Rucker v. Banks et al
OPINION AND ORDER granting Defendants' 23 Motion for Summary Judgment in its entirety. Ms. Rucker's race and gender discrimination claims are hereby dismissed with prejudice. Signed by Judge Kristine G. Baker on 2/10/2014. (mcz)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
PINE BLUFF DIVISION
Case No. 5:12-cv-00088-KGB
JIMMY BANKS, et al.
OPINION AND ORDER
Plaintiff Michelle Rucker brings this action against defendants Jimmy Banks, in his
official capacity as Warden of the Varner Unit and in his individual capacity, and the Arkansas
Department of Correction (the “ADC”). Ms. Rucker alleges race and gender discrimination
under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (“Title VII”), and 42
U.S.C. § 1983. On December 20, 2013, defendants filed a motion for summary judgment (Dkt.
No. 23). Ms. Rucker filed a response (Dkt. No. 36), to which defendants filed a reply (Dkt. No.
40). For the following reasons, defendants’ motion for summary judgment is granted in its
Ms. Rucker’s race and gender discrimination claims are hereby dismissed with
The following facts are undisputed and taken from defendants’ statement of facts as to
which there is no genuine dispute to be tried (Dkt. No. 25-1) and Ms. Rucker’s responses to
defendants’ statement of facts as to which there is no genuine dispute (Dkt. No. 36-1), unless
otherwise specified by citation.
In August 2003, the ADC hired Ms. Rucker as an entry-level correctional officer (“COI”). Around 2007, the ADC promoted Ms. Rucker to sergeant, the first supervisory position in
the chain of command. Ms. Rucker only worked as a sergeant at the Varner Supermax Unit; she
did not work in the general population Varner Unit.
As a sergeant, Ms. Rucker was responsible for, among other things, being familiar with
and following “post orders”—which are “outlines” of the “rules you go by with that particular
post”—and ensuring that subordinate officers enforce and adhere to department and unit policies
(Dkt. No. 36-1, at 2). Ms. Rucker attended a six-week course at ADC’s Training Academy,
where she learned how to “deal” with inmates, upon being hired by ADC, and a refresher
training course each month thereafter. ADC policies for the Varner Supermax Unit included:
that inmates be moved at a ratio of “two officers for every one inmate”; that all gates and doors
are secured at all times; that escorting staff maintain physical control over inmates being
escorted, such as by maintaining a hand on the inmate’s handcuffs; and that inmates be escorted
with their hands handcuffed behind their backs.
On January 20, 2012, an inmate named Latavious Johnson, who was serving time at the
East Arkansas Regional Unit for first-degree murder, killed a correctional officer named Barbara
Ester with an improvised knife or “shank.” During the night of January 20, 2012, ADC decided
it would transfer inmate Johnson to the Varner Supermax Unit.
At approximately 5:45 p.m., before regularly scheduled shift meetings, Warden Banks
held a “pre-meeting” with other high-level officers. Defendants contend that Warden Banks
instructed other ranking officers to tell prison staff that everyone must vigilantly follow all post
orders to avoid another deadly incident. At approximately 6:00 p.m., Deputy Warden Chris
Meinzer met with Varner Supermax officers during their shift meeting. Defendants contend that
Deputy Warden Meinzer told the attendees, including Ms. Rucker, to read the post orders and
follow them. Ms. Rucker denies that Warden Banks or Deputy Warden Meinzer instructed
personnel that all post orders must be followed (Id. at 3-4).
Approximately two hours after the shift meeting, Ms. Rucker was overseeing a shower
call in an isolation area when an inmate assaulted George Duncan, a CO-I under Ms. Rucker’s
direct oversight and supervision. Ms. Rucker and Officer Duncan were each escorting one
prisoner. The inmate being escorted by Officer Duncan attacked him with his arms and hands
before being subdued with pepper spray. An emergency radio call for help caused numerous
correctional officers to respond.
Warden Banks instructed Deputy Warden Meinzer to investigate the incident and report
back. Deputy Warden Meinzer viewed surveillance footage of the incident. Ms. Rucker admits
that the surveillance footage shows that she committed three different policy violations: (1) she
restrained the inmate whom she was escorting with his hands in front of his body, rather than
behind his back; (2) she escorted the inmate at a ratio of one officer per inmate, rather than two
officers per inmate; (3) and she left gates and doors open. Defendants argue that Ms. Rucker
also violated policy by not exercising control over her inmate at all times, such as by placing her
hand on the inmate’s handcuffs or back, but Ms. Rucker claims that she always had control of
Deputy Warden Meinzer also interviewed Officer Duncan about the incident. According
to defendants, Officer Duncan claimed that he raised with Ms. Rucker a concern about violating
policy and that Ms. Rucker responded to his concern by telling him to restrain the inmate with
his hands in front of his body, a violation of policy, because “they were not leaving the isolation
area” (Id. at 6-7). Ms. Rucker denies instructing Officer Duncan to violate policy. On January
24, 2012, Deputy Warden Meinzer asked Officer Duncan to provide a written witness statement
regarding his claim, which Officer Duncan did. Deputy Warden Meinzer sent a memorandum of
his findings and Officer Duncan’s witness statement to Warden Banks.
After meeting with Ms. Rucker, Warden Banks terminated her employment. Ms. Rucker
filed a grievance appealing Warden Banks’s decision to ADC Director Ray Hobbs. After
hearing witness testimony and reviewing video evidence, the Internal Review Committee
recommended that Warden Banks’s decision be upheld. However, Director Hobbs reduced Ms.
Rucker’s punishment to a 30-day suspension and demotion—albeit noting that “Warden Banks
was justified in escalating [Ms. Rucker’s] disciplinary action” (Dkt. No. 23-13, at 20). Ms.
Rucker returned to work in August 2012. On March 1, 2012, she filed this action.
Summary judgment is proper if the evidence, when viewed in the light most favorable to
the nonmoving party, shows that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the defendant
is entitled to entry of judgment as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56; Celotex Corp. v. Catrett,
477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). A factual dispute is genuine if the evidence could cause a reasonable
jury to return a verdict for either party. Miner v. Local 373, 513 F.3d 854, 860 (8th Cir. 2008).
“The mere existence of a factual dispute is insufficient alone to bar summary judgment; rather,
the dispute must be outcome determinative under the prevailing law.” Holloway v. Pigman, 884
F.2d 365, 366 (8th Cir. 1989). However, parties opposing a summary judgment motion may not
rest merely upon the allegations in their pleadings. Buford v. Tremayne, 747 F.2d 445, 447 (8th
Cir. 1984). The initial burden is on the moving party to demonstrate the absence of a genuine
issue of material fact. Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 323. The burden then shifts to the nonmoving
party to establish that there is a genuine issue to be determined at trial. Prudential Ins. Co. v.
Hinkel, 121 F.3d 364, 366 (8th Cir. 2008). “The evidence of the non-movant is to be believed,
and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477
U.S. 242, 255 (1986).
“There is no ‘discrimination case exception’ to the application of summary judgment,
which is a useful pretrial tool to determine whether any case, including one alleging
discrimination, merits a trial.” Torgerson v. City of Rochester, 643 F.3d 1031, 1043 (8th Cir.
2011) (en banc) (citing Fercello v. Cnty. of Ramsey, 612 F.3d 1069, 1077 (8th Cir. 2010)).
“Because summary judgment is not disfavored and is designed for ‘every action,’ panel
statements to the contrary are unauthorized and should not be followed.” Id.
Ms. Rucker brings claims of race and gender discrimination against defendants under
Title VII and 42 U.S.C. § 1983. To establish her claims, Ms. Rucker can either provide direct
evidence of discrimination or create an inference of unlawful discrimination under the three-step
analysis set out in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802-05 (1973). Bone v.
G4S Youth Servs., LLC, 686 F.3d 948, 953 (8th Cir. 2012).
Direct evidence is evidence
“showing a specific link between the alleged discriminatory animus and the challenged decision,
sufficient to support a finding by a reasonable fact finder that an illegitimate criterion actually
motivated” the adverse employment action. Torgerson, 643 F.3d at 1044 (quoting Griffith v.
City of Des Moines, 387 F.3d 733, 736 (8th Cir. 2004)). “Thus, ‘direct’ refers to the causal
strength of the proof, not whether it is ‘circumstantial’ evidence. A plaintiff with strong (direct)
evidence that illegal discrimination motivated the employer’s adverse action does not need the
three-part McDonnell Douglas analysis to get to the jury, regardless of whether [her] strong
evidence is circumstantial.” Id. However, “if the plaintiff lacks evidence that clearly points to
the presence of an illegal motive, [s]he must avoid summary judgment by creating the requisite
inference of unlawful discrimination through the McDonnell Douglas analysis, including
sufficient evidence of pretext.” Id.
“To be entitled to direct evidence analysis, the plaintiff must present evidence of conduct
or statements by persons involved in the decision-making process that may be viewed as directly
reflecting the alleged discriminatory attitude sufficient to permit the factfinder to infer that that
attitude was more likely than not a motivating factor in the employer’s decision.” Rivers-Frison
v. Se. Mo. Cmty. Treatment Ctr., 133 F.3d 616, 619 (8th Cir. 1998) (quoting Radabaugh v. Zip
Feed Mills, Inc., 997 F.2d 444, 449 (8th Cir. 1993) (internal quotation marks omitted)). Because
Ms. Rucker has presented no direct evidence of discrimination, the Court will proceed with a
McDonnell Douglas analysis.
Prima Facie Case And Legitimate, Nondiscriminatory Reason
Under the McDonnell Douglas analysis, “the plaintiff bears the burden of establishing a
prima facie case of discrimination.” McGinnis v. Union Pac. R.R., 496 F.3d 868, 873 (8th Cir.
2007). A plaintiff establishes a prima facie case by showing that: (1) she is a member of a
protected group; (2) she was meeting the employer’s legitimate job expectations; (3) she suffered
an adverse employment action; and (4) similarly situated employees who were not members of
the protected group were treated differently. Philip v. Ford Motor Co., 413 F.3d 766, 768 (8th
Cir. 2005). If a plaintiff makes out a prima facie case, she “creates a presumption of unlawful
discrimination, rebuttable through the showing of a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for the
action.” Tyler v. Univ. of Ark. Bd. of Trs., 628 F.3d 980, 990 (8th Cir. 2011). Lastly, a plaintiff
“may still demonstrate the employer’s proffered reason was pretextual and unlawful
discrimination was a motivating factor in the adverse employment decision.” Id.
The parties do not dispute at the summary judgment stage whether Ms. Rucker can
establish a prima facie case. Assuming that Ms. Rucker can establish a prima facie case of
discrimination, the burden shifts to defendants to produce evidence of a legitimate,
nondiscriminatory reason for initially terminating, and ultimately suspending and demoting, Ms.
Rucker. Tyler, 628 F.3d at 990. “This burden is not onerous.” Bone, 686 F.3d at 954. As
legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for disciplining Ms. Rucker, defendants explain that she:
committed a large number of policy violations with regard to her own escorting
and security practices; she allowed a less experienced subordinate under her direct
supervision to violate Post Orders; the policy violations led to a dangerous
incident that included an inmate-on-officer assault; and the violations occurred
approximately two hours after Deputy Warden Meinzer told [Ms. Rucker] about
Officer Ester’s murder and reminded her to follow Post Orders.
(Dkt. No. 24-1, at 21). Ms. Rucker does not dispute at the summary judgment stage that these
are legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for disciplining her.
Because defendants have articulated legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons to discipline
Ms. Rucker, “the presumption of discrimination disappears,” and the burden of persuasion shifts
back to Ms. Rucker “to prove that the proffered justification is merely a pretext for
discrimination.” Bone, 686 F.3d at 955 (quoting Pope v. ESA Servs., Inc., 406 F.3d 1001, 1007
(8th Cir. 2005)). “There are at least two ways a plaintiff may demonstrate a material question of
fact regarding pretext.” Torgerson, 643 F.3d at 1047. First, “[a] plaintiff may show that the
employer’s explanation is unworthy of credence . . . because it has no basis in fact.
Alternatively, a plaintiff may show pretext by persuading the court that a [prohibited] reason
more likely motivated the employer.” Id. (alterations in original) (citations omitted) (quoting
Wallace v. DTG Operations, Inc., 442 F.3d 1112, 1120 (8th Cir. 2006)) (internal quotation marks
omitted). “A plaintiff may show pretext, among other ways, by showing that an employer (1)
failed to follow its own policies, (2) treated similarly-situated employees in a disparate manner,
or (3) shifted its explanation of the employment decision.” Lake v. Yellow Transp., Inc., 596
F.3d 871, 874 (8th Cir. 2010).
Ms. Rucker makes three main arguments in her attempt to demonstrate a material
question of fact regarding pretext. The Court will consider each of Ms. Rucker’s arguments in
turn but must first determine whether the Court can consider her submitted affidavits.
Affidavits Submitted By Ms. Rucker
In support of her arguments, Ms. Rucker submitted her own affidavit and the affidavits of
Tanza Nelson and Sharon Jones. Defendants claim that the Court should not consider the
affidavits cited by Ms. Rucker because they are inadmissible, conclusory, self-serving, and
An affidavit made in opposition to a motion for summary judgment must be based on
personal knowledge, not inadmissible hearsay. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(4); Erickson v. Farmland
Indus., Inc., 271 F.3d 718, 728 (8th Cir. 2001); Jenkins v. Winter, 540 F.3d 742, 748 (8th Cir.
2008) (holding that an affidavit containing inadmissible hearsay “may not be used to support or
defeat a motion for summary judgment”).
An affidavit also must be based on facts, not
conclusory statements. LaCroix v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 240 F.3d 688, 691 (8th Cir. 2001)
(holding that a properly supported motion for summary judgment is not defeated by conclusory
statements in an affidavit). Moreover, a plaintiff cannot defeat summary judgment by merely
submitting a self-serving affidavit that contradicts earlier, sworn testimony. Frevert v. Ford
Motor Co., 614 F.3d 466, 474 (8th Cir. 2010); Conolly v. Clark, 457 F.3d 872, 876 (8th Cir.
2006) (“[A] properly supported motion for summary judgment is not defeated by self-serving
Defendants argue that Ms. Nelson and Ms. Jones’s affidavits are not based on personal
knowledge because, according to Warden Banks’s affidavit, both women were assigned only to
the regular Varner Unit, not the Varner Supermax Unit (Dkt. No. 40-1). Warden Banks’s
affidavit asserts that the Varner Unit houses general population inmates, while the Varner
Supermax Unit houses segregated inmates in six cell blocks and three isolation wings (Id.).
Defendants contend, and Warden Banks’s affidavit confirms, that the post orders admittedly
violated by Mr. Rucker apply to the Varner Supermax Unit, not the Varner Unit (Id.). Ms.
Rucker filed nothing to oppose defendants’ assertions, but the Court notes that Ms. Nelson and
Ms. Jones’s affidavits make clear they are based on a review of documents produced by the ADC
in cases filed against the ADC, on their own personal observations, and based on what they saw
(Dkt. Nos. 36-3, 36-4). Further, both Ms. Nelson and Ms. Jones confirm they worked for
Warden Banks (Id.). For these reasons, the Court will not discount the affidavits on the basis of
what the Court considers a hearsay objection.
Defendants also argue that Ms. Nelson and Ms. Jones’s affidavits are conclusory. The
Court agrees in part and disagrees in part. Part of the affidavits may be conclusory, such as Ms.
Nelson and Ms. Jones’s allegations that they were treated differently based on race (See, e.g.,
Dkt. No. 36-5 (“I was terminated . . . under circumstances similarly situated whites or males
were not.”)). See Hager v. Ark. Dep’t of Health, 735 F.3d 1009, 1015 (8th Cir. 2012) (holding
that allegations of being a victim of discrimination or being treated differently based on race or
gender are conclusory).
The Court determines, however, that both affidavits also contain
information that is not conclusory. The Court will consider such information.
As for Ms. Rucker’s affidavit, defendants argue that it is self-serving and inconsistent
with her earlier, sworn testimony. Specifically, Ms. Rucker’s affidavit asserts that “following all
post orders vigilantly was not discussed” in the pre-meeting and shift meeting (Dkt. No. 36-2, at
1). Defendants argue that this statement is inconsistent with Ms. Rucker’s deposition testimony
that “I don’t recall [it] being discussed. It’s just something that we put [in the shift meeting
briefing summary]” (Dkt. No. 23-10, at 9). Ms. Rucker’s affidavit also asserts that post orders
were routinely violated while escorting inmates, but defendants argue this is inconsistent without
pointing to prior, sworn testimony contradicting it. The Court determines that Ms. Rucker’s
affidavit is not clearly inconsistent with her earlier, sworn testimony and will consider Ms.
Rucker’s affidavit with the understanding that a self-serving affidavit, even if consistent, cannot
alone defeat a properly supported motion for summary judgment. See Conolly, 457 F.3d at 876.
In sum, the Court can and will consider all but the conclusory portions of the affidavits.
Warden Banks’s Alleged Failure To Follow ADC Policy
To establish pretext, Ms. Rucker argues that Warden Banks violated ADC policy when
he terminated her. She claims that Warden Banks’s actions “were obviously in violation of
policy and evidence of pretext” because, following an agency grievance hearing, Director Hobbs
reduced the discipline to a suspension and demotion (Dkt. No. 37, at 2).
Ms. Rucker’s conclusory allegation that Warden Banks violated ADC policy is
unfounded and does not establish pretext. There is no factual support for the allegation in the
record. The Internal Review Committee upheld Warden Banks’s determination (Dkt. No. 23-13,
at 17), and Director Hobbs reduced Ms. Rucker’s termination to a suspension and demotion only
after stating that “Warden Banks was justified in escalating [her] disciplinary action” (Id. at 20).
Ms. Rucker also offers comparators, who she claims were similarly situated but treated
differently, as evidence of pretext. “At the pretext stage, the test for determining whether
employees are similarly situated to a plaintiff is a rigorous one.” Bone, 686 F.3d at 956 (quoting
Rodgers v. U.S. Bank, N.A., 417 F.3d 845, 853 (8th Cir. 2005)) (internal quotation marks
“The similarly situated co-worker inquiry is a search for a substantially similar
employee, not for a clone.” Ridout v. JBS USA, LLC, 716 F.3d 1079, 1085 (8th Cir. 2013)
(quoting Chaney v. Plainfield Healthcare Ctr., 612 F.3d 908, 916 (7th Cir. 2010)) (internal
quotation marks omitted). A plaintiff “must show that she and the employees outside of her
protected group were similarly situated in all relevant respects.” Bone, 686 F.3d at 956 (quoting
Rodgers, 417 F.3d at 853) (internal quotation marks omitted). The potential comparators “must
have dealt with the same supervisor, have been subject to the same standards, and engaged in the
same conduct without any mitigating or distinguishing circumstances.” Id. (quoting Clark v.
Runyon, 218 F.3d 915, 918 (8th Cir. 2000)). Further, “[t]o be probative evidence of pretext, the
misconduct of more leniently disciplined employees must be of comparable seriousness.” Id.
(alteration in original) (quoting Rodgers, 417 F.3d at 853) (internal quotation marks omitted).
“Where evidence demonstrates that a comparator engaged in acts of ‘comparable seriousness’
but was disciplined differently, a factfinder may decide whether the differential treatment is
attributable to discrimination or some other cause.” Ridout, 716 F.3d at 1085.
Ms. Rucker offers six comparators: Officer Duncan, an African American male; Officer
Frankie Brooks, a Caucasian male; Officer Bradley Trantham, a Caucasian male; Officer
Orlando Davis, an African American male; and Lt. Antoine Emsweller and Lt. Roderick
Johnson, African American males. Because Officer Duncan, Officer Davis, Lt. Emsweller, and
Lt. Johnson are African Americans, even if similarly situated they can only be offered in support
of Ms. Rucker’s gender discrimination claim.
Defendants make many arguments as to why Ms. Rucker’s offered comparators are not
The Court credits three of these arguments that, when taken together,
distinguish all of the comparators offered by Ms. Rucker.
First, defendants argue that Officer Brooks, Officer Trantham, Officer Davis, and Officer
Duncan are not similarly situated because they held the entry-level, non-supervisory rank of
“C.O.” at the time of the incidents in which they were involved, whereas Ms. Rucker held the
rank of sergeant and had nearly eight years of experience. The Court agrees. Employees holding
different job titles and responsibilities, and who are subject to different standards, are not
similarly situated. See Bone, 686 F.3d at 956 (explaining that potential comparators “must have
dealt with the same supervisor, have been subject to the same standards, and engaged in the same
conduct without any mitigating or distinguishing circumstances”); Curtis v. Ark. State Plant Bd.,
No. 4:11-cv-195 KGB, 2013 WL 3753980, at *9-10 (E.D. Ark. July 15, 2013); Johnson v.
Baltimore Cnty., No. WMN-08-CV-3162, 2010 WL 2545761, *3 (D. Md. June 16, 2010) (“As
Plaintiff was a Lieutenant, the Court cannot compare the standards of performance expected of
her versus standards expected of mere correctional officers.”); cf. EEOC v. Trans State Airlines,
562 F.3d 987, 993 (8th Cir. 2006) (finding that employees on probation are not similarly situated
to employees not on probation because they were subject to different disciplinary standards and
were afforded different rights). Although Ms. Rucker claims that post orders do not make a
distinction between supervisory and non-supervisory ranks, her duties were different by her own
admission (See Dkt. No. 36-1, at 1-2).1 Specifically, as a supervisor, a sergeant must ensure that
subordinate officers enforce and adhere to department and unit policies (Id.; Dkt. No. 23-1, at 5
To reach this determination, the Court need not and does not credit defendants’ reply,
in which defendants contend Ms. Rucker as a sergeant was required to implement and follow
both the post orders for regular officers and separate post orders for sergeants (Dkt. No. 40, at
(“I was responsible for my subordinates, yes.”)). In fact, Ms. Rucker was accused of and in part
disciplined for violating this policy, as she allegedly instructed a subordinate—Officer Duncan—
not to enforce or adhere to department and unit policies. Non-supervisory comparators cannot be
subject to this standard and thus cannot be similarly situated.
Second, defendants argue that Lt. Emsweller and Lt. Johnson are not similarly situated
because there is no evidence that defendants knew or believed that Lt. Emsweller and Lt.
Johnson committed any policy violations (Dkt. No. 24-1, at 47). The Court agrees, and while
Ms. Rucker claims that defendants knew that such violations were common, she admits that she
does not know if defendants were aware of Lt. Emsweller and Lt. Johnson’s specific violations.
See Bone, 686 F.3d at 957 (holding that comparators were not similarly situated in part because
plaintiff “introduced no evidence that [the employer-defendant] believed [comparators]
committed the alleged disciplinary violation”); Kipp v. Mo. Highway & Transp. Comm’n, 280
F.3d 893, 897 (8th Cir. 2002) (holding that comparators were not similarly situated because there
was no evidence that the persons who decided to terminate plaintiff “had any idea that other
workers were also away without authorization during the workday”). In fact, the only reason
Ms. Rucker is aware of Lt. Emsweller and Lt. Johnson’s violations is that, to mount a defense to
the anticipated adverse employment action she thought would be taken against her after the
incident with Officer Duncan, she reviewed video surveillance footage to scan for policy
violations of others (Dkt. No. 24-1, at 43).
Third, defendants argue that all comparators are distinguished because defendants only
had reason to believe that Ms. Rucker instructed a subordinate—Officer Duncan—to violate the
post orders. The Court agrees. A supervisor actively encouraging subordinates to violate policy
is not of comparable seriousness to simply violating a policy yourself, even if doing so sets a bad
example for others. See Williams v. Ford Motor Co., 14 F.3d 1305, 1309 (8th Cir. 1994) (“In
determining whether the employees are ‘similarly situated’ for purposes of establishing a prima
facie case we consider whether the employees are involved in or accused of the same or similar
conduct and are disciplined in different ways.”).
Although Ms. Rucker’s affidavit denies
instructing Officer Duncan to violate the post orders and even that Officer Duncan reported that
she so instructed (Dkt. No. 36-2, at 1), her denials do not adequately refute that defendants
honestly believed that she gave the instruction. See, e.g., Pulczinski v. Trinity Structural Towers,
Inc., 691 F.3d 996, 1003 (8th Cir. 2012) (“[E]ven if the business decision was ill-considered or
unreasonable, provided that the decisionmaker honestly believed the nondiscriminatory reason
he gave for the action, pretext does not exist.”); Twymon v. Wells Fargo & Co., 462 F.3d 925,
935 (8th Cir. 2006) (“A proffered legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for termination need not,
in the end, be correct if the employer honestly believed the asserted grounds at the time of the
termination.”); see also Conolly, 457 F.3d at 876 (“[A] properly supported motion for summary
judgment is not defeated by self-serving affidavits.”). Moreover, though Ms. Nelson claims in
her affidavit that “Warden Banks, when he receives a statement that does not support his
position, instructs officers to redo the statement” and provides specific instances of this allegedly
occurring (Dkt. No. 36-5), she does not claim in her affidavit that Warden Banks so instructed
Officer Duncan. Further, the parties agree that Deputy Warden Meinzer, not Warden Banks,
obtained Officer Duncan’s oral and written statement here (Dkt. No. 36-1, 6-7).
Although the above arguments sufficiently distinguish all of Ms. Rucker’s comparators,
defendants make at least three additional arguments that the Court does not credit. Defendants
argue that Lt. Emsweller and Lt. Johnson are not similarly situated because their “alleged policy
violations did not coincide with any sort of inmate attack, assault, or reportable incident” (Dkt.
No. 24-1, at 44). Other federal courts have found that the immediate consequences of policy
violations can determine whether they are of comparable seriousness, see, e.g., Wright v. Murray
Guard, Inc., 455 F.3d 702, 711 (6th Cir. 2006); White v. Mabus, 837 F. Supp. 2d 1127, 1136
(S.D. Cal. 2011); Norris v. Metro-North Commuter RR Co., 522 F. Supp. 2d 402, 410 (D. Conn.
2007), but the Eighth Circuit does not appear to have done so. Defendants also argue that
Officer Brooks, Officer Trantham, Officer Davis, and Officer Duncan are not similarly situated
because each was accused of at most one policy violation per incident, whereas Ms. Rucker was
accused of multiple policy violations during one incident. However, Ms. Rucker disputes that
these officers only committed one policy violation per incident, specifically stating that they
handcuffed inmates in front while escorting inmates at a one-to-one ratio. Defendants lastly
argue that Officer Brooks, Officer Trantham, Officer Davis, Officer Emsweller, and Officer
Johnson are not similarly situated because their policy violations occurred at “meaningfully
different times.” But this argument focuses on Deputy Warden Meinzer’s instruction to follow
post orders, an instruction that Ms. Rucker disputes.
Alleged Inconsistency With Typical Policy And Practice
Ms. Rucker lastly contends that, although she committed policy violations, the policies in
question were violated routinely without punishment, as alleged in her submitted affidavits. The
Court acknowledges that defendants urge the Court to discount the affidavits submitted in
support of this contention, but the Court has opted to consider them. Ms. Rucker argues that her
record evidence that the policies in question were violated routinely without punishment
establishes pretext, even without similarly situated comparators, because defendants, by
punishing her, acted inconsistently with their typical policy and practice. Ms. Rucker cites three
Eighth Circuit cases in support of her argument. See Eliserio v. United Steelworkers of Am.
Local 310, 398 F.3d 1071 (8th Cir. 2005); Ridout, 716 F.3d 1079; Landon v. Nw. Airlines, Inc.,
72 F.3d 620 (8th Cir. 1995).
Even if the Court credits Ms. Rucker’s evidence that the policies Ms. Rucker violated
were routinely violated by other officers without punishment, the Court determines that this
alone, under the circumstances, would not allow a reasonable juror to find pretext.
Torgerson, 643 F.3d at 1047. An examination of the Eighth Circuit cases cited by Ms. Rucker is
instructive. In Eliserio, the Eighth Circuit held that plaintiff had established pretext because
defendant “admitted that no other employee had been disciplined for [violating the policy in
question] . . . in the previous eight years.” Eliserio, 398 F.3d at 1080. However, the Court
prefaced this reasoning on the fact that defendant could not explain why it “suddenly took the
severe step of demoting” plaintiff for a policy violation that it had previously considered “so
insignificant that it did not even bother to inform [plaintiff] of a problem.” Id.
Similarly, in Ridout, the Eighth Circuit held that plaintiff had established pretext in part
because of evidence that defendant’s “decision to terminate him . . . was not typical of
[defendant’s] policy or practice,” as none of the supervisors “could recall a single other instance
where any employee had been terminated” for the same policy violations. Ridout, 716 F.3d at
1084. But there also was other evidence of pretext—such as similarly situated comparators who
were treated more leniently. Id. at 1086. The Eighth Circuit concluded that plaintiff’s evidence
“[t]aken together” was sufficient to show pretext. Id. (emphasis added). The court did not
decide whether plaintiff’s evidence that defendant’s actions were not typical of its policy or
practice could have established pretext alone. Those facts were not presented to the court.
Further, as in Eliserio, the defendant in Ridout failed to explain its allegedly inconsistent actions.
Likewise, in Landon, the Eighth Circuit found that evidence that defendant acted
inconsistently with its proffered reason, along with a variety of other evidence showing pretext,
was sufficient for a reasonable juror to reject the proffered reason, but the court did not
determine whether the evidence of inconsistency alone could establish pretext. Landon, 72 F.3d
at 625. Again, in Landon, defendant offered no explanation for the alleged inconsistency in its
Here, defendants offer an explanation for the alleged inconsistent discipline that does not
depend on race or gender: Ms. Rucker’s policy violations occurred shortly after the death of
Officer Ester. Whether or not following all post orders vigilantly was discussed in the premeeting and shift meeting, a fact Ms. Rucker disputes, defendants had a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason to enforce policies more strictly at the time of Ms. Rucker’s violations.
Though perhaps unfair that Ms. Rucker’s violations occurred at a time of increased sensitivity
for such violations on the part of defendants, especially if no warning of stricter enforcement was
given as Ms. Rucker contends, this Court does not sit as “[a] super-personnel department,
reviewing the wisdom or fairness of the business judgments made by employers.” Logan v.
Liberty Healthcare Corp., 416 F.3d 877, 883 (8th Cir. 2005).
The Court notes that it has not limited Ms. Rucker’s more specific comparator evidence
to those who committed policy violations after a murder of a correctional officer, despite
defendants’ request that it do so. There are many ways a comparator’s violations could be of
comparable seriousness without sharing the exact circumstances, but none of the comparators
offered by Ms. Rucker are similarly situated for the reasons stated above. Because of this and
because defendants can explain Ms. Rucker’s allegation of inconsistent discipline consistent with
their legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons, this Court determines that a reasonable juror could
not conclude that defendants’ proffered justification is merely a pretext for race or gender
discrimination. Torgerson, 643 F.3d at 1047. Ms. Rucker has not demonstrated a genuine
dispute of material fact regarding whether race or gender motivated defendants’ actions.
A government official sued in his individual capacity may raise the defense of qualified
immunity. The doctrine of qualified immunity “protects government officials from liability for
civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or
constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Stepnes v. Ritschel, 663
F.3d 952, 960 (8th Cir. 2011) (quoting Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231 (2009)) (internal
quotation marks omitted). To determine if a qualified immunity defense applies, the Court must
conduct a two-prong inquiry by examining: “(1) whether the facts that a plaintiff has alleged . . .
make out a violation of a constitutional right and (2) whether the constitutional right violated was
clearly established at the time of defendant’s alleged misconduct.” Id. (alteration in original)
(internal quotation marks omitted). “Unless the answer to both of these questions is yes, the
defendants are entitled to qualified immunity.” Krout v. Goemmer, 583 F.3d 557, 564 (8th Cir.
For the reasons discussed above, the facts alleged, taken as true and viewed in the light
most favorable to Ms. Rucker, do not show that Warden Banks violated her constitutional rights.
Thus, because the answer to the first prong of the qualified immunity analysis is no, Warden
Banks is entitled to qualified immunity.
In sum, defendants’ motion for summary judgment is granted in its entirety, and Ms.
Rucker’s race and gender discrimination claims are hereby dismissed with prejudice.
SO ORDERED this 10th day of February, 2014.
KRISTINE G. BAKER
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?