City Lawfully Declined to Promote Strict Captain

 

By Jeffrey Rhodes December 11, 2018
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​A female police captain denied promotion to major could not show gender discrimination because of her admitted strictness with subordinates and exacting views of right and wrong, a federal district court ruled. Seniority and positive reviews weren't enough for her to prevail.

The plaintiff worked for the police department of the city of High Point, N.C., for over 25 years. The department's hierarchy consisted of one chief of police, three police majors, 11 police captains and 31 police lieutenants. During her employment, the plaintiff was promoted to lieutenant in 1998 and then to captain in 2005.

While working as a captain, the plaintiff applied multiple times for promotion to major but was never selected. The plaintiff believed that she was denied a promotion based on gender discrimination because she had greater seniority than those selected and that she was always described in her employee evaluations as exceeding expectations.

The city contended that the selection of a major was not based simply on seniority or past evaluations, as reflected by the fact that there were also men with more seniority who were not selected. In evaluating the plaintiff for promotion, the chief of police considered her to have several personality and performance issues that worked against her.

The plaintiff was considered overly strict in her supervision of subordinates. She was also viewed as uncompromising in her views of right and wrong so that she always saw matters as "black or white." Finally, many officers purportedly were afraid of her.

Until 2014, a woman had never been promoted to the position of major in the city's police department. In March 2014 of that year, the plaintiff was considered for promotion along with another female captain. The other woman was promoted to the position instead of the plaintiff, and the plaintiff claimed that the police force only promoted a woman because the other female applicant had threatened to consult an attorney if she was not selected.

That female major retired one year after her selection, and the city promoted a male captain instead of the plaintiff to fill that role. The man promoted had less seniority than the plaintiff.

The plaintiff filed a lawsuit alleging discriminatory failure to promote based on gender. In seeking summary judgment against her claims, the city presented evidence in self-evaluations in which she acknowledged her "black-and-white" view of the world. In addition, the first female major was deposed and testified that she had not threatened to see a lawyer or bring a discrimination lawsuit if she was not promoted.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Equal Employment Opportunity]

The court acknowledged that the selection process involved subjective considerations and that it was therefore required to closely scrutinize the process for evidence of discrimination. Nevertheless, the court reasoned that being subjective did not itself render the process biased and that the plaintiff had not shown how the considerations were false. Finding that the employer presented legitimate nondiscriminatory reasons for not promoting the plaintiff, the magistrate judge recommended that summary judgment be granted to the city on the plaintiff's claims.

Maness v. City of High Point, M.D.N.C., No. 1:17CV384 (Nov. 16, 2018).

Professional Pointer: Employers should strive to make the promotion selection process fair and objective, limiting or eliminating personal judgment to the extent possible. However, subjective factors can be considered if they are well-documented and not associated with or discriminatory against any protected status such as race, gender, ethnicity, religion or disability.

Jeffrey Rhodes is an attorney with Doumar Martin in Arlington, Va.

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