Winfrey v. Forrest City Arkansas, City of et al
ORDER granting 9 MOTION for Summary Judgment. Motion 29 denied as moot. Signed by Judge D. P. Marshall Jr. on 2/23/2017. (jak)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
CITY OF FORREST CITY, ARKANSAS;
E.P. REYNOLDS; DEON LEE; and ERIC McCOY,
all in their official and individual capacities as
police or law enforcement officers of the City
of Forrest City, Arkansas
1. Aldridge Winfrey worked for the Forrest City Police Department for
several years. He says a department policy entitled him to a raise after he'd
been there a year, and another raise after he'd graduated from the police
academy. Both those things happened, but Winfrey got only one raise. He
started questioning his supervisors about it, and an attorney worked with
Winfrey to try to get the officer what he thought he was owed. Winfrey
became, in his word, the ringleader among a group of employees who were
disgruntled about pay issues. About a year later, the department fired
Winfrey, saying he had broken a department rule forbidding consorting with
a felon. He had appeared, in uniform, in a photograph with a felon who had
a pistol of some sort in his waistband; the photo was posted on Facebook. All
along, Winfrey had still been questioning the department about his and
others' wages. A few months after the department fired him, Winfrey and the
department settled the wage dispute, and Winfrey got paid.
After getting a right-to-sue letter from the EEOC, Winfrey filed this case
against Forrest City and his supervisors over his firing. For simplicity, the
Court will refer to all the defendants as Forrest City.
retaliation, breach of an employment contract, and promissory estoppel.
Forrest City asksforsummaryjudgment,focusingon Title VII retaliation, and
mainly arguing that Winfrey didn't engage in protected conduct. Taking the
record in Winfrey's favor, Forrest City is entitled to judgment as a matter of
law. Mann v. Yarnell, 497 F.3d 822, 825 (8th Cir. 2007). Winfrey hasn't made
a prima Jacie case of retaliation. And his breach of contract and promissory
estoppel claims fail because he was an employee at will.
2. Winfrey's complaint is vague about the reasons he thinks he was
retaliated against. Ng 2at,-r14. It doesn't mention race or gender. His EEOC
charge is also murky, though it does list race and gender-so Forrest City
knew Winfrey's allegations at least partly involved those issues. Ng 32 at 8.
The EEOC charge, though, wasn't attached to his complaint. (The charge also
says Winfrey thought he was fired because he's black, ibid., but he didn't
claim discriminatory discharge in this lawsuit.)
All along, this case has been about a contract-based wage dispute. And
Winfrey's having disputed his wages based on the department policy alone
wasn't protected conduct, so the claim fails. Bonn v. City of Omaha, 623 F.3d
587,590-91 (8th Cir. 2010); Tiedeman v. Nebraska Department of Corrections, 144
Fed. App'x 565, 566 (8th Cir. 2005) (unpublished per curiam). His recent
affidavit tries to bring race and gender to the forefront, saying they were part
of the wage dispute. Winfrey is, in effect, trying to amend his complaint at
the dispositive-motion phase, months beyond the Court's deadline for
amending pleadings. It's too late. Northern States Power Company v. Federal
Transit Administration, 358 F.3d 1050, 1056-57 (8th Cir. 2004); RiggsDeGraftenreed v. Wells Fargo Home Mortgage, Inc., 2016 WL 393868, *2 (E.D.
Ark. 2016), affirmed on unrelated issues, 2017 WL 589095 (8th Cir. 2017). But
even if Winfrey had properly pleaded retaliation for opposing pay
discrimination based on race or gender, this claim fails on the merits.
Winfrey was fired, so he suffered an adverse employment action. But
he hasn't provided any direct evidence of retaliation, or raised an inference
of retaliation. And he hasn't shown enough on causation, either. Hutton v.
Maynard, 812 F.3d 679, 683-84 (8th Cir. 2016). Other than Winfrey's recent
affidavit, there's no evidence that he engaged in statutorily protected conduct.
The affidavit says he "believed that white women, black women and white
men had a better chance" in the police department than he, a black man, did.
Ng 20 at ii 22. And it also says Winfrey believed that, under various federal
laws, he should be paid equal to other people working for Forrest City. Ng 20
at ii 28. But there's no evidence anywhere else in the record supporting
Winfrey's assertion that his wage dispute was, deep down, about race or
Winfrey sat for a thorough deposition. As best the Court can tell, he
never said race or gender discrimination motivated his dispute with Forrest
City about pay. Instead, in Winfrey's words, the dispute was about his trying
to enforce a contract that he believes promised raises. Ng 14-1 at 27-29, 39,
63-65 (deposition pagination). He didn't say the word race or the word gender.
Neither of those motivations was discussed at all in the deposition. And
Winfrey hasn't alleged the race or gender of anyone else whose raise he was
fighting for. Taking the record as a whole, Winfrey's EEOC charge and his
new testimony by affidavit about race and gender are insufficient to support
a jury verdict that Winfrey engaged in protected conduct. Bacon v. Hennepin
County Medical Center, 550 F.3d 711, 716 (8th Cir. 2008). There's a causation
gap, too, because Winfrey has neither alleged, nor provided evidence, that
Forrest City knew his wage dispute was rooted in race or gender. Culton v.
Missouri Department of Corrections, 515 F.3d 828, 831 (8th Cir. 2008).
3. Arkansas law is clear on Winfrey's contract claim. He was an at-will
employee. He hasn't offered sufficient proof that any exception to the general
rule applies. Cottrell v. Cottrell, 332 Ark. 352, 354-55, 965 S.W.2d 129, 130
(1998); Gladden v. Arkansas Children's Hospital, 292 Ark. 130, 136, 728 S.W.2d
501, 505 (1987). This law means that either Forrest City or Winfrey could end
the employment relationship at any time and without cause.
and that his employment wasn't guaranteed for any certain period. Ng 23
4. Winfrey has potent evidence that the reason given for his firing was
hollow. It's undisputed that another officer is married to a felon, still has a
job, and was recently promoted to chief of police, and there may be photos of
other officers with felons. So the Court takes as truth for purposes of the
motion that the Facebook photo wasn't the driving reason that Winfrey lost
his job. The proof on his promissory estoppel claim, though, is too thin to
support a verdict.
Winfrey says the former police chief verbally promised him job security
and that he could be fired only for just cause. NQ 2 at if 11; NQ 14-1at41-42
(deposition pagination). And he says the chief told him if he followed the
"Recipe" -Respect, Excellence, Compassion, Integrity, Professionalism, and
Enthusiasm-then he wouldn't have a problem. Ng 18at12. What's missing
is a firm promise of a specific duration for Winfrey's work, a term certain.
The chief's general words aren't sufficiently definite to be legally enforceable.
Regency Hospital Company of Northwest Arkansas, LLC v. Arkansas Blue Cross
Blue Shield, 2009 WL 5174246, at *8-*9 (E.D. Ark. 2009) (Eisele, J.). And
Winfrey hasn't addressed whether Forrest City should have reasonably
expected him to rely on those words. Fairpark, LLC v. Healthcare Essentials,
2011 Ark. App. 146, at 12, 381 S.W.3d 852, 859 (2011). Most important,
though, this Court predicts the Arkansas Supreme Court wouldn't allow this
claim to go forward. There just isn't enough here. Allowing Winfrey's
promissory estoppel claim to proceed, on this vague record, would create a
big exception - an exception so big it would undermine the settled general
rule about employment at will in Arkansas. Gladden, 292 Ark. at 136, 728
S.W.2d at 505.
Motion, Ng 9, granted. Motion, Ng 29, denied as moot.
United States District Judge
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