A mere 9 months after being hired, the first African-American police officer in Whitley County was terminated. At the time, the sheriff offered three reasons for his termination. However, the county board of commissioners offered two more reasons in its termination letter, and once the former officer filed suit for race discrimination, the sheriff added another three.
Ultimately, the 7th Circuit found that the officer presented sufficient evidence demonstrating he was treated differently than his white peers and that the rationales for his termination were baseless.
“Troy” was hired as a police officer by then-Sheriff “Aries” on August 5, 2013. Nine months later, on May 15, 2014, he was fired. Three reasons were given: (1) submitting false work hours (counting time spent eating meals), (2) failing to comply with a standard operating procedure (SOP) that required submissions of monthly reports, and (3) failing to comply with a SOP that required fueling his car at a designated gas facility in Whitley County.
Four days later, the Whitley County Board of Commissioners sent Troy a termination letter, adding two additional reasons for his termination: failing to comply with a SOP that required immediate reporting of vehicle damage and failing to complete a transport order.
After Troy filed suit for race discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Aries offered three more reasons for his termination: (1) texting while driving, (2) crashing a county vehicle, and (3) arriving late while transporting juveniles to court.
The district court granted summary judgment (dismissal without trial) in favor of the sheriff, and Troy appealed.
7th Circuit’s Opinion
The 7th Circuit was highly critical of the “sheer number of rationales the [sheriff] offered for firing” Troy. Ultimately, in reversing and sending the case back for trial, it was easily satisfied with the voluminous, quality evidence he presented that “undermine[d] the accuracy and even the honesty of those rationales.”
Regarding the original rationales offered by Aries, the 7th Circuit first noted that Troy had specifically inquired how he should record his work hours while attending the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy and was told to record 10 hours per day. Moreover, time sheets of other officers confirmed that they, too, recorded 10-hour days (i.e., not clocking out for meals).
Second, the 7th Circuit noted that there was no SOP for submitting monthly reports, which listed law enforcement activities. The month Troy failed to submit a report was the month he attended training at the academy, where he had no recordable law enforcement activities.
Finally, the appeals court agreed that Troy didn’t violate the SOP when he used his gas card instead of obtaining gas at the facility in Whitley County. He used the gas card while he was attending training at the academy, which was located in Plainfield, over 140 miles away. Receipts from other officers showed that they, too, used gas cards to fuel their cars while at the academy.
The additional reasons stated in Troy’s termination letter fared no better. First, the damage to his vehicle was a “slight ding” to his mirror, which occurred during an emergency situation. He reported the incident after the emergency was resolved, in compliance with the SOP. And he presented evidence that he did complete the transport order.
The 7th Circuit found the last three rationales—offered after Troy filed suit—unconvincing. First, he presented evidence that he wasn’t texting while driving but rather was using his phone in a way permitted by the SOP. Moreover, Aries failed to explain the “crash” in detail—Troy claimed he slid into a guardrail during a snowstorm. Finally, Troy was one minute late transporting the juveniles to court because he had been told they were in the same location when, in fact, they were not.
In all, the court easily concluded that Troy offered evidence that would permit a jury to conclude his race was the reason for his discharge.
This case underscores the importance of sound and consistent justifications for adverse actions. First, if an employee is facing discipline or termination for violating a policy or SOP, you must be certain that the language of the policy or SOP actually supports the action. Second, you should ensure that employees are disciplined consistently.
Issuing discipline to one employee but not another for the same action only opens doors for disparate treatment claims. And finally, when an employee is disciplined or terminated, you should be certain that the reasons given are consistent. Shifting reasons—as were given in this case—are ripe for later claims of pretext (false reasons offered to cover up true motives).