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Hurtt v. Baltimore County

United States District Court, District of Maryland

February 10, 2014

KELLY R. HURTT, Plaintiff
BALTIMORE CNTY., MARYLAND, et. al., Defendants


James K. Bredar United States District Judge

Pending before the Court is Defendants’ motion for summary judgment as to all claims in Plaintiff Kelly R. Hurtt’s suit claiming employment discrimination and retaliation. (ECF No. 27.) The Court has considered Plaintiff’s opposition (ECF No. 33) and Defendants’ reply (ECF No. 40) and found no hearing necessary, Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md. 2011). The motion will be granted.

I. Background

Plaintiff Hurtt filed this suit against Baltimore County, Maryland;[1] James P. O’Neill, who was, during the time referenced in the complaint, the director of the Baltimore County Department of Corrections (“Department”); Sharon Tyler, who was and is the program manager in charge of all nonsecurity aspects of the Department and the direct supervisor of Patricia Alderman; and Patricia Alderman, who was and is the head of the Alternative Sentencing Unit (“ASU”) and who was Hurtt’s direct supervisor. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 5-8, 16; Pl.’s Opp’n, Ex. 21, Tyler Dep. 9:20—10:9, 13:10-12, Mar. 14, 2013; Ex. 20, Alderman Dep. 8:4-7, Mar. 7, 2013.)[2]Hurtt was a correctional program specialist in the ASU from December 5, 2005, until her termination on August 16, 2011. (Defs.’ Mot. Supp. Mem. 1.) According to Tyler, “The mission of the [ASU] is to provide court-ordered offenders the ability to complete their probations in a satisfactory manner by either completing community service or, if they’re on the [Treatment Accountabilities for Safer Communities] program, to rehabilitate, [and] become productive citizens of the county.” (Defs.’ Mot. Ex. 3, Tyler Dep. 10:10-17; Supp. Mem. 4-5.) Hurtt claims in her complaint that she was subjected to racial discrimination in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981 (Count I); that she was retaliated against in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981 (Count II); that Defendants violated her First Amendment right to free speech and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Count III); that Defendants violated her Fifth Amendment rights to substantive and procedural due process and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Count IV); that Defendants violated her Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Count V); and that Defendants conspired to interfere with her civil rights of due process and equal protection and to deny her equal privileges and immunities under the laws, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3) (Count VI). (Am. Compl.)

II. Standard for Summary Judgment

“The court shall grant summary judgment if 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); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986) (citing predecessor to current Rule 56(a)). The burden is on the moving party to demonstrate the absence of any genuine dispute of material fact. Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157 (1970). If sufficient evidence exists for a reasonable jury to render a verdict in favor of the party opposing the motion, then a genuine dispute of material fact is presented and summary judgment should be denied. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). However, the “mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the [opposing party’s] position” is insufficient to defeat a motion for summary judgment. Id. at 252. The facts themselves, and the inferences to be drawn from the underlying facts, must be viewed in the light most favorable to the opposing party, Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378 (2007); Iko v. Shreve, 535 F.3d 225, 230 (4th Cir. 2008), who may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of his pleading but instead must, by affidavit or other evidentiary showing, set out specific facts showing a genuine dispute for trial, Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1). Supporting and opposing affidavits are to be made on personal knowledge, contain such facts as would be admissible in evidence, and show affirmatively the competence of the affiant to testify to the matters stated in the affidavit. Rule 56(c)(4).

III. Analysis

After its exhaustive review of the record, the Court concludes that not one scintilla of evidence supports any claims of the Plaintiff. This conclusion is now explained.

A. Count I: Racial Discrimination – 42 U.S.C. § 1981

Plaintiff, who is black, [3] alleges she was discriminated against on the basis of her race. (Am. Compl. ¶ 100.) Her immediate supervisor, Alderman, is also black. (Id. ¶ 8.) Alderman’s supervisor, Tyler, is white. (Id. ¶ 7.) O’Neill, then-director of the Department, is white. (¶ 6.)[4]Hurtt alleges that “Defendants engaged in an intentional pattern of discrimination, harassment and intimidation toward [her] because of her race”; she also alleges she was treated differently from nonblack employees. (Id. ¶ 101.) She claims the terms and conditions of her employment were unequal to those afforded to nonblack employees, and she further claims Defendants routinely and intentionally harassed her, because of her race, while she was carrying out her assigned work duties. (Id. ¶¶ 102, 103.) Hurtt presents a lengthy list of complaints. Some complaints focus on disciplinary decisions by supervisors; others focus on nondisciplinary decisions or actions by supervisors; yet, others focus on events involving coworkers. (Id. ¶¶ 20-97.) The Court will analyze the first kind of complaint—disciplinary decisions by supervisors— separately from the second and third kinds of complaint.

A claim of racial discrimination under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 is analyzed identically to one made under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Anderson v. Westinghouse Savannah River Co., 406 F.3d 248, 268 n.4 (4th Cir. 2005) (citing Bryant v. Aiken Reg. Med. Ctrs. Inc., 333 F.3d 536, 545 n.3 (4th Cir. 2003)); Love-Lane v. Martin, 355 F.3d 766, 786 (4th Cir. 2004). With regard to the allegedly discriminatory disciplinary decisions by Hurtt’s supervisors, such a claim may be proven only with evidence of intentional discrimination underlying the adverse employment actions. See Hill v. Lockheed Martin Logistics Mgmt., 354 F.3d 277, 284 (4th Cir. 2004). If neither direct nor circumstantial evidence of discriminatory intent is presented, then a plaintiff may utilize the burden-shifting proof scheme of McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802-05 (1973). Causey v. Balog, 162 F.3d 795, 800 (4th Cir. 1998). In this case, Hurtt has relied upon the McDonnell Douglas prima facie method of establishing Defendants’ liability. (Pl.’s Opp’n 30-36.)

Under this method of proof, a plaintiff may present evidence that she is a member of a protected class, she was subjected to an adverse employment action, and similarly situated individuals who are not members of her protected class were treated more favorably. See McDonnell Douglas, 411 U.S. at 802 and n.13 (“The facts necessarily will vary in Title VII cases, and the specification [here] of the prima facie proof required from respondent is not necessarily applicable in every respect to differing factual situations.”); White v. BFI Waste Servs., 375 F.3d 288, 295 (4th Cir. 2004). If a termination is at issue, then the plaintiff must provide evidence that she was meeting her employer’s legitimate expectations at the time of the adverse employment action and that the position remained open or was filled by similarly qualified applicants outside the protected class. Hill, 354 F.3d at 285. If a plaintiff establishes a prima facie case, then the burden shifts to the employer to produce a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its action. Once the employer has met that burden of production, then the presumption of discrimination under the prima facie case goes away and the plaintiff must prove the employer’s proffered justification is pretextual. Warch v. Ohio Cas. Ins. Co., 435 F.3d 510, 513-14 (4th Cir. 2006). This final inquiry “merges with the ultimate burden of persuading the court that [the plaintiff] has been the victim of intentional discrimination.” Texas Dep’t of Cmty. Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 256 (1981).

Beginning with the last, but most important, disciplinary decision of termination, Defendants have proffered the Grievance Appeal Decision (“GAD III”) of the Office of Administrative Hearings for Baltimore County. (Grievance Appeal Decision, Sept. 19, 2011, Defs.’ Mot., Ex. 16.) Hurtt was cited for violations of several policies and procedures, including the requirements to refrain from coarse, profane, or disrespectful language; to greet the public in a courteous and professional manner and promote public relations by giving citizens assistance when appropriate; not to be insubordinate or disrespectful to a supervisor; to obey any lawful command or order, either verbal or written given by any supervisor; to be strictly responsible for the proper performance of her duties; and to observe and maintain the chain of command at all times by first obtaining permission from the employee’s immediate supervisor to see the next higher authority. (Id. 1) Hurtt was also cited for violations of the Baltimore County Code pertaining to employees, specifically, for being incompetent or inefficient in the performance of her duty; for being brutal or offensive in her treatment of the public or fellow employees; for violating any lawful official rule, regulation, or order or failing to obey any lawful and reasonable direction given by her supervisor; for engaging in conduct such as to bring the county classified service into disrepute; and engaging in fighting or creating any disturbance while engaged in county business. (Id. 2.)

GAD III noted that the charges at issue had been preceded by other disciplinary actions including two five-day suspensions, one in September 2009 and the other in May 2010. (Id. 2.) Additionally, it was noted that Hurtt had been given counseling sessions (id. 2) and that she had been involved in approximately eleven different hearings during her tenure as a Department employee (id. 3). An administrative hearing is triggered by a supervisor’s narrative requesting the hearing. (Alderman Dep. 75:3-14, 77:4-14.) The purpose of an administrative hearing is to determine if discipline is needed; the hearing itself is not considered a disciplinary action. (Tyler Dep. 23:1-8.) Verbal counseling is also not considered to be a form of discipline; its purpose is to correct behavior. (Id. 24:7-21.) Alderman testified in her deposition that she had (apparently on an occasion different from the one that resulted in the narrative for Hurtt) written a narrative for a white employee. (Alderman Dep. 80:5-18.) She also had written a field note, which is a milder form of discipline, for another white employee. (Id. 85:5—87:2.)

It is clear from GAD III that Hurtt was not meeting her employer’s legitimate expectations at the time of her termination. The administrative law judge (“ALJ”) who authored GAD III noted he had received testimony from Alderman and Hurtt at the grievance appeal hearing and reviewed Hurtt’s personnel file before reaching his decision denying Hurtt’s grievance as to her ten-day suspension and dismissal from the Department. (GAD III at 2-3.) The ALJ specifically cited Alderman’s testimony relating to Hurtt’s “very poor management and communication skills toward the [ASU] clients she deals with on a daily basis.” (Id. 2.) Further, Alderman testified Hurtt had “failed to follow through on setting up work assignments for the community service hours that clients were court ordered to perform.” (Id.) The ALJ also heard Alderman testify about Hurtt’s difficulty in dealing with supervisors in the Department and in following the proper chain of command when raising complaints. (Id.) The ...

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