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Louis v. City of Rockville

United States District Court, D. Maryland

March 23, 2018

CHRISTOPHER LOUIS, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF ROCKVILLE, et al., Defendants.

          PAULA XINIS, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Pending before the Court in this employment discrimination action is the Motion for Summary Judgment filed by Defendants City of Rockville, Maryland (the “City”) and Terry N. Treschuk (“Treschuk”), the City's former Chief of Police. (ECF No. 28.) The matter has been fully briefed and no hearing is necessary. See D. Md. Loc. R. 105.6. Upon consideration of the parties' arguments and the evidence in the record, the Court GRANTS Defendants' motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Christopher Louis (“Louis”) was hired by Defendants as a sworn police officer in 1996. ECF No. 28-2 at 4, 10-11 (Louis Dep. 14:8-11, 40:20-41:7). In 2001, Louis was promoted to corporal. ECF No. 28-2 at 6 (Louis Dep. 21:15-23:12). Treschuk was the Chief of Police at the time Louis was hired, and remained Chief until June of 2016. ECF No. 28-3 at (Treschuk Dep. 7:13; 6:19-20); ECF No. 28-2 at 5 (Louis Dep. 18:1-12). This case arises from Treschuk's decision in August 2014 not to promote Louis from corporal to sergeant. The facts that follow are taken from the record and construed in the light most favorable to Louis.[1]

         The process for promotion from corporal to sergeant in the Rockville Police Department (the “Department”) involves a written and an oral exam. The written exam is administered and scored by the Rockville Human Resources Department (“HR”). See ECF No. 33-11 at 8 (Merritt Dep. 24:3-11). The oral exam is evaluated by a board of outside individuals with law enforcement experience who orally pose predetermined questions to the applicants. Each board member evaluates the applicants' oral responses using the following criteria: “surface impression” (including appearance, maturity, and ease of manner), “mental effectiveness” (including alertness and expression of ideas), knowledge of administrative and operating procedure, skill at handling interpersonal relationships, and knowledge and interest in the field. ECF No. 33-11 at 8 (Merritt Dep. 24:12-18); ECF No. 28-3 at 3-5 (Treschuk Dep. 11:16- 17:17); ECF No. 33-36 at 2-3 (reflecting notes from Louis' oral examination). The scores for the oral and written examinations are combined and used to generate a promotion eligibility list that ranks the candidates based on their overall scores. ECF No. 28-3 at 6 (Treschuk Dep. 22:1- 23:20); ECF No. 28-8 at 4. The promotion eligibility list is valid for one year, with an option for the Chief of Police to extend the list for an additional six months. ECF No. 28-8 at 4.

         When filling a vacancy, Rockville Police General Orders allow the Chief of Police to promote any of the three top-ranked candidates on the eligibility list, considering “the needs of the community, the City, the Department, and the applicant's overall qualification, past performance, and potential for future development.” ECF No. 28-8 at 3. This discretion of the Chief in promoting any of the top three candidates is known as the “Rule of Three.” Although the Rule of Three exists, it is rarely used. Typically, the Chief promotes based on the order in which the candidates are ranked. Chief Treschuk invoked the Rule of Three on two occasions: once, to pass over Corporal George Day, a Caucasian man, because Day lacked adequate supervisory experience; the second time was to pass over Louis. ECF No. 28-3 at 11-12 (Treschuk Dep. 44:5-45:14); ECF No. 3-10 at 7, 8 (Rawlins Dep. 19:17-20:20, 22:14-23:7). Both times, the passed-over candidates were informed that they would be promoted at the next vacancy. See ECF No. 29-8; ECF No. 28-3 at 16-17 (Treschuk Dep. 63:15-65:5). Louis was eventually promoted to sergeant in April of 2017.

         Treschuk's 2014 decision to pass over Louis for promotion to sergeant was based in part on two previous Internal Affairs (“IA”) investigations involving Louis' billing practices for his overtime work at the Regal Theaters in Rockville Town Center (“Regal”). The first, in 2011, concerned allegations that Louis submitted inflated payroll invoices for his Regal overtime work. ECF No. 29-1 at 1. Lieutenant Alan Rawlins, an African American employee of the Department and friend and mentor to Louis, see ECF No. 28-2 at 21 (Louis Dep. 83:21-84:18), investigated the 2011 complaint and determined that on several occasions, Louis had claimed overtime wages in his payroll submissions for hours he had not worked and for which he was not entitled to request payment. As a result, Rawlins submitted to Treschuk three allegations that Rawlins' investigation had “sustained.” ECF No. 29-1 at 2-3.[2]

         Treschuk, in his review of Rawlins' findings, ultimately pursued only two charges, Performance of Duty and Conduct Unbecoming of an Officer. ECF No. 29-1 at 16-17. Treschuk dropped the third allegation, False Reports and Entries, because it would have rendered Louis ineligible to serve as a sworn police officer in Maryland. ECF No. 28-3 at 17 (Treschuk Dep. 68:17-21). Louis did not contest the underlying facts of these charges and accepted punishment without a further hearing. ECF No. 29-1 at 19.

         In 2013, Louis again was accused of improperly billing for his overtime work at Regal. In summary, this dispute appeared to involve Louis claiming he would be delayed arriving to the Regal by a few minutes due to inclement weather, but then actually using that time to pick up his police vehicle from a repair shop. Louis arrived to Regal approximately an hour and a half late, and then left before the end of his scheduled shift to pick up his personal vehicle. Then-Sergeant Brian Paul had assisted Louis in picking up his police vehicle, and Sergeant Andy Crawford assisted Louis in retrieving his personal vehicle later that night. The two sergeants were concerned that Louis had not worked his full hours at Regal, so Paul contacted Regal management, who investigated the matter further, determined that Louis had not worked his full shift, and requested to make a complaint against Louis.[3] ECF No. 29-2 at 1, 8, 11; see ECF No. 33-7 at 23 (Paul Dep. 85:18-21); ECF No. 29-2 at 2, 3-5. Paul reported this incident to Lieutenant Eric Over. See ECF No. 33-7 at 23 (Paul Dep. 84:15-85:17). Over then informed Paul that if Regal management wished to initiate a complaint against Louis, Regal would have to submit a complaint in writing. Regal employee Liz Columber did so. See ECF No. 29-2 at 1.

         Then-Commander Robert Rappoport investigated the 2013 complaint, initially sustaining three allegations: “Reporting to Duty, ” “Conduct Unbecoming an Officer, ” and “False Reports and Entries.” See ECF No. 29-2 at 6-7. During this investigation, Rappoport added a fourth allegation for “Untruthful Responses” because Rappoport believed that Louis was not candid during a related interview. ECF No. 29-2 at 20. Chief Treschuk did not pursue the Untruthful Responses allegation, but did formally charge Louis with the other violations. ECF No. 29-2 at 24. Louis, through counsel, negotiated admissions to the violations of Reporting to Duty and Conduct Unbecoming an Officer, and accepted punishment without contesting the underlying facts. See ECF No. 29-2 at 28; ECF No. 28-3 at 18-19 (Treschuk Dep. 72:9-73:9).

         While the 2013 Regal IA investigation was ongoing, Louis learned about a comment left in an informal “suggestion box, ” which read as follows:

DON'T MAKE CHRIS LOUIS A SGT THAT IS THE BIGGEST MISTAKE THIS DEPARTMENT CAN MAKE. HE IS AN AWFUL POLICE. A REALLY BAD OIC AND A BAD FTO. LOOK AT THE PEOPLE THAT HE HAS PASSED. NONE CAN DO POLICE WORK OR HAVE ANY OFFICER SAFETY. HOW CAN YOU PROMOTE SOMEONE THAT STEALS FROM THE DEPARTMENT AND BRAGS ABOUT IT.[4]

ECF No. 34-7 at 2. Because of this note and other verbal comments that Louis had received, Louis filed an internal complaint of harassment and race discrimination on April 1, 2013. See generally ECF No. 34-6. Major Michael England investigated Louis' complaint, but did not substantiate the allegations. ECF No. 34-18 at 2. The investigation closed on September 18, 2013. ECF No. 34-18 at 2.

         On September 28, 2013, Louis applied for promotion to sergeant. See ECF No. 33-34 at 2. After completion of both the written and oral portions of the exam, Louis was ranked second on the promotion eligibility list. ECF 33-35 at 2. When the first vacancy arose, Treschuk promoted the highest-ranked candidate, leaving Louis at the top of the list. In July 2014, when Treschuk was deciding who to promote for the next vacancy, he requested feedback from England, Over, and then-Lieutenant Paul on Louis' candidacy. Each expressed varying degrees of concern with Louis' supervisory and communication skills. See generally ECF No. 33-30.

         Treschuk exercised his discretion under the Rule of Three and promoted the second-ranked candidate, Jan Seilhamer, a Caucasian woman, over Louis. Treschuk and England then met with Louis to discuss Treschuk's decision. Treschuk explained that Louis' “history and performance left some concern and questions as to whether or not this [was] the right time to promote [him] to Sergeant.” ECF No. 33-38 at 2. They discussed particularly Louis' supposed failure to respond to a serious service call in favor of writing traffic citations, a concern England had previously raised to Treschuk. See ECF No. 33-38 at 2-3; ECF No. 33-30 at 2-3. Treschuk also mentioned issues Louis had at the “Town Center.” ECF No. 28-2 at 54 (Louis Dep. 214:4- 16). Treschuk informed Louis that if he continued to perform well, he would be promoted next. ECF No. 28-2 at 53 (Louis Dep. 210:20-211:4). Louis was in fact promoted to sergeant in April of 2017 by then-Acting Chief Rappoport. ECF No. 33-13 at 2.

         After Louis was passed over for promotion in 2014, he formally complained to HR, alleging that Treschuk's decision was motivated by race and by retaliation for Louis' 2013 harassment complaint. ECF No. 33-37. HR concluded that Treschuk had not discriminated against Louis, but recommended that Louis be provided with written feedback identifying deficiencies with his supervisory performance. HR also recommended that the Department extend the 2013 promotion eligibility list until July 2015. ECF No. 33-37 at 4. Neither remedial action was taken. ECF No. 33-43 at 8.

         Louis thereafter filed suit in this Court, [5] alleging race discrimination in violation of the Maryland Human Relations Commission Act, MD State Government, Code § 20-601 et seq.; the Rockville City Code 11-1 et seq. via the Maryland Human Relations Commission Act, MD State Government, Code § 20-1202; Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq.; and the Civil Rights Act of 1866, 42 U.S.C. § 1981 (Counts I, III, V, and VII). Louis also brings claims of retaliation under the Maryland Human Relations Commission Act, the Rockville City Code, and Title VII (Counts II, IV, and VI); and a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violation of his rights under the Equal Protection clause of the United States Constitution (Count VIII). ECF No. 1 ¶¶ 84-143. Defendants moved for ...


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