasonable inferences, must be viewed in the light
most favorable to the nonmovant”—here, Plaintiff Patterson. McCormick v.
City of Fort Lauderdale, 333 F.3d 1234, 1243 (11th Cir. 2003).
Patterson first alleges a claim of race discrimination against Sheriff
Sam Cochran for his failure to promote Patterson to sergeant. In his second
count, Patterson alleges the Sheriff retaliated against him for filing EEOC
complaints about race discrimination. The Court will address each in turn.
Because Patterson does not rely on direct evidence of discrimination,
the shifting burden appropriate for cases resting on circumstantial evidence
applies. See McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802 (1973). In
Title VII cases alleging discrimination, the burden is first on the plaintiff to
establish a prima facie case. If he succeeds, the employer must meet its
burden of producing evidence of one or more legitimate, nondiscriminatory
reasons for the adverse employment action. The burden then shifts back to
the plaintiff-employee to show the employer’s proffered reasons are a mere
pretext for illegal discrimination. See, e.g., Scott v. Suncoast Beverage Sales,
Ltd., 295 F.2d 1223, 1228 (11th Cir. 2002); Jenkins v. National Waterworks,
Inc., 502 Fed. App’x 830, 831 (11th Cir. 2012).
A. Race Discrimination
For the present purposes, Defendant assumes Patterson can establish
a prima facie case of race discrimination. The Court, therefore, advances to
the second step of the analysis.
1. Legitimate, Nondiscriminatory Reasons
Defendant offers the following reasons for not promoting Patterson
from corporal to sergeant: (1) the selected candidates performed better in
their interviews with the panel; (2) the promoted candidates’ service records
and annual performance ratings were higher; and (3) the selected candidates
lacked disciplinary issues in their personnel file. (Doc. 38, p. 7).
To meet its intermediate burden, a defendant must articulate a reason
“legally sufficient” to justify judgment in its favor and must support its
articulated nondiscriminatory reason “through the introduction of admissible
evidence.” Texas Dep’t of Community Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 255
(1981). “[T]he defendant’s explanation of its legitimate reasons must be clear
and reasonably specific . . . . This obligation arises both from the necessity of
rebutting the inference of discrimination arising from the prima facie case
and from the requirement that the plaintiff be afforded a full and fair
opportunity to demonstrate pretext.” Id. at 258.
Defendant easily carries his burden. The record plainly demonstrates
the promoted officers each received higher annual service ratings than
Patterson in the two years preceding the promotion. Patterson received a (3)
“satisfactory job performance” rating in both November 2014 and 2015. (Doc.
39-1, pp. 23–24). All of the candidates promoted in December 2015 and
January 2016 received a rating of (1) “exceptional job performance” or (2)
“high quality job performance” in the two review periods prior to their
promotion. (See generally Doc. 37-9).
Further, deposition and affidavit testimony reveal the interviewing
panel, as a whole, believed the other candidates performed better in their
respective interviews than Patterson did in his. For example, other
candidates provided more succinct, cohesive answers and demonstrated a
deeper understanding of the qualities of a sergeant. (See, e.g., Doc. 39-2, p.
24) (“Corporal Bolton responded with answers that were very clear, answers
that . . . suggested that he had a very clear understanding of the
fundamentals of leadership, of . . . decision making processes, and that he
articulated those very well . . . . being able to articulate and to demonstrate
a—a full knowledge of—of the issues that were probed by the questions.);
Doc. 39-2, ¶ 8 (“Mr. Patterson had the poorest responses to the questions
given during the interview and his overall demeanor was the weakest of all
the candidates.”). In fact, the panel represented Patterson responded to the
questions in an “indecisive” manner and failed to “demonstrate the qualities
and characteristics needed to be a First Line Supervisor.” (Doc. 39-3, ¶ 8; see
also Doc. 44-2, p. 5 (“The one thing that I do remember is that Corporal
Patterson was non responsive to the question. And by that, I mean that he
seemed to, in some cases, not understand the question and would answer in
another way . . . . And I remember that we discussed that as a panel.”)).
Given that only six of the fourteen candidates were promoted in
December 2015 and January 20163, the reasons Defendant offered as to why
it did not promote Patterson to the rank of sergeant are legitimate and
nondiscriminatory. The focus of this inquiry thus shifts to pretext.
At the third stage of the analysis, the question is whether “the
legitimate reasons offered by the defendant were not its true reasons, but
were a pretext for discrimination.” Burdine, 450 U.S. at 252. If the proffered
reason is one that might motivate a reasonable employer, a plaintiff cannot
merely recast the reason but must “meet that reason head on and rebut it.”
Moreover, five of the original fourteen candidates never received a
promotion in the two-year period, ending in February 2017. (See Doc. 39-8, p.
Chapman v. AI Transp., 229 F.3d 1012, 1030 (11th Cir. 2000) (en banc). In
the context of a promotion, “a plaintiff cannot prove pretext by simply
arguing or even by showing that he was better qualified than the [persons]
who received the position he coveted. A plaintiff must show not merely that
the defendant’s employment decisions were mistaken but that they were in
fact motivated by race.” Brooks v. Cnty. Comm’n of Jefferson Cnty., 446 F.3d
1160, 1163 (11th Cir. 2006) (citing Alexander v. Fulton Cnty., 207 F.3d 1303,
1339 (11th Cir. 2000)). Further, Patterson must show the disparities between
the successful applicants’ and his own qualifications were “of such weight and
significance that no reasonable person, in the exercise of impartial judgment,
could have chosen the candidate[s] selected over the plaintiff.” Cooper v.
Southern Co., 390 F.2d 695, 732 (11th Cir. 2004), cert. denied, 546 U.S. 960
(2005) (citation omitted).
Patterson attempts to prove pretext by claiming he was more qualified
based on his past experience as a temporary supervisor and Chief Deputy
Wilhelm’s racial animus. (Doc. 43, pp. 10–13). As Defendant notes,
Patterson’s first argument is directly contradicted by Defendant’s response to
the Request for Admissions. In that document, Patterson stated, “That at
least four (4) of the individuals promoted to the rank of Sergeant, between
December 1, 2015 and February 17, 2017, have never served in an ‘acting’ or
‘temporary’ role as Sergeant.” (Doc. 49-1, p. 2; see also Doc. 44-2, pp. 3–4).
Defendant denied this request for admission but freely admitted Patterson
himself had served in an “acting” or “temporary” Sergeant position. (Doc. 491, p. 2). Moreover, the Court detects a red herring in this argument:
Defendant did not proffer “lack of supervisory experience” or something
similar as a reason not to promoted Patterson to sergeant. Rather, it was
Patterson’s unimpressive interview, lower annual review ratings, and his
disciplinary record that served to recommend others over him.
Patterson’s suggestion that his service ratings were “based on a more
stressful and demanding role as squad leader,” thus “making a fair
comparison almost impossible,” also misses the mark. (See Doc. 43, p. 13; see
also Doc. 44-1, ¶¶ 27–28). As this Court has noted before, “This kind of selfserving, conjectural testimony divorced from the witness’s own personal
knowledge is not properly considered on summary judgment.” Woods v.
Austal, U.S.A., LLC, No. 09–699–WS–N, 2011 WL 1380054 at *14 n. 42 (S.D.
Ala. Apr. 11, 2011) (citing Rowell v. BellSouth Corp., 433 F.2d 794, 800 (11th
Cir. 2005) (“On motions for summary judgment, we may consider only that
evidence which can be reduced to admissible form.”). Patterson himself
admits Richard Murphy, who was promoted to sergeant in December 2015,
had similar leadership experience; it follows, then, that he would be an apt
comparator. Sgt. Murphy received a rating of (2) “high quality job
performance” for the two years preceding his promotion. (Doc. 39-7, pp. 13–
19). As Defendant also admitted, other candidates also served as temporary
supervisors before their promotions and maintained higher annual service
ratings. (See Docs. 44-2, pp. 3–4; 39-7). Thus, Patterson’s argument that the
annual service ratings cannot be a valid basis for denying his promotion fails.
Next, Patterson argues his letter of reprimand and the entire interview
process were colored by Chief Deputy Wilhelm’s racial animus. These
arguments, however, hold no water. First, Patterson never points to any
evidence showing Chief Deputy Wilhelm’s dislike of Patterson—if it even
exists—relates to or stems from his protected status as an African-American
male.4 Second, Chief Deputy Wilhelm testified the Sheriff’s Office removed
Patterson from Lt. Evan’s line of command as a method to resolve the
grievance between Lt. Evans and Patterson. (Doc. 39-2, p. 11). Third, the
Chief Deputy, as the corporate representative of the Sheriff’s Office, testified
In fact, Patterson originally claimed Lt. Evans harbored racial animus
against him and “made obscene and animated remarks.” (Doc. 1, p. 3; Doc.
23, ¶¶ 4, 6). He also alleged Lt. Evans singled him out by making him stand
up to introduce himself to a new employee when all the other Caucasian
deputies remained seated. Id. at p. 6. He further alleged he “was continually
singled out” by Lt. Evans but does not provide any other specific instances
involving race as a distinguishing factor. Id. at pp. 4–11). In his response
brief, however, Patterson admits Lt. Evans did not recommend a letter of
reprimand; rather, he recommended the less severe censure of a “counseling
statement.” (Doc. 43, p. 10). Patterson then claims the letter of reprimand
was a conspiracy to punish him shortly before the sergeant promotions by
Chief Deputy Wilhelm. Id. at pp. 10–11. Nowhere, however, does he connect
Lt. Evans’s alleged racial animus to Chief Deputy Wilhelm’s actions.
Further, Patterson cannot change his pleadings or theory of the case through
argument at the summary judgment stage. See Gilmour v. Gates, McDonald
and Co., 382 F.3d 1312, 1315 (11th Cir. 2004) (“A plaintiff may not amend
her complaint through argument in a brief opposing summary judgment.”);
Hurlbert v. St. Mary’s Health Care Sys., Inc., 439 F.3d 1286, 1297 (11th Cir.
2006) (having proceeded through discovery without seeking to amend
complaint to reflect new theory of cause of action, plaintiff “was not entitled
to raise it in the midst of summary judgment”).
the interview panel worked as a cohesive group to recommend sergeant
promotions such that one individual did not control the process. Id. at p. 21
(“We sometimes—I don’t want to say disagree but we had . . . differing points
of view. . . . And I made no effort to—to have the primary role of it. It was for
the committee to come to a consensus, and so that it’s not my consensus or
Major Burroughs’ consensus—or Major Burroughs’ opinion or Ms. Coleman’s
opinion alone.”). Thus, Patterson has failed to connect any racial animus to
the decision not to promote him.
As the Eleventh Circuit has noted, “[p]ersonal qualities . . . factor
heavily into employment decisions concerning supervisory or professional
positions. Traits such as common sense, good judgment, originality, ambition,
loyalty, and tact often must be assessed primarily in a subjective fashion, yet
they are essential to an individual’s success in a supervisory or professional
position.” Denney v. City of Albany, 247 F.3d 1172, 1186 (11th Cir. 2001)
(citation and internal quotations omitted) (quoting Chapman, 229 F.3d at
1033–34)). Generally, “the fact that an employer based a hiring or promotion
decision on purely subjective criteria will rarely, if ever, prove pretext. . . .”
Id. at 1185. Indeed, “[a] subjective reason is a legally sufficient, legitimate,
nondiscriminatory reason if the defendant articulates a clear and reasonably
specific factual basis upon which it based its subjective opinion.” Id. at 1186.
The Court finds Defendant provided a sufficiently specific factual basis for its
opinion that other candidates were more qualified for the promotion to
sergeant. As such, the Court concludes the promotion of the other candidates
over Patterson, based on the interviewing panel’s view of their relative
qualifications, was a reasonable business decision. See Springer v. Convergys
Customer Mgmt. Group Inc., 509 F.3d 1344, 1350 (11th Cir. 2007). Patterson
“has not provided ‘sufficient evidence to find that the employer’s asserted
justification is false’” and thus cannot carry his burden. Id. (quoting Reeves v.
Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc. 530 U.S. 133, 148 (2000)). For these
reasons, Patterson’s claim for racial discrimination fails, and Defendant is
entitled to summary judgment.
Patterson also claims Defendant refused to promote him to sergeant in
retaliation for filing an internal grievance and two EEOC complaints of
discrimination. Title VII prohibits retaliation against an employee who has
“opposed any practice made an unlawful employment practice[.]” 42 U.S.C. §
2000e–3. A plaintiff may prove retaliation based on direct or circumstantial
evidence. See Walker v. Nationsbank of Fla. N.A., 53 F.3d 1548, 1555 (11th
Cir. 1995). Patterson’s claim relies solely on circumstantial evidence.
A plaintiff may attempt to show retaliation based on circumstantial
evidence through the application of the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting
analysis. McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973). Under this
framework, Patterson must first raise an inference of retaliation by
establishing a prima facie case. See Chapman, 229 F.3d at 1024 (citing
Combs v. Plantation Patterns, 106 F.3d 1519, 1527–28 (11th Cir. 1997)). To
establish a prima facie case of retaliation, “the plaintiff must show (1) that
[he] engaged in statutorily protected expression; (2) that [he] suffered an
adverse employment action; and (3) that there is some causal relation
between the two events.” Thomas v. Cooper Lighting, Inc., 506 F.3d 1361,
1363 (11th Cir. 2007). If a plaintiff makes out the prima facie case, “the
burden shifts to the defendant to rebut the presumption of retaliation by
producing legitimate reasons for the adverse employment action.” Sullivan v.
Nat’l R.R. Passenger Corp., 170 F.3d 1056, 1059 (11th Cir. 1999). After this
stage, the presumption of retaliation disappears, and the burden shifts back
to the plaintiff to show the employer’s proffered reasons for taking the
adverse action were pretext. Id.
Defendant does not contest Patterson’s ability to meet the prima facie
case.5 He relies, however, on the same legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons
as above: namely, that Patterson’s interview, lower annual ratings, and
disciplinary record weighed against him. (See Doc. 38, p. 10). As before,
Patterson does not deny Defendant’s ability to proffer legitimate,
Defendant is less clear in his language to concede Patterson’s ability to meet
the final element of the claim. He correctly argues the protected speech must
be the “but-for” causation behind the adverse action. (See Doc. 38, p. 9) (citing
Univ. of Tex. W. Med. Ctr. v. Nassar, 133 S.Ct. 2517, 2528 (2013) (“Title VII
retaliation claims require proof that the desire to retaliate was the but-for
cause of the challenged employment action.”)). He then points to the close
temporal proximity between the protected action and the adverse
employment action as evidence of element three, causation. Id. at pp. 9–10.
Thus, the Court concludes Defendant has conceded this point.
nondiscriminatory reasons for the adverse action. (Doc. 43, p. 8). Thus, the
issues turn on whether these proffered reasons were merely pretext retaliate
against Patterson for his internal and EEOC complaints.
“The inquiry into pretext requires the court to determine, in view of all
the evidence, ‘whether the plaintiff has cast sufficient doubt on the
defendant’s proffered nondiscriminatory reasons to permit a reasonable
factfinder to conclude that the employer’s proffered legitimate reasons were
not what actually motivated its conduct.’” Crawford v. Carroll, 529 F.3d 961,
976 (11th Cir. 2008) (quoting Combs, 106 F.3d at 1538).
Patterson notes the interviewing panel had full knowledge of his
September 2015 EEOC complaint but fails to explain the significance of this
knowledge. (Doc. 43, p. 10). In light of the Supreme Court’s recent decision in
University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, 133 S.Ct. 2517
(2013), this Court must apply a strict but-for causation standard. See also
Shumate v. Selma City Bd. of Edu., No. 11–0078–CG–M, 2013 WL 5758699,
at *1 (S.D. Ala. Oct. 24, 2013); contra Shumate v. Selma City Bd. of Edu., 928
F. Supp. 2d 1302, 1318 (S.D. Ala. 2013) (applying the prior, more lenient
standard that retaliation had occurred if “the protected activity and the
adverse action were not wholly unrelated”) (internal citation omitted)). Under
the stricter Nassar standard, Patterson “must present evidence that could
lead a reasonable juror to conclude both that [Defendant’s] articulated
reasons for not [promoting him] were false and that the real reason was
unlawful retaliation.” Shumate, 2013 WL 5758699 at *1. More specifically,
Patterson must prove he “would have gotten the job if the interview panel
hadn’t discussed [or known about] [his protected activity].” Id. at *2. The
record evidence, however, does not support this conclusion. Rather,
Defendant has provided evidence that the interview panel suggested nine
other candidates for promotion because they were better qualified based on
their interview responses, annual service ratings, and lack of disciplinary
action. Thus, a reasonable jury could not conclude Patterson would have
gotten the promotion but for his internal grievance or his EEOC filings.
Because Patterson has failed to rebut Defendant’s legitimate,
nondiscriminatory reasons for not promoting him, his retaliation claim
cannot survive the motion for summary judgment.
For the reasons stated above, the Court GRANTS Defendant Sheriff
Sam Cochran’s motion for summary judgment (Doc. 37). A separate
Judgment will be entered.
DONE and ORDERED this 3rd day of August, 2017.
/s/ Callie V. S. Granade
SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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