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Blubaugh v. Harford County Sheriff

United States District Court, D. Maryland

December 16, 2016



          James K. Bredar, United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Teresa Blubaugh brought suit against her former employer, the Harford County Sheriff, seeking damages for gender discrimination and retaliation for engaging in protected activity, alleging violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”) and the Maryland Fair Employment Practices Act (“MFEPA”). (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 33-39, ECF No. 12.) Pursuant to the Fourteenth Amendment and 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Plaintiff also sued L. Jesse Bane (“Bane”), who held the office of Sheriff during the time at which the pertinent events transpired. (Id. at ¶¶ 40-47.) This Court previously ruled on Defendants' motion to dismiss, finding Plaintiff had plausibly alleged discrimination and retaliation by Defendants. (Mem. and Order on Defs.' Mot. to Dismiss, ECF No. 11.) Pending before the Court now is Defendants' joint motion for summary judgment (ECF No. 28, 29), [1] which has been fully briefed (ECF Nos. 34, 37, 46, 50), and no hearing is necessary, Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md. 2016). The motion will be granted.

         I. 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). 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. Id.

         II. Background[2]

         Plaintiff is a white female who was employed by the Harford County Sheriff (“the Sheriff”) from 2003 until her employment was terminated effective April 1, 2015, because she was not medically able to continue in her position. (Blubaugh Decl. ¶¶ 2-3, ECF No. 34-1.) Prior to her employment with the Sheriff, Plaintiff served as a soldier in the U.S. Army in the field of counterintelligence. (Id. at ¶ 4.) She was honorably discharged, moved to Maryland, and, in 2003, was employed by the Sheriff as a correctional officer at the Harford County Detention Center. (Id. at ¶¶ 4-5.) She then attended the County's law enforcement academy, graduating in 2003 to become a deputy. (Id.)

         In February 2011, Plaintiff was promoted to the rank of corporal and assigned to Shift Three in the County's Northern Precinct, where she came under the supervision of Sergeant Ian Loughran, a white male. (Id. at ¶¶ 10-11.) Up until that new assignment, Blubaugh's experience in the Sheriffs Office had been generally positive. (Id. at 11.) From the beginning of this new assignment, however, Plaintiff experienced a number of conflicts with Loughran, which she attributes to her gender. (Id. at ¶ 12.) On one occasion, Loughran reportedly made an inappropriate statement to Plaintiff based on her sex, advising her that “it looks bad for [her] to be hanging out with the guys because [she is] female”. (Id. at 13.) Plaintiff also provides accounts of numerous incidents in which Loughran:

• Corrected Plaintiff (e.g., after Plaintiff advised a deputy to take a suicidal person to the hospital for an evaluation, Loughran criticized her for incurring medical expenses on the individual and his family);
• Failed to support Plaintiff (e.g., after Plaintiff cited department policy to explain why she decided not to document a particular vehicle-related injury, Loughran told her that her commanding officers were “pissed” at her over the incident); and
• Undermined Plaintiffs authority with respect to her subordinate deputies (e.g., at a meeting, Loughran recognized every other deputy before asking whether Plaintiff, their supervisor, had anything to add).

(Id.) Plaintiff alleges that she “never saw Sgt. Loughran treat the male supervisors in this demeaning and professionally limiting way.” (Id.) Plaintiff complained of Loughran's conduct to Lieutenant Joe Vanseeters on June 28 and August 1, 2011, and to Captain Keith Warner on August 16 and August 30, 2011. (Id. at ¶ 14.)

         In March 2012, Plaintiff learned that an internal affairs investigation was being conducted concerning remarks she made to her subordinates at a roll call meeting in which she purportedly encouraged them to support litigation against the Sheriff. (Id. at ¶ 15.) An anonymous complaint precipitated this investigation, but Loughran subsequently gave a statement to investigators implicating Plaintiff for making her allegedly improper remarks. (Internal Affairs Investigation IA 12-18-I at 36, 45, ECF No. 28-3.)[3] On May 23, 2012, Plaintiff met with Bane to complain about her working relationship with Loughran; Bane responded by assigning Plaintiff to a new supervisor, but keeping both Loughran and her on the same shift.[4](Blubaugh Decl. ¶¶ 17-19.) On June 4, 2012, Plaintiff was notified of a second internal affairs investigation against her, this one delving into her response to a domestic violence call on April 26, 2012. (Id. at ¶ 20.) On July 6, 2012, she was suspended based on the first internal affairs investigation. (Id. at ¶ 22.)

         On August 2, 2012, Plaintiff was notified that the first investigation had concluded that the statements she made at the roll call meeting were protected speech, but that investigators nonetheless recommended her termination based on an alleged lack of integrity in her responses to questions put to her during the investigation. (Id. at ¶ 23.)[5] Plaintiff requested a trial board hearing to contest the action to terminate her employment.[6] (Id.) As far as can be discerned from the record in this case, that trial board hearing never took place.[7]

         Plaintiff first contacted the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) on August 8, 2012 (Id. at ¶ 51), but did not formally submit her charge of discrimination through the EEOC until September 1, 2012. (EEOC Charge, ECF No. 28-6.) Notice of that charge was transmitted to the Sheriff's Department on October 11, 2012. (Id.)

         The second internal affairs investigation grew out of Plaintiff's response to a domestic disturbance call on April 26, 2012. (Internal Affairs Investigation IA 12-20-I(a) at 72, ECF No. 28-3.) On that occasion, Plaintiff arrived on the scene shortly after two male deputies had already responded to the call to find that a woman had locked herself in a bedroom with a young child while her husband remained outside the bedroom. (Id. at 86.) The deputies learned that the husband had discovered his wife's involvement in an extramarital affair (id. at 84), but despite the husband being visibly angry and the wife complaining of back pain, both spouses denied that any physical violence had taken place (id. at 87), and Plaintiff was unable to detect any visible signs of injury on the wife aside from a small red mark on her face (id.). Plaintiff concluded that there were no indicators of violence and instructed the deputies not to file a report. (Id. at 88.) In explaining her conclusion, Plaintiff noted the husband's military rank, saying, “you don't make Master Sergeant by being stupid.” (Trial Board T. 298-99, ECF No. 28-7.) Plaintiff would also later elaborate that she did not want to harm the husband's career over an incident for which she did not find him to be at fault. (Id. at 299-300.) Later that day, the wife did disclose abuse by her husband to a social worker who took the wife to the hospital where several physical injuries were documented. (Internal Affairs Investigation IA 12-20-I(a) at 83.) While Plaintiff caused no report to be filed, she did update the on-duty supervisor, Liutenant David Betz, about the incident. (Blubaugh Decl. ¶ 28.) Sheriff Bane ordered an internal affairs investigation after receiving complaints from staff at Harford Memorial Hospital and the Harford County State's Attorney's Office. (Bane Aff. ¶ 9, ECF No. 28-4.)

         On August 21, 2012, this second internal affairs investigation reached its conclusion, finding that Plaintiff violated department policy and neglected her duty in her failure to report possible domestic violence. (Internal Affairs Investigation IA 12-20-I(a) at 89.) On October 23, 2012, Plaintiff was, through her counsel, offered summary punishment of a demotion in rank, a written reprimand, and reassignment to a position as a correctional officer, with the additional understanding that she would dismiss her pending complaint with the EEOC. (Blubaugh Decl. ¶ 30.) In contrast, one of the deputies on the scene was only provided verbal counseling, and no punishment at all was imposed on the other deputy or on Betz. (Blubaugh Decl. ¶ 25; 2d Martinelli Aff. ¶¶ 3, 4, ECF No. 46-3.)

         Rather than accept the offered punishment, Plaintiff elected to contest the investigation's findings before a trial board. (Internal Affairs Investigation IA 12-20-I(a) at 81.) On March 14-15, 2013, the trial board convened and found Plaintiff guilty of neglect of duty, recommending she be given a letter of reprimand, suffer two days' loss of leave, and undergo retraining on domestic violence. (Trial Board Decision 4-5, ECF No. 28-8.) However, Bane declined this recommendation and instead terminated Plaintiff's employment on April 25, 2013, citing his lack of confidence in her ability to handle domestic violence matters as well as her apparent bias in crediting a suspect's word and character based on his military background. (Bane Letter, ECF No. 28-9.) Pursuant to the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights (LEOBR), Md. Code Ann. Pub. Safety § 3-101 et seq. (LexisNexis 2011), Plaintiff challenged her termination in the Circuit Court for Harford County, where, on June 2, 2014, the court found Bane's decision to have been arbitrary and capricious. (In re Blubaugh Mem. Op. 4, 16, ECF No. 46-1.) Judge Dugan concluded, as a matter of law, that Bane could not find Plaintiff ...

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