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Vargas v. Lake County Police Department

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Hammond Division

September 27, 2017

JESSE VARGAS, Plaintiff,
LAKE COUNTY POLICE DEPARTMENT; SHERIFF JOHN BUNCICH, solely in his official capacity as Lake County Sheriff; HENRY WORONKA, individually and in his official capacity, Defendants.



         This matter is before the Court on the Sheriff Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment, filed by Defendants Lake County Police Department and Sheriff John Buncich in his capacity as Lake County Sheriff (together, “Sheriff Defendants”), on January 26, 2017 (DE #56), and on Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment, filed by Defendant Henry Woronka (“Woronka”), on January 30, 2017 (DE #61). For the reasons set forth below, the Sheriff Defendants' motion for summary judgment (DE #56) is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART. The motion is GRANTED as to: (1) all claims against John Buncich; (2) the Title VII claims of sex discrimination, disparate impact, disparate treatment, training, and promotion in Count I; and (3) Counts II-VI against the Lake County Police Department.

         These claims are DISMISSED. The motion is DENIED as to the Title VII claims of hostile work environment and retaliation against the Lake County Police Department in Count I. Woronka's motion for summary judgment (DE #61) is GRANTED. Counts I-VI against Woronka are DISMISSED.


         Plaintiff Jesse Vargas (“Vargas”) is a Latino police officer employed by the Lake County Sheriff's Department (“Sheriff's Department”). On August 20, 2012, defendant police officer Commander Woronka called Vargas a “fat Tomato Picker” and insulted him while in the patrol sergeant's office. Their conversation escalated to a physical altercation that was broken up by other officers. Vargas filed an internal complaint against Woronka about this altercation, indicating that Woronka had been harassing him on a daily basis, calling him “Beaner, Puerto Rican, Bean counter or Field worker.” In response to Vargas' complaint, defendant Sheriff John Buncich (“Buncich”) demoted Woronka from his rank of Commander and suspended him without pay for fifteen days. Woronka resigned from the Sheriff's Department soon thereafter. Vargas filed an EEOC Charge of Discrimination against the Sheriff's Department regarding Woronka's harassment and the altercation, asserting claims of discrimination based on his race, color, national origin, and retaliation. After filing the internal complaint and EEOC Charge, Vargas repeatedly requested promotion to the rank of corporal, but was not promoted.

         Vargas' Amended Complaint (“Complaint”) alleges violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended by the Civil Rights Act of 1991, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2 (Count I); violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1981, including retaliation under Section 1981 (Count II); failure to train under Section 1981 (Count III); violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Count IV); failure to train resulting in violations of Section 1983 (Count V); and violation of Article I, Section 23 of the Indiana Constitution (Count VI). (DE #58-1.) On January 27, 2017, upon stipulation of the parties, the Court dismissed the claims against Woronka in his official capacity. (DE #60.) The Sheriff Defendants and Woronka filed motions for summary judgment. These motions have been fully briefed and are ripe for adjudication.



         Summary judgment must be granted when “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). A genuine dispute of material fact exists when “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). Not every dispute between the parties makes summary judgment inappropriate; “[o]nly disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment.” Id. In determining whether summary judgment is appropriate, the court must construe all facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and draw all reasonable inferences in that party's favor. Ogden v. Atterholt, 606 F.3d 355, 358 (7th Cir. 2010). “However, our favor toward the nonmoving party does not extend to drawing inferences that are supported by only speculation or conjecture.” Fitzgerald v. Santoro, 707 F.3d 725, 730 (7th Cir. 2013) (citation omitted).

         While the movant bears the initial burden of production to inform the district court why a trial is not necessary, these requirements “are not onerous” where the nonmovant “bears the ultimate burden of persuasion on a particular issue.” Modrowski v. Pigatto, 712 F.3d 1166, 1168 (7th Cir. 2013). A party may move for summary judgment based on either “affirmative evidence that negates an essential element of the nonmoving party's claim” or by “asserting that the nonmoving party's evidence [is] insufficient to establish an essential element of the nonmoving party's claim.” Id. at 1169 (citation and internal quotations omitted). A party opposing a properly supported summary judgment motion may not rely on allegations or denials in his own pleading, but rather, must “marshal and present the court with the evidence [he] contends will prove [his] case.” Goodman v. Nat'l Sec. Agency, Inc., 621 F.3d 651, 654 (7th Cir. 2010). If the nonmoving party fails to establish the existence of an essential element on which he bears the burden of proof at trial, summary judgment is proper. Massey v. Johnson, 457 F.3d 711, 716 (7th Cir. 2006).

         Material Facts

         The Parties

         Vargas is a police officer employed by the Sheriff's Department since 1996.[1] His race is Mexican and of Hispanic origin. During the time period at issue, Vargas was assigned to the Patrol Division. Buncich served his first term as Sheriff of Lake County from 1995 to 2002. He began his second term as Sheriff in 2011, and served in that position during the time period at issue. As Sheriff, Buncich had exclusive authority to appoint commanders and deputy commanders, and was the final decision-maker on promotions, discipline, and transfer of assignments for Vargas.

         Woronka was a police officer employed by the Sheriff's Department from 1977 to September 2012. Buncich appointed Woronka to the position of a Deputy Commander of the Uniformed Patrol during his first term as Sheriff. During his second term, Buncich appointed Woronka to the position of Commander of the Detective Bureau. Woronka had little or no direct supervisory authority over Vargas because he was in a different division. Woronka did not have authority to hire, fire, or discipline Vargas. He had no decision-making authority over Vargas' requests for promotions or assignments, and never made any recommendations concerning Vargas' promotions or assignments.

         Municipal Policies and Discrimination Training

         During the time period at issue, the Lake County Employee Handbook contained a policy prohibiting violence in the workplace, including any verbal or physical action that is communicated or perceived as harassment. (DE #58-6.) Under this policy, employees were to report threats to their supervisor or department head, and employees who violate this policy were subject to discipline. Lake County also had an Equal Employment Opportunity policy to recruit, hire, and promote for all job classifications without regard to race, color, and national origin. (DE #58-7.) This policy provided that discrimination by co-workers and supervisors would not be tolerated.

         The Sheriff's Department General Order 2000-06 was a policy against harassment in any form, including racial and ethnic harassment. (DE #58-8.) The General Order provides that incidents of harassment are to be “reported immediately to the employee's supervisor and/or the Sheriff or Chief.” (Id.) Any person who violated this anti-harassment policy would be subject to discipline. The Sheriff's Department Rules and Regulations 8.01.01 provided that no officer shall harass or verbally abuse anyone who files a complaint against an officer. (DE #58-9.)

         Police officers participated in anti-discrimination training, though the record is unclear as to the substance and frequency of such training. Woronka testified that he participated in such training twice, and learned that “[t]imes have changed.” (DE #68-1 at 30.)

         Woronka's Alleged Misconduct

         Sometime during Buncich's first term as Sheriff (between 1995 and 2002), Woronka called officers of Latino descent “spik, wetback, [and] beaner.” (DE #68-1 at 40.) At that time, Chief Tom Downs told Woronka that he “need[ed] to watch his language.” (Id.)

         Between 2000 and 2002, the FOP Chris Anton Lodge (“Lodge”) disciplined Woronka for referring to Officer Jesse Solomon as “Gomez.” (Id. at 24-25.) Woronka maintains that the Lodge directed him to write a letter of apology to Officer Solomon, and he did so. Officer Troy Johnson (“Johnson”) attests that Woronka was suspended from the Lodge as a result of this incident; Woronka denies that he was suspended. Woronka believed that Buncich and the Sheriff's Department were aware of the incident, but Buncich denied knowledge of it. The Sheriff's Department is not affiliated with the Lodge and did not take any action against Woronka for the incident.

         Ten years later, sometime shortly before August 20, 2012, Johnson reported incidents of Woronka calling Johnson “ghetto Tyrone, ” an African American officer “Black Russian, ” and a Hispanic officer “wetback” to his Direct Commander Matthew Eaton and Deputy Chief Daniel Murchek (“Murchek”). (DE #68-2 at 1-2; DE #68-1 at 115.) Murchek allegedly responded to Johnson's complaint by “stat[ing] that they were familiar with Hank Woronka's conduct, and that Hank Woronka is ‘from the old school.'” (DE #68-2 at 2, ¶17.) No official action was taken against Woronka in response to Johnson's complaints.

         On August 20, 2012, Vargas was in the Patrol Supervisors office with other officers. Woronka entered the office, told Vargas he looked like “a fat Tomato Picker” and asked him “why don't you show these guys how you use [sic] to suck Dale Bock's dick.” (DE #68-3.) Vargas called Woronka an “asshole.” (Id.) Woronka attempted to kick Vargas and smacked him in the face. Vargas grabbed Woronka from behind and put his arm around Woronka's neck. Lieutenant Brian Marsh (“Marsh”) broke up this altercation (“August 20 altercation”). Woronka then came towards Vargas and shoved him, and the two began yelling at each other. Officer Scott Bock observed the altercation and initially thought that Woronka and Vargas were “play fighting, ” but saw that Woronka became serious once they were separated. (DE #58-4.) One of the officers advised Vargas to leave the office, and he did.

         Later that day, Vargas submitted an internal complaint to Commander William Paterson describing the August 20 altercation and explaining that “Woronka harasses myself on a daily basis, ” called Vargas “Beaner, Puerto Rican, Bean counter or Field worker” on several occasions, and would smack the back of Vargas' head or flick his ears. (DE #68-3 at 1.) Vargas maintained that he had not complained about Woronka's behavior before the August 20 altercation “because of fear of retaliation.” (Id. at 2.) Marsh and Bock also submitted written accounts of the August 20 altercation. The day after the August 20 altercation, Woronka approached Vargas and told him that “payback's a bitch.” (DE# 68-1 at 47.) Vargas informed Paterson of Woronka's “paybacks a bitch” statement. (DE #68-4.)

         Woronka admits to calling Vargas “a wetback and a beaner and everything else, ” and to calling Officer Oreuta “f--king wetback, ” and Officer Oscar Martinez “spik.” (DE #68-1 at 32-34, 83.) Woronka testified that his language was “mill talk, ” “jiving, ” or “just screwing with” Vargas. (Id. at 23-24.) He thought Vargas was a friend, and never meant to hurt his feelings. (Id. at 22.) Woronka testified that if he learned that his language was offensive to another person, he would stop using it with that person. (Id. at 56-57; see, e.g., Id. at 34, 36-37 (testifying that he had apologized to Officers Martinez and Johnson for offending them).

         On September 5, 2012, Buncich found Woronka in violation of Sheriff's Department Rules and Regulations 7.07.05, which prohibited officers from verbally harassing fellow employees, and General Order 2000-006. Buncich suspended Woronka without pay for fifteen days, removed Woronka from the position of commander, and demoted him to the permanent rank of captain. Buncich testified that prior to the August 20 altercation, he was never notified that Vargas was subjected to racial harassment by anyone within the Sheriff's Department.

         On September 11, 2012, Woronka resigned from the Sheriff's Department. On September 14, 2012, Vargas filed an EEOC Charge of Discrimination (“EEOC Charge”) against the Sheriff's Department. The EEOC Charge indicates that Vargas' allegations of discrimination are based on race, ...

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