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McKinney v. Office of Sheriff of Whitley County

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

August 8, 2017

Terrance S. McKinney, Plaintiff-Appellant,
Office of the Sheriff of Whitley County, Defendant-Appellee.

          Argued April 19, 2017

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, Fort Wayne Division. No. l:15-cv-79 - William C. Lee, Judge.

          Before Bauer, Posner, and Hamilton, Circuit Judges.

          Hamilton, Circuit Judge.

         In 2013 the Sheriff of Whitley County, Indiana hired the County's first black police officer ever, Terrance McKinney Nine months later, McKinney was fired. He sued for race discrimination. The district court granted summary judgment for the Office of the Sheriff, and McKinney has appealed.

         We reverse. Viewed in the light most favorable to plaintiff McKinney, his extensive evidence adds up to a strong case of race discrimination. As we explain in detail, the defendant has offered an ever-growing list of rationales for firing McKinney that fall apart in the face of his evidence. The Sheriff's termination letter provided three reasons for his discharge. Four days later, the Whitley County Board of Commissioners sent McKinney another letter that added two more reasons. After McKinney brought suit, the defense added three more reasons. Yet patch after patch, the defense arguments for summary judgment still will not hold water. McKinney presented evidence that he was treated differently than his similarly situated colleagues who are not black. He also presented substantial evidence that the many rationales offered for firing him were baseless and pretextual. In addition, the district court erred by disregarding most of McKinney's evidence, improperly discounting his testimony as "self-serving, " and misreading our precedent on the "common actor" inference that is sometimes argued in discrimination cases. We remand for trial.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         A. McKinney's Tenure as a Deputy Sheriff

         Because the Office of the Sheriff moved for summary judgment, we construe all evidence and present the facts in the light most favorable to McKinney, who was the non-moving party. E.g., Chaib v. GEO Group, Inc., 819 F.3d 337, 340 (7th Cir. 2016). On August 5, 2013, then-Sheriff Mark Hodges hired McKinney as a full-time merit officer. This position entails a one-year probationary period during which the Sheriff may fire the officer at his sole discretion, i.e., without approval from the merit board. See Ind. Code § 36-8-10-10(b). The probationary period is intended to ensure that new officers are capable of performing their duties before they benefit from state law that requires good cause for firing and provides extensive procedural protections. See Ind. Code § 36-8-10-11.

         McKinney was Whitley County's first black merit officer. Sheriff Hodges discussed McKinney's race with him during his job interview, and McKinney later testified that he did not expect that he would experience racial discrimination at the Sheriff's Office. After he began, however, a number of incidents started to make him feel uncomfortable. One officer used the "n-word" in front of him. Once when buying coffee, McKinney's fellow officer said that he wanted his "coffee black like my partner." McKinney also testified that the other officers refused to train him and sometimes would not speak to him. Sheriff Hodges told McKinney that he should watch the movie "42, " which is about Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in major league baseball in 1947. Hodges told McKinney that the movie would "help [him] out."

         On May 15, 2014, Sheriff Hodges fired McKinney. The termination notice gave three reasons: submitting false work hours while attending the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy; violating the standard operating procedure that requires filing complete monthly reports; and violating the standard operating procedure that governs fueling county vehicles. Four days later, the Whitley County Board of Commissioners sent McKinney a termination letter that added two more reasons for his discharge: damaging a county vehicle and "failure to complete a transport and follow verbal instructions." After McKinney brought suit, the defense added three more reasons, claiming that McKinney once texted while driving, crashed a county vehicle, and was late transporting a juvenile to court. These various rationales and McKinney's evidence undermining their credibility are discussed below in Part II-C.

         B. Discrimination Lawsuit

         After he was terminated, McKinney brought suit against the Office of the Sheriff of Whitley County and Deputy Sheriff Tony Helfrich on several theories. The only claim on appeal is McKinney's claim against his employer, the Office of the Sheriff itself, for race discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2. The Office of the Sheriff moved for summary judgment, arguing that McKinney "pointed to no direct evidence of racial discrimination." The defense also argued that McKinney could not establish discrimination through the burden-shifting approach adapted from McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973), because he did not meet the Sheriff's legitimate employment expectations. As evidence of this, the defense relied on Sheriff Hodges' affidavit, which listed the various rationales that had accumulated since McKinney was fired.

         McKinney responded that the racial comments, social exclusion at work, and failure to train provided direct evidence of discrimination. He also submitted unusually detailed evidence-including testimony, interrogatory answers, relevant gas receipts, scheduling records, prisoner transport records, the Sheriff's standard operating procedures, and much more-to show that the supposed reasons for firing him were not only wrong but so baseless as to support an inference of pretext, meaning dishonesty.

         The district court granted summary judgment for the defense. McKinney v. Office of the Sheriff of Whitley County, No. l:15-cv-79, 2016 WL 6680288 (N.D. Ind. Nov. 14, 2016). The court wrote that McKinney failed to specify "any direct evidence of discrimination." It also expressed displeasure with the format of McKinney's response to the motion for summary judgment, writing that McKinney "points in general to his Statement of Genuine Issues of Fact" but does "not specify which facts would constitute such direct evidence." The court apparently refused to consider these facts, saying it "is not the Court's job to sift through the record to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to support a party's claim." 2016 WL 6680288, at *5.

         The district court also determined that McKinney failed to establish a prima facie case under the McDonnell Douglas framework because he failed to meet the Sheriff's legitimate employment expectations. The court based this conclusion almost exclusively on Sheriff Hodges' version of events from his affidavit. The court did not address most of McKinney's evidence, writing that "all that McKinney offers is his own assertions that he was meeting Defendant's legitimate job expectations." The court discounted this testimony as "self-serving, speculative, and conclusory" In addition, the court noted the "strong presumpti[on]" against finding discrimination when the same person both hires and fires a plaintiff-employee: "If Sheriff Hodges wanted to discriminate against McKinney based on his race, he could have refused to hire him in the first place."

         II. Analysis

         A. Legal Standards

         Summary judgment is appropriate only if the "materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations (including those made for purposes of the motion only), admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials" show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); Magin v. Monsanto Co., 420 F.3d 679, 686 (7th Cir. 2005), citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). To the extent the district court's ruling was based on its local rules, we review the application of those rules for abuse of discretion. See Friend v. Valley View Comm. Unit School Dist. 365U, 789 F.3d 707, 710 (7th Cir. 2015); Harmon v. OKI Systems, 115 F.3d 477, 481 (7th Cir. 1997) (district court did not abuse discretion by overlooking moving defendant's technical failure to comply with local summary judgment rule where opposing party was not prejudiced).

         Title VII prohibits an employer from discharging an employee because of that person's race. See 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). A plaintiff may prove race discrimination either directly or indirectly, and with a combination of direct and circumstantial evidence. The direct method requires the plaintiff to set forth "sufficient evidence, either direct or circumstantial, that the employer's discriminatory animus motivated an adverse employment action." Coleman v. Donahoe, 667 F.3d 835, 845 (7th Cir. 2012). The indirect method allows a plaintiff to prove discrimination by using the burden-shifting approach articulated in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973). See Coleman, 667 F.3d at 845.

         In Ortiz v. Werner Enterprises, Inc., 834 F.3d 760, 765 (7th Cir. 2016), we clarified that the "direct" and "indirect" methods are not subject to different legal standards. Courts should not sort evidence of discrimination "into different piles, labeled 'direct' and 'indirect, ' that are evaluated differently." Id. at 766. Instead, there is a single inquiry: it is "simply whether the evidence would permit a reasonable factfinder to conclude that the plaintiff's race ... caused the discharge." Id. at 765. Our decision in Ortiz did not alter "McDonnell Douglas or any other burden-shifting framework, no matter what it is called as a shorthand." Id. at 766.

         The McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework is designed to "sharpen the inquiry into the elusive factual question of intentional discrimination." Texas Dep't of Community Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 255 n.8 (1981). The plaintiff carries the initial burden of establishing a prima facie case of discrimination, which can be accomplished by setting forth evidence that: "(1) she is a member of a protected class, (2) her job performance met [the employer's] legitimate expectations, (3) she suffered an adverse employment action, and (4) another similarly situated individual who was not in the protected class was treated more favorably than the plaintiff." Burks v. Wisconsin Dep't of Transportation, 464 F.3d 744, 750-51 (7th Cir. 2006) (citation omitted). Once established, this prima facie case creates a presumption of discrimination, and the "burden then must shift to the employer to articulate some legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason" for its employment decision. McDonnell Douglas, 411 U.S. at 802. "When the employer does so, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff, who must present evidence that the stated reason is a 'pretext, ' which in turn permits an inference of unlawful discrimination." Coleman, 667 F.3d at 845, quoting McDonnell Douglas, 411 U.S. at 804.

         B. Plaintiff's ...

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