Federal racial discrimination lawsuit against city of Griffin, City Manager Kenny Smith closed

SHEILA A. MATHEWS :::

A federal racial discrimination law suit filed Jan. 9, 2015, by Dwayne Jones and Terry Brock against the city of Griffin and Griffin City Manager Kenny Smith is under appeal after a summary judgment was issued after the court determined the plaintiffs “failed to establish a genuine issue of material fact on their discrimination claims” and closed the case.

The law suit, which followed the elimination of Brock’s and Jones’ position with the Griffin Police Department, read in part, “The suit pertains to the 2014 restructuring of the Griffin Police Department which resulted in the elimination of two positions – those of Maj. Terry Brock and Capt. Dwayne Jones, the plaintiffs in the case. The lawsuit, filed in US Federal Court in Georgia’s Northern District, states, 1. This race discrimination case arises from Defendants’ policy of using race, rather than the City’s published policy of seniority and classification, years of service, critical skill, and job performance, to select personnel for termination during a reduction in force. Defendants denied Brock and Jones, both Caucasian career law enforcement officers with commendable service records and exemplary qualifications, the opportunity to retain or be reassigned to employment positions for which they were more qualified than their African American counterparts who were retained or reassigned. 2. By terminating Plaintiffs because of their race, Defendants violated Plaintiffs’ right to be free of discrimination in the workplace. Plaintiffs Brock and Jones bring claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (“Title VII”), the Equal Protection Clause, and the Civil Rights Act of 1866 for damages and injunctive relief.”

The case initially went before Court on Magistrate Judge Russell G. Vineyard, whose Final Report and Recommendation was to grant the city of Griffin and Smith’s motion for summary judgment.

“To survive summary judgment, the plaintiff must ‘cast sufficient doubt on the defendant’s proffered nondiscriminatory reasons to permit a reasonable factfinder to conclude that the employer’s proffered ‘legitimate reasons were not what actually motivated its conduct,’” the judgment states. “For direct evidence, Plaintiffs point to a statement made by Smith that he could not pursue a proposal to lay off all four Griffin police captains because he could not ‘tote that [plan] politically in the [B]lack community.’”

That statement was attributed to Smith by Brock, who testified at his deposition that former Griffin PD Chief Frank Strickland told him Smith made the statement. It was on this basis the defense argued the statement was hearsay and inadmissible.

In his own deposition, Strickland denied Smith mentioned race, but rather indicated the proposed reorganization was not “politically feasible” and that he “couldn’t tote that politically.”

Smith also denied making that statement while also denying he was under any racially based political pressure.

Because the defendants alleged the statement was made in 2008 and the plaintiffs alleged it occurred in 2011, the court ultimately ruled the statement was “too far attenuated from the employment decision to be considered direct evidence.”

“In addition to the passage of time between the purported quote and the employment decision, Smith was not the only relevant decision-maker, since the commission had to approve his proposed reorganization plan,” Vineyard ruled.

In his deposition, Jones recounted a conversation with Strickland during which the former chief allegedly said Smith – as a result of pressure from city commissioners – was “getting into his butt” to hire more black officers.

When deposed, Strickland did not recall making that statement to Jones. Vineyard also noted that Jones testified the conversation in question concerned “having…greater diversity” in general “by stepping up our recruiting efforts to recruit more African American officers.”

The city of Griffin and Smith maintained that the decisions made during the restructuring process were not based on race.

“Defendant’s proffered reasons…stemmed from one, budgetary and financial concerns; two, a belief that the police department was top-heavy; three, a desire to make code enforcement activities a priority; four, the ineffectiveness of the 2008 departmental reorganization; and five, an effort to strengthen the police department’s reputation and working relationships by reassigning Strickland,” the judgment stated.

Vineyard ruling cited additional specific evidence in his determination the plaintiffs failed to establish a “convincing mosaic of circumstantial evidence of discrimination,” and “…that Plaintiffs have not created a genuine issue of material fact regarding direct evidence of discrimination.”

“Plaintiff’s circumstantial evidence regarding intent amounts to the following: One, alleged political pressure that Smith felt to hire and retain more black officers; two, the existence of a chart made by Neville that showed the race of the senior officer affected by the reorganization; and three, Smith’s failure to adhere to the personnel policy concerning layoffs,” the judgment details.

“All of the city commissioners who approved the reorganization plan have averred that they did not exert any pressure on Smith or anyone else to make personnel decisions based on race,” it states.

“Lastly, Plaintiffs argue that while the Commissioners might claim they didn’t have racial preferences, the relevant question is whether Smith believed that they did and acted on it. Plaintiffs have no direct evidence of this influence over Smith – and Smith denies it – and instead attempt to show instances where Smith failed to discipline black officers for dereliction of duty,” the ruling stated. “This evidence fails for multiple reasons. First, there is no evidence that racial animus was the motivating factor for Smith’s disciplinary decisions. Second, Plaintiffs have not demonstrated how these disciplinary decisions were related to the reorganizations undertaken in 2008 and 2013. Finally, there is no evidence linking any alleged deficiency in employee discipline to pressure exerted on Smith by the commissioner.”

Vineyard also addressed the spreadsheet created by city of Griffin Human Resources Director Miles Neville.

“The possession, by an employment decision-maker, of documents showing the race of the relevant employees can lead to an inference that race bore on the employment decision,” the document states. “However, Plaintiffs have failed to show how the chart prepared by Neville was connected to the choice of which employees would be affected by the reorganization. The chart in question shows the names, titles, gender, race, grade, age and service years of the officers whose positions would be affected by the reorganization…Neville asserts that he prepared the chart in order to keep track of possible grievances the employees affected by the reorganization could file – particularly any age discrimination claims – and that Smith did not ask him to prepare it. While Smith admits he did see the chart, he asserts he viewed it with the same purpose as Neville: evaluating whether any employees would be likely to file a claim arising from the reorganization. Plaintiffs have no direct evidence that the chart played a role in the employment decision.”

Brock and Jones are appealing the summary judgment.

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