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Employee showed no link between conduct and termination
A former city police chief is not entitled to a trial on his claim that his termination was retaliation for his intent to promote a black staff member, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled, finding that there was no direct or indirect evidence of retaliation.
The city of England, Ark., terminated Herman Hutton after a series of issues were brought to its attention. Some of the citizens complained that Hutton, a Baptist minister, brought too much religious emphasis to community meetings. As chief, Hutton was responsible for ensuring that his officers had their firearms certification; however, they had not been certified for over two years. Hutton stated that the certification issue resulted from a shortage of ammunition. The city was never informed about the lack of ammunition and said that it would have provided the necessary extra funds to ensure that its officers' certifications were up to date. Additionally, community members sent complaints to Mayor Danny Maynard about Hutton and the department. Hutton also exceeded his budget when purchasing dashboard video cameras for police vehicles and did not return one camera even after he was instructed five times to return it. Maynard cited this refusal to return the camera as the "straw that broke the camel's back" when he decided to terminate Hutton.
The day prior to Hutton's termination, Hutton told Maynard that he wanted to promote a black woman. Maynard responded, "[y]ou do whatever you think is right, Chief." The next day, though, Hutton was terminated. Hutton contended that Maynard and a city council member openly displayed racially discriminatory animus regarding citizens of the city, and that when one of Maynard's friends used a racial slur, Maynard took no offense to it. Hutton appealed his termination to the city pursuant to its established procedures, but the council in executive session voted not to reinstate him. Maynard provided at least two terminable offenses: the firearms certification issue and the failure to return the camera. Neither Hutton nor the council made mention of Hutton's request to promote a black woman or his religious activities.
Following his termination, Hutton brought claims pursuant to Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and other federal and state laws against the city, Maynard and the city council members. The district court dismissed all of Hutton's federal and state claims. On appeal, Hutton challenged only the district court's dismissal of his retaliation claim based upon his desire to promote a black staff member. The appellate court agreed with the district court's opinion that Hutton failed to produce any direct evidence of retaliation because, even if there was evidence that Maynard or his friend had used derogatory language in referring to black people, Hutton offered no context or time frame for this alleged behavior and no specific link to his termination.
Hutton v. Maynard, 8th Cir. No. 15-1300 (Feb. 3, 2016).
Professional Pointer: Well-documented reasons for discipline and/or termination can go a long way in defeating discrimination and retaliation claims.
Danielle M. Vugrinovich is a shareholder with Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin in Pittsburgh.
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