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Willis v. Anne Arundel County

United States District Court, D. Maryland

March 10, 2017



          James K. Bredar United States District Judge

         Plaintiff alleges that his employer, Anne Arundel County, discriminated against him in violation of Title 20 of the Maryland State Government Article (Count I), Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Count II), Article 24 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights (Count III), and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (Count IV). (Compl., ECF No. 2.) The Defendant has moved for summary judgment. (ECF No. 23.) That motion is fully briefed (ECF Nos. 31, 39), and no hearing is necessary. See Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md. 2016.) For the reasons stated below, Defendant's motion will be granted, and judgment will be entered in its favor.


         “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.


         Plaintiff, who is a white male, has been employed by the Anne Arundel County Fire Department (“the Department”) since 1996. (Willis Depo. 25:12, ECF No. 31-3.) The Department maintains 31 different fire stations located around the county and employs over 800 professional firefighters and emergency medical service providers, who are organized in a rank structure and are supplemented by 450 volunteers. (Graves Aff. ¶¶ 4, 5, ECF No. 23-3.) At the time of the relevant events in this case, the record reflects that Defendant was under public scrutiny for the lack of racial and gender diversity among its employees. (Cox Depo. 155:8- 159:15, ECF No. 31-6; Articles from the Capital Gazette, ECF No. 31-41).

         Plaintiff began his career as a Firefighter II, the Department's entry-level position for its professional employees. (Willis Depo 25:5-10.) In April of 2005, Plaintiff was promoted to Lieutenant, an officer's rank with supervisory responsibilities over one shift at a given fire station. (Id. at 34:17-20; Graves Aff. ¶¶ 13, 14.) In March of 2008, he was promoted again to Captain, a rank with responsibilities that overlap and exceed those of a Lieutenant in that a Captain also directly supervises an individual shift but also functions as the ranking officer at a firehouse with supervisory responsibilities over the Lieutenants. (Willis Depo. 44:6-7, 67:3-21; Graves Aff. ¶¶ 13-15.) Plaintiff held the rank of Captain until he was demoted to Firefighter II effective November 27, 2013.[2] (Cox/Willis Letter, ECF No. 31-29.)

         Plaintiff's demotion was the eventual consequence of a complaint filed by one of his former subordinates on August 30, 2013. (Swindle Rep. 1, ECF No. 31-16.) That complaint triggered an investigation by Division Chief Keith Swindle, who was the Department's Equal Employment Opportunity (“EEO”) Officer at the time. (Swindle Depo. 16:17-21:18:, ECF No. 31-4.) As EEO Officer, Swindle was responsible for, among other things, investigating alleged violations of the Department's workplace harassment and discrimination policy published in its Operating Procedural Manual 7 (OPM-7). (Graves Aff. ¶¶ 8, 10.)

         While the investigation was pending, Plaintiff was assigned to the Department's Logistical Support Center, which took him off of his regular schedule and prevented him from earning overtime. (Willis Depo. 276:19-277:6; Cox Depo. 78:5-11.) Through interviews with several employees who had been under Plaintiff's command, Swindle's investigation found the following about Plaintiff:

1) He created a hostile work environment by regularly using and permitting the use of profanity and inappropriate, sexually explicit comments, often directed at a female subordinate (Swindle Rep. 6);
2) He blew cigar smoke in the face of a subordinate (id. at 7);
3) He smashed an egg on a subordinate's head (id.); and
4) He enabled and agitated a contentious relationship between subordinates (id. at 9). Swindle also found that Plaintiff showed a lack of candor with investigators. (Id. at 10.) As a consequence of these findings, Swindle concluded that Plaintiff's actions were inconsistent with his position as an officer and recommended that the Department terminate Plaintiff's employment. (Id.)

         The Department held a pre-discharge hearing on November 25, 2013, at which Plaintiff and his union representative, Keith Whalen, argued against Plaintiff's termination. (Cox/Willis Letter; Willis Decl. ¶ 5, ECF No. 31-5.) Two days later, on November 27, 2013, Whalen successfully intervened on Plaintiff's behalf with Fire Chief Michael Cox. (Cox Depo. 47:18- 49:14.) In lieu of termination, Cox issued the lesser discipline of a demotion to the rank of Firefighter II, a fifteen-day suspension, and an agreement that Plaintiff would be ineligible to apply for an officer-level promotion for three years. (Cox/Willis Letter.) Whalen communicated this punishment to Plaintiff that same day by telephone and e-mail[3] (Willis Depo. 127:3-130:2; Whalen E-mail, ECF No. 31-28), and Plaintiff received formal written acknowledgment of the offer via certified mail on December 4, 2013 (Hahn Decl. ¶¶ 3-4, ECF No. 31-43).

         In September of 2014, Plaintiff learned of another Departmental investigation into alleged misconduct by an African American Lieutenant (“Lt. J.”). (Willis Depo. 220: 2-4.) That investigation, conducted by Chief of Staff Carl Lee, [4] was initiated when four of Lt. J.'s subordinates filed a complaint on August 14, 2014. (Lee Aff. ¶ 7, ECF No. 23-4.) While the investigation was ongoing, Lt. J. was temporarily assigned to another fire station, allowing him to remain on his normal schedule and to accrue overtime. (Id. at ¶ 9; Cox Depo. 174:10-175:4.) Lee's report, submitted on November 17, 2014, found that Lt. J. falsely accused and inappropriately singled out a subordinate for punishment, subjected subordinates to undue scrutiny and intimidation, and was less than forthcoming with investigators. (Lee Rep., ECF No. 35.) The report concluded that Lt. J. had employed a managerial style “consisting of intimidation and threats, and lacking fairness, support, and constructive guidance.” (Id. at 10-11.) On November 19, consistent with Lee's recommendation, Chief Cox issued Lt. J. the following discipline: a suspension for one (twenty-four-hour) shift, a written reprimand, referral for supervisory training, and a transfer to a different fire station. (Lee Aff. ¶ 15.; Cox/Lt. J. Letter, ECF No. 37.)

         On September 25, 2014, Plaintiff filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), alleging that the Department treated him less favorably than it did Lt. J., who was similarly-situated, and that the Department did so because of the respective races of the two officers. (EEOC Charge, ECF No. 31-35.)

         Cox retired from the Department in January of 2014, and Chief Allan C. Graves assumed command. (Cox Depo. 10:17-11:1; Graves Aff. ¶ 2.) Subsequently, both Lt. J. and Plaintiff appealed their respective disciplinary sanctions. (Graves Aff. ¶¶ 17, 20.) Graves rescinded Lt. J.'s discipline on February 2, 2015, but formally declined to do so for Plaintiff on April 2, 2015. (Id. at ¶¶ 18, 22.)

         III. ...

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