Winfrey v. LaGrange County Sheriff
OPINION AND ORDER Defendant's 13 Motion for Summary Judgment and Designation of Evidence is GRANTED with respect to Plaintiff's claim under the Indiana Constitution and DENIED in all other respects. Defendant's 31 Motion to Strike is DENIED. Signed by Judge Holly A Brady on 2/18/21. (kjp)
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UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
NORTHERN DISTRICT OF INDIANA
FORT WAYNE DIVISION
MARY E. WINFREY,
LAGRANGE COUNTY SHERIFF,
Cause No. 1:19-CV-471-HAB
OPINION AND ORDER
On August 16, 2019, Plaintiff was terminated from her position as a dispatcher with the
LaGrange County Sheriff’s Department. Plaintiff asserts that she was fired because she supported
the elected sheriff’s political opponent in the 2018 primary. Defendant claims that she was fired
due to her negative interactions with her coworkers. Now before the Court is Defendant’s Motion
for Summary Judgment and Designation of Evidence (ECF No. 13)1, and its supporting
Memorandum (ECF No. 14). Plaintiff filed her Response to the motion (ECF No. 27), along with
her supporting Brief (ECF No. 28). Defendant has filed its Reply (ECF No. 33). The matter is now
ripe for determination.
Plaintiff began her job as a dispatcher in 2009. The parties agree that her position was not
a management or decision-making position. Indeed, Plaintiff concedes that during her employment
she was an employee at-will.
Defendant has also filed a Motion to Strike (ECF No. 31) asking the Court to strike portions of Plaintiff’s response
and the affidavit Plaintiff submitted in opposition to summary judgment. This motion has also been fully briefed. (ECF
Nos. 34, 35). Because the Court can distinguish which exhibits, affidavits, and statements may properly be considered
when deciding whether summary judgment is appropriate, the Court denies Defendant’s Motion to Strike. The Court
has noted Defendant’s objections and will consider the objections to the extent they arise in the Court’s summary
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In both 2014 and 2018, the current LaGrange County Sheriff, Jeff Campos, was opposed
in the primary election by Richard Snyder. While the parties dispute whether Plaintiff supported
Snyder in the 2014 election (owing to Plaintiff’s inconsistent testimony on the subject), there is
agreement that she supported Snyder in the 2018 election. Her efforts lasted approximately four
months, and included door-to-door canvasing, attending campaign meetings, and posting proSnyder messages on Facebook. While Plaintiff remained neutral at work, and never discussed the
election with Campos, it is nonetheless undisputed that Campos was aware of Plaintiff’s campaign
Plaintiff’s personnel file is a decidedly mixed bag. As Plaintiff notes, her Performance
Appraisals and Evaluations are largely positive. In one such evaluation from April 2018, Plaintiff
was described as “very dependable,” “polite and . . . always willing to help,” and a “great asset to
our dispatch center” who has “the potential to be a leader.” (ECF No. 27-6 at 22–29). An evaluation
from November 2018 states that Plaintiff did “a great job,” was a “reliable team member,” that she
had recently been “a great team member that people like being around,” and further described
Plaintiff as a “good decision maker.” (Id. at 49–53).
On the other hand, there is no lack of reprimands in Plaintiff’s file. In March 2018, Plaintiff
received a one-day unpaid suspension for causing a “poor work environment.” (Id. at 20–21).
Plaintiff received a verbal reprimand in February 2018 for “laughter on the radio, horse-playing,
and lack of respect towards other employees.” (Id. at 32). A two-day suspension was handed to
Plaintiff in April 2012 for failing to dispatch officers to a domestic violence call. (Id. at 35–38). In
Defendant devotes a significant portion of its initial brief to its argument that “there is no evidence that Defendant
was even aware of Plaintiff’s support for Mr. Snyder in the 2018 Primary Election.” (See ECF No. 14 at 11–12).
Defendant makes this argument despite Campos’ sworn testimony that he was told, by his wife, of Plaintiff’s support
for Snyder prior to the 2018 election. (ECF No. 27-2 at 18–19). True, Campos’ deposition was conducted after
Defendant’s brief was filed, but the Court is confident that Defendant’s counsel, competent attorneys each, discussed
this issue with him prior to filing for summary judgment. The Court further notes that, even in its reply, Defendant
relegates Campos’ testimony to a footnote. (ECF No. 33 at 4, n.2).
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February 2012, it appears that Plaintiff provided minors with tobacco products. (Id. at 39–40).
Finally, there are several written complaints regarding Plaintiff’s conduct toward other members
of the dispatch center. (Id. at 41–45).
According to Defendant, the final straw came in August 2019 when Plaintiff’s supervisor
was told that Plaintiff “had been upsetting a lot of dispatchers and officers by gossiping and trying
to create chaos within the department.” (ECF No. 14 at 7). In addition, Campos was told by one
of his officers that Plaintiff was “causing drama within the Sheriff’s Department.” (Id.). Plaintiff
was terminated on August 16, 2019, during a meeting with Campos, his Chief Deputy, and
Plaintiff’s supervisor. Plaintiff was initially told that the reason for her termination was that she
was “toxic.” When asked again by Plaintiff why she was being terminated, Campos told Plaintiff
that “she was not loyal to the department.” (Id. at 8).
Summary Judgment Standard
Summary judgment is warranted when “the movant shows that 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 non-moving party must marshal and present the Court with evidence on which a
reasonable jury could rely to find in their favor. Goodman v. Nat’l Sec. Agency, Inc., 621 F.3d 651,
654 (7th Cir. 2010). A court must deny a motion for summary judgment when the nonmoving
party presents admissible evidence that creates a genuine issue of material fact. Luster v. Ill. Dep’t
of Corrs., 652 F.3d 726, 731 (7th Cir. 2011) (citations omitted). A court’s role in deciding a motion
for summary judgment “is not to sift through the evidence, pondering the nuances and
inconsistencies, and decide whom to believe. The court has one task and one task only: to decide,
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based on the evidence of record, whether there is any material dispute of fact that requires a trial.”
Waldridge v. Am. Heochst Corp., 24 F.3d 918, 920 (7th Cir. 1994).
Facts that are outcome determinative under the applicable law are material for summary
judgment purposes. Smith ex rel. Smith v. Severn, 129 F.3d 419, 427 (7th Cir. 1997). Although a
bare contention that an issue of material fact exists is insufficient to create a factual dispute, a court
must construe all facts in a light most favorable to the nonmoving party, view all reasonable
inferences in that party’s favor, Bellaver v. Quanex Corp., 200 F.3d 485, 491–92 (7th Cir. 2000),
and avoid “the temptation to decide which party’s version of the facts is more likely true,” Payne
v. Pauley, 337 F.3d 767, 770 (7th Cir. 2003). Additionally, a court is not “obliged to research and
construct legal arguments for parties, especially when they are represented by counsel.” Nelson v.
Napolitano, 657 F.3d 586, 590 (7th Cir. 2011).
Plaintiff’s First Amendment Claims
The applicable law in First Amendment employment cases is set forth in the Seventh
Circuit’s decision in McGreal v. Vill. of Orland Park, 850 F.3d 308 (7th Cir. 2017). To recover on
her claim, Plaintiff must show: (1) she engaged in activity protected by the First Amendment; (2)
she suffered a deprivation that would likely deter First Amendment activity in the future; and (3)
the First Amendment activity was at least a motivating factor in the decision to take the retaliatory
action. Id. at 312. The only dispute between the parties is on the third element.
At the summary judgment stage, First Amendment retaliation cases go through a burden
shifting process. First, the plaintiff must produce evidence that her speech was “at least a
motivating factor—or, in philosophical terms, a ‘sufficient condition’—of the employer’s decision
to take retaliatory action against [her].” Kidwell v. Eisenhauer, 679 F.3d 957, 965 (7th Cir. 2012)
(quoting Greene v. Doruff, 660 F.3d 975, 979–80 (7th Cir. 2011)). If the plaintiff makes this initial
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showing, the burden then “shifts to the employer to rebut the causal inference.” Id. The employer
can meet its burden by offering an alternative explanation for the firing, showing that its decision
to terminate the plaintiff “would have been made in the absence of the protected speech.” Thayer
v. Chiczewski, 705 F.3d 237, 252 (7th Cir. 2012). If the employer successfully rebuts the causal
inference, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to “demonstrate that the [employer’s] proffered
reason was pretextual and that the real reason was retaliatory animus.” Id. “[P]retext ‘involves
more than just faulty reasoning or mistaken judgment on the part of the employer; it is [a] lie,
specifically a phony reason for some action.’” Burton v. Bd. of Regents, 851 F.3d 690, 698 (7th
Cir. 2017) (quoting Harden v. Marion Cty. Sheriff's Dep’t., 799 F.3d 857, 864 (7th Cir. 2015)).
As the Supreme Court clarified, a plaintiff’s prima facie case, supplemented by evidence
of pretext, often is adequate to sustain a finding of liability for unlawful retaliation. See Reeves v.
Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 148 (2000). In the summary judgment context,
this means that, to rebut the Defendant’s proffered explanations for her termination, Plaintiff must
produce evidence upon which a rational finder of fact could infer that these explanations were lies.
See Vukadinovich v. Bd. Sch. Trs. N. Newton Sch. Corp., 278 F.3d 693, 699 (7th Cir. 2002).
Here, the Court concludes that Campos’ own words are enough to doom his dispositive
motion. Whether or not Campos’ statement that Plaintiff was “not loyal to the department”
constitutes direct evidence of retaliatory intent, it certainly raises an inference that is not hard to
reach. And, while Defendant attacks Plaintiff for not having proof that this statement referred
specifically to Plaintiff’s support for Snyder, it is noteworthy that Defendant offers no alternative
interpretation. See, e.g., Trippy v. Sams, 512 F.Supp. 5, 7 (E.D. Tenn. 1980) (refusing to accept
plaintiff’s suggested inference regarding employer’s statement where “positive, unimpeached and
otherwise uncontradicted testimony” defeated that inference). Indeed, the Court struggles to
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imagine a construction of the phrase “loyalty to the department” that does not invoke Plaintiff’s
support for the sheriff’s political rival. The Court has little trouble concluding that a rational
factfinder could infer, from Campos’ statement, that Defendant’s performance-based termination
excuses are lies.
The record demonstrates good reason to view Defendant’s proffered termination excuse
with a skeptical eye. While it is true that Plaintiff had received multiple suspensions and verbal
warnings, each of those pre-dated two performance reviews that could only be described as
positive. Defendant argues that Plaintiff’s “negative attitude was reflected in her performance
reviews;” this is true, but not in a way that supports Defendant’s claims. While the evaluations do
note Plaintiff’s struggles to get along with co-workers, those struggles are described as problems
that have been solved. See ECF No. 27-6 at 25 (“There have been issues on her shift that have been
addressed.”); id. at 51 (“There were a few issues earlier in the year that seem to have been
corrected. Recently Mary has been a great team member that people like being around.”); id. at 52
(noting, as an accomplishment since her last review, that Plaintiff “has improved relationships in
the dispatch center.”). These notations are at odds with Defendant’s current stance that Plaintiff
had longstanding disciplinary issues.
The Court also notes the lack of detail in the allegations that formed the alleged basis for
Plaintiff’s firing. In Defendant’s own words, the conduct that gave rise to the termination was
“gossiping” and “causing drama.” (ECF No. 14 at 7). The Court finds it hard to believe that this
kind of conduct, more befitting a teenage cable television drama than a federal lawsuit, could form
the basis for an immediate termination after nearly a year and a half of clean behavior. Rather, it
seems just as likely that Defendant seized upon these vague assertions which, incidentally, appear
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to be the first allegations of misconduct by Plaintiff since the 2018 election, to finally terminate
her for her perceived disloyalty.
It is certainly possible that a jury could accept Defendant’s explanation and find that
Plaintiff’s termination had nothing to do with her campaign activities. However, the Court finds
that it is equally possible that a jury could find for Plaintiff based on Campos’ words alone. For
these reasons, the Court finds that there exist genuine issues of material fact that must be resolved
by a factfinder, necessitating the denial of Defendant’s dispositive motion.
For the foregoing reasons, Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment and Designation of
Evidence (ECF No. 13) is GRANTED with respect to Plaintiff’s claim under the Indiana
Constitution and DENIED in all other respects. Defendant’s Motion to Strike (ECF No. 31) is
SO ORDERED on February 18, 2021.
s/ Holly A. Brady
JUDGE HOLLY A. BRADY
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
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