United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division
JACQUELINE K. HURST, Plaintiff,
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Defendant.
PAUL W. GRIMM, District Judge.
Plaintiff Jacqueline K. Hurst, who is Caucasian, worked at the District of Columbia Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services ("DYRS") as a youth correctional officer from November 28, 2004 until February 1, 2011, when DYRS discharged her because a state court found her guilty of the felony of "stopping payment on a check, " but deferred entry of judgment to sentence her to probation before judgment. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 1-3, ECF No. 3; Notice of Final Decision 3, Def.'s Mem. Ex. 7, ECF No. 52-6. In response, Plaintiff filed a two-count complaint for racial discrimination in violation of the Maryland Fair Employment Practices Act ("Maryland FEPA"), Md. Code Ann., State Gov't § 20-1202,  and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e et seq., alleging that "similarly situated African American Youth Correctional Officers were not terminated for similar, or worse disciplinary infractions." Am. Compl. ¶¶ 16, 20. Defendant moves for summary judgment, arguing that "Plaintiff cannot establish a prima facie case for disparate discipline because she does not have any similarly situated comparators, " and that, even if she could, she cannot prove discrimination "because the decision maker had a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for terminating Plaintiff." Def.'s Mot. 2, ECF No. 52. Because Plaintiffs fails to establish a prima facie case under either the Maryland or federal statute, I will grant Defendant's motion.
As a youth correctional officer, Plaintiff "[p]rovide[d] for the day-to-day direct supervision and positive engagement of youth in the... care and custody" of DYRS, a program "to improve public safety and provide court-involved youth the opportunity to become more productive citizens by building on the strengths of youth and their families in the least restrictive, most home-like environment consistent with public safety." Position Description 1, Def.'s Mem. Ex. 1, ECF No. 52-1. Importantly, she also "[s]erved as a role model." Id.
D.C. Human Resources ("DCHR") periodically performed background checks on DYRS employees, including Plaintiff, pursuant to the Child and Youth, Safety and Health Omnibus Amendment Act of 2004 ("CYSHA"), which "was implemented to ensure that... employees... that work directly with children and youth are suitable...." DCHR Frequently Asked Questions 1, Def.'s Mem. Ex. 3, ECF No. 52-2; see Ohler Decl. ¶ 3, Def.'s Mem. Ex. 2, ECF No. 54-1. Since 2008, the procedure has been that the DCHR Compliance Division meets with the employee if the background check raises an issue and, if the issue cannot be resolved, "DCHR sends an advance notice of removal and supporting documents to DYRS instructing the agency to begin the removal process for the employee." Ohler Decl. ¶ 3. The employee can request administrative review of the proposed termination by a "Hearing Officer, " who is a DYRS employee, "but the Deciding Official, who ultimately decides whether to accept the Hearing Officer's recommendation, is a DCHR employee." Id .; see Notice of Final Decision 1 ("6 DCMR § 419.8... states: When the DCHR... resolve[s] criminal background check information issues, the DCHR... shall make the final suitability determination whether: (d) a current employee shall be retained or employment shall be terminated.'").
Hurst was arrested on November 9, 2009 for theft of an item with a value less than $500 and two "bad check charges, " one for presenting a check under $500 but having insufficient funds to cover it, and one for stopping payment on a check for over $500. Email & Arrest Report, Def.'s Mem. Ex. 4, ECF No. 52-3. The first two charges were nolle prossed, but Plaintiff was found guilty of the felonious conduct underlying the bad check over $500 charge and received probation before judgment on June 16, 2010. Notice of Proposed Adverse Action 1 & Sept. 30, 2010 Mem. on Suitability 1-2, Def.'s Mem. Ex. 5, ECF No. 52-4. DYRS notified DCHR, and DCHR issued a Notice of Proposed Adverse Action on October 5, 2010, recommending Plaintiff's removal. Id.; Email & Arrest Report.
Plaintiff filed a response, Hr'g Officer Findings 2, Pl.'s Opp'n Ex. 5, ECF No. 66-3, and DYRS notified DCHR that its "Hearing Officer conclude[d] that the evidence, along with the analysis of the seven factors of suitability... do not support the Notice of Proposed Adverse Action, " and "recommend[ed] that the proposed adverse action... be withdrawn and Ms. Hurst returned to active duty." Def.'s Mem. Ex. 6, ECF No. 52-5. Notwithstanding this recommendation, Camille Stillwell, Associate Director and Deciding Official of DCHR, issued a Notice of Final Decision to Plaintiff on January 18, 2011. Notice of Final Decision 1. According to Stillwell, Plaintiff's "position... required [her] to demonstrate sound judgment... and truthfully and accurately document incidents and prepare detailed written reports, " as well as "provide direct services to children and youth who are troubled and at-risk" and "serve as a role model to these youth." Id. at 1, 6. Stillwell stated that "[t]he government... has a right to expect that those employees entrusted with care and safety of vulnerable children and youth not be guilty of serious transgressions of the law, especially when those transgressions involve questions of dishonesty." Id. at 7. She observed that, although Plaintiff pled not guilty and received probation before judgment, "the Court made a finding that the Employee was guilty of the offense, " which was a felony. Id. at 3, 6. She also noted that it was a "very recent case." Id. at 6. Stillwell concluded that Plaintiff was "not a fit role model" and "lack[ed] the sound judgment, honesty and truthfulness required for her position." Id. at 3. Accordingly, Plaintiff was discharged.
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
Summary judgment is proper when the moving party demonstrates, through "particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations... admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials, " 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), (c)(1)(A); see Baldwin v. City of Greensboro, 714 F.3d 828, 833 (4th Cir. 2013). If the party seeking summary judgment demonstrates that there is no evidence to support the nonmoving party's case, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to identify evidence that shows that a genuine dispute exists as to material facts. See Celotex v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317 (1986). A "genuine" dispute of material fact is one where the conflicting evidence creates "fair doubt"; wholly speculative assertions do not create "fair doubt." Cox v. Cnty. of Prince William, 249 F.3d 295, 299 (4th Cir. 2001); see also Miskin, v. Baxter Healthcare Corp., 197 F.Supp.2d 669, 671 (D. Md. 1999). The existence of only a "scintilla of evidence" is not enough to defeat a motion for summary judgment. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 251 (1986). Instead, the evidentiary materials submitted must show facts from which the finder of fact reasonably could find for the party opposing summary judgment. Id.
A. Elements of Prima Facie Case
To succeed on a Title VII or Maryland state law claim of racial discrimination "in the enforcement of employee disciplinary measures, " a plaintiff must show:
(1) that [s]he is a member of the class protected by Title VII [or Maryland FEPA], (2) that the prohibited conduct in which [s]he engaged was comparable in seriousness to misconduct of employees outside the protected class, and (3) that the disciplinary measures enforced against [her] were more severe than those enforced against those other employees.
Cook v. CSX Trans. Co.,
988 F.2d 507, 511 (4th Cir. 1993) (Title VII). To do so, the plaintiff must identify an employee (or employees) outside her protected class as a "comparator" and "demonstrate that the comparator was "similarly situated" in all relevant respects.'" Williams v. Silver Spring Volunteer Fire Dep't, No. GJH-13-2514, ____ F.Supp.2d ____, 2015 WL 237146, at *16 (D. Md. Jan. 16, 2015) (quoting Sawyers v. United Parcel Serv., 946 F.Supp.2d 432, 442 (D. Md. 2013), aff'd, No. 13-1777, 2014 WL 2809027 (4th Cir. June 23, 2014)). This means that the plaintiff must show clearly that "the employees "dealt with the same supervisor, [were] subject to the same standards and... engaged in the same conduct without such differentiating or ...