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Lawrence v. Maryland Aviation Administration

United States District Court, D. Maryland

January 19, 2018

GREGORY C. LAWRENCE, Plaintiff,
v.
MARYLAND AVIATION ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          RICHARD D. BENNETT, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Gregory Lawrence (“Lawrence” or “Plaintiff”), an African-American male, filed this action alleging race discrimination against the Maryland Aviation Administration (“MAA” or “Defendant”) in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e, et seq. and the Maryland Fair Employment Practices Act (“FEPA”), Md. Code, State Gov't §§ 20-266(a), et seq., based on his non-selection for the position of Fire Chief at the Baltimore/Washington International Airport. Currently pending before this Court is Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. (ECF No. 41.) The parties' submissions have been reviewed, and no hearing is necessary. See Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md. 2016). For the reasons stated below, Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 41) is DENIED and this case will proceed to trial on Plaintiff's race discrimination claim.

         BACKGROUND

         In 2007, Plaintiff began working as Deputy Fire Chief at Baltimore/Washington International Airport Fire and Rescue Department (“BWI FRD”) as a result of a 2003 race discrimination lawsuit he filed against the Maryland Aviation Administration (MAA). (Lawrence Dep., ECF No. 41-3, Exh. A at 48, 111.) The record reflects that the settlement agreement of that lawsuit in 2006 resulted in Lawrence's promotion to an Executive Service Position as a Deputy Fire Chief. (ECF No. 1, Exh. 5.) From 2007 through late 2013, he worked as Deputy Fire Chief under Fire Chief Woodrow Cullum. (ECF No. 41-3, Exh. A at 115.) In July of 2013, Lawrence had an automobile accident while driving his work-related commute vehicle. (Id. at 72.) Subsequently, an Accident Review Board reviewed the incident and conducted a meeting in August of 2013. (Id. at 78.) Ultimately the Board assessed Lawrence “10 corrective action points for [his] first preventable accident within the past three years.” (Id. at Exh. A-13.) One month later in September of 2013, Wayne Pennell, Chief of BWI Operations and Maintenance, requested further investigation into Lawrence's state vehicle. (ECF No. ECF No. 44-5 at 58-60; ECF No. 41-3 at 57.)

         In November of 2013, while the investigation was occurring, Fire Chief Cullum retired. (ECF No. 44-4 at 49.) Lawrence then became Acting Fire Chief, and Pennell became his direct supervisor.[1] (Id.; ECF No. 44-3, Exh. A-1 at 133.) His “Employment Acknowledgement of Acting Capacity Appointment as Fire Chief” indicated that the “anticipated length of acting basis” was through June 1, 2014, and the appointment provided him no special conditions compelling Defendant to ultimately hire him as Fire Chief. (ECF No. 41-3, Exh. 3.) As Chief of Operations, Pennell, who initiated and remained an active part of the investigation into Plaintiff's vehicle use, was also in charge of initiating the process for hiring a Fire Chief. (ECF No. 41-3, Exh. E at 26-27; ECF No. 41-3, Exh. A-5.) Because he had used a competitive process to hire other positions in the past, he decided to post an “Executive Service Recruitment” notice for the position. (Exh. E at 26-27; ECF No. 41-3, Exh. A-5.) The notice described the position, and also described two preferred qualifications: (1) a Bachelor of Science in a field closely related to Fire Science Technology or Administration or graduation from the Executive Fire Officer Program; and (2) six years as a senior officer at an airport, municipality, or military fire department. (ECF No. 41-3, Exh. A-5.) The notice also indicated, however, that a standard high school diploma and ten years of work experience as a senior fire officer could be substituted for the preferred qualifications. (Id.)

         Lawrence applied, and he and nine other individuals were selected to be interviewed. (ECF No. 41-3 at Exh. E-1.) Pennell chose the four individuals to make up the interview panel and sent the list to Diane Walker, the Director of the Office of Human Resources (HR), for approval. (Walker Aff., ECF No. 49-1 at ¶ 2.) Walker approved the four individuals: Benjamin Barksdale, Hope Ripken, Wayne Pennell, and Patrick Sweeney.[2] (Id.; Pennell Dep., ECF No. 41-3, Exh. E at 30-31.) The interview questions were also approved by HR and the Office of Fair Practices (OFP). (Ripkin Dep., ECF No. 41-3, Exh. C at 30; Walker Aff., ECF No. 49-1 at ¶ 2.) Each applicant was interviewed in late January of 2014. (ECF No. 41-3, Exh. E-1, E-6.)

         Following all of the interviews, the panel created an “Interview Summary Form.” (ECF No. 41-3, Exh. E-1, Exh. E-6.) The form shows that from the ten individuals interviewed, four applicants were ranked and six applicants were not selected. (Id.) Victor Ferreira was ranked the number one candidate. (Id.) The form also shows that the four ranked applicants were all “White” and neither of the two African American applicants, including Lawrence, were ranked.[3] (Id.) The panel also created a “Selection/Rejection Summary Information Sheet” which listed each selected applicant and detailed reasons for their selection. (Id.) Initially, such reasons were not provided for non-selected applicants (Id.; Walker Aff., ECF No. 49-1 at ¶ 4.) The panel then sent a selection package, including the Interview Summary Form, each applicant's personal inquiry form, and interview packets, to HR. (Ripkin Dep., ECF No. 41-3, Exh. C at 31.) Diane Walker, Director of the Office of Human Resources, reviewed the packet and agreed with the rankings. (Walker Aff., ECF No. 49-1 at ¶ 3.) Upon reviewing Ferreira's inquiry form and noting that he had selected the box for “Hispanic/Latino” origin, she also advised the interview panel to insert his origin on the Interview Summary Form. (Id. at ¶ 5.)

         Walker then sent the package to Angela Martin, the Director of the Office of Fair Practices, for her review. (Id. at ¶ 4; ECF No. 41-3, Exh. E at 30 at 137.) Martin, African-American, reviewed the selection package and initially requested additional information, including narrative information and explanations for the six individuals who were not selected. (Martin Aff., ECF No. 49-2 at ¶ 4.) Once the packet was resubmitted, she reviewed the information for all ten individuals. (Id. at ¶ 5.) Upon review, she recommended that one of the unranked applicants, an African-American male, be ranked number five because of his experience and because his responses were comparable to those of the individual ranked number four. (Id. at ¶ 6.) Martin approved keeping Lawrence unranked. (Id. at ¶ 6; ECF No. 49-1 at ¶ 5.) Because HR needed to approve the final decision, the interview package went back to Walker for final approval. (ECF No. 49-1 at ¶ 6.) On February 28, 2014, Ferreira was approved for the position of Fire Chief. (Id.)

         Within one week, specifically on March 5, 2014, the Plaintiff Lawrence was terminated as Deputy Fire Chief as a result of the investigation that Pennell ordered and oversaw into Lawrence's vehicle activity. (ECF No. 41-3, Exh. A-15.) On March 12, 2014, he appealed his termination to the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH), contending his termination was racially motivated in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e, et seq. and the Maryland Fair Employment Practices Act (“FEPA”), Md. Code, State Gov't §§ 20-266(a). (Decision of Admin. Law Judge, ECF No. 44-2.) Specifically, he asserted that the audit and investigation of the personal use of his vehicle, as ordered by Pennell, were pretext to justify his termination and the real reason for his termination was racial bias and retaliation for his previous discrimination suit. (Id.) The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) held a five-day hearing and made various findings of facts. (Id.) Ultimately the ALJ concluded that Lawrence was terminated due to racial discrimination, and therefore his termination was illegal. (Id.) Accordingly, on October 31, 2014, the ALJ ordered that the MAA's decision to terminate Lawrence be reversed and that he be reinstated. (Id.) The MAA subsequently appealed to the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County. (ECF No. 44-3.) The Circuit Court found that there was substantial evidence to support the ALJ's factual and inferential conclusions. (Id.) Briefly summarizing the ALJ's conclusions, the court wrote:

The fact-finding of the ALJ left no doubt whatsoever of a pervasive culture of discrimination from the rank and file to the highest level of management in the MAA Fire and Rescue Department. Plainly put, certain management personnel were in effect lying in wait for the retirement of the long-time chief of the FRD who was perceived as protective of [Lawrence], and upon that retirement immediately set in motion a blatant scheme to discredit and terminate an African-American Deputy Chief.

(Id.)

         On January 11, 2016, Lawrence initiated the instant action premised on the MAA's alleged race discrimination and retaliation in selecting the new BWI FRD Fire Chief. (ECF No. 1.) Defendant filed a Motion to Dismiss both claims, which this Court granted in part and denied in part. Lawrence v. Maryland Aviation Administration, No. RDB-16-112, 2016 WL 5870028 (D. Md. Oct. 7, 2016); ECF Nos. 28, 29. Specifically, this Court denied Defendant's Motion to Dismiss as to Plaintiff's race discrimination claim, without prejudice to re-file. However, this Court granted Defendant's Motion to Dismiss the retaliation claim. Discovery ensued, and Defendant filed the currently pending Motion for Summary Judgment as to Plaintiff's race discrimination claim. (ECF No. 41.)

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that a court “shall grant summary judgment if [a] 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(c). A material fact is one that “might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law.” Libertarian Party of Va. v. Judd, 718 F.3d 308, 313 (4th Cir. 2013) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). A genuine issue over a material fact exists “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. Accordingly, when considering a motion for summary judgment, a court's function is limited to determining whether sufficient evidence exists on a claimed factual dispute to warrant submission of the matter to a jury ...


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