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Baker v. City of Tupelo

United States District Court, N.D. Mississippi, Aberdeen Division

May 7, 2019

JENNIFER L. BAKER PLAINTIFF
v.
CITY OF TUPELO, MISSISSIPPI DEFENDANT

          ORDER AND MEMORANDUM OPINION

          SHARION AYCOCK UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Jennifer Baker filed her Complaint [1] on February 5, 2018, alleging that her termination from the City of Tupelo, Mississippi police force violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the United States Constitution's First Amendment and Equal Protection clause. Now before the Court is the Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment [40]. Briefing is complete, and the issues are ripe for review.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         The Tupelo, Mississippi Police Department hired Jennifer Baker as a patrol officer in September of 2013. Baker had law enforcement experience as a patrol officer for the city of San Diego, California. Over the next few years, Baker's annual performance reviews were positive, and the Department promoted her and gave her several pay raises.

         In 2015, the Department placed Baker under the direct supervision of Lieutenant Lee Miller. According to Baker, Miller made statements indicating a sexual interest in her and when she did not reciprocate, Miller sexually harassed her. Baker filed a formal grievance and Miller was immediately taken off her shift. Around this same time, Baker was aware of a federal lawsuit against Miller filed by her co-worker, Tiffany Gilleylen. Baker submitted an affidavit in the Gilleylen case in support of Gilleylen's discrimination claims against Miller. Although Baker completed her affidavit in the Gilleylen case before she was terminated, the affidavit was not submitted to the Court until after she was terminated. In her Complaint Baker alleges that this affidavit, and her personal complaints about Miller, ultimately resulted in her discharge.

         In the Fall of 2016, Baker suspected that the Department was not properly compensating employees for overtime hours. Baker sent an email to Lieutenant Mansell about the Department's failure to pay overtime. This email led to a meeting on January 3, 2017 with Baker, Deputy Chief Allan Gilbert, and Captain Tim Bell. They assured Baker that they would look into it, and Baker responded that she would contact the Department of Labor if they did not address the problem. Shortly thereafter, Baker began calling the Department of Labor and encouraged her co-workers to do the same. Ultimately, the Department of Labor determined that most of the officers were due additional compensation. Many employees, including Baker, received a settlement compensating them for unpaid overtime.[1]

         Baker's issues with the Police Department did not end there. According to Baker, the Department placed a tremendous amount of pressure on its officers to write tickets. According to Baker, and other officers, the Department denied promotions to officers that did not write enough tickets, and moved experienced officers that had trouble writing enough tickets to poorer areas where there were more opportunities to write tickets. According to Baker, she complained to her Sergeants about the ticket pressure, but continued to write tickets, and even made stops she would not have otherwise made, to keep her numbers up. Baker argues that the Department's pressure to write so many tickets unfairly targeted poor minority citizens, and took officers away from other important duties and investigations.

         On March 2, 2017 Captain Bell and Major Clayton suspended Baker and placed her on administrative leave. On March 7, 2017 Baker was terminated in a meeting with Chief Aguirre, Assistant Chief Gilbert, Lieutenant Mansell, Captain Bell, and Internal Affairs Investigator Sandlin.

         Baker asserts multiple claims against the Department that generally fall into two categories: gender discrimination, and retaliation. Baker alleges that the Department wrongly fired her, which was discrimination against her because of her gender, and constituted retaliation against her for several separate allegedly unlawful reasons.

         As to Baker's gender discrimination claim, she claims that the Department violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act by treating her differently from similarly situated male employees. Specifically, that the Department fired her, but did not act against similarly situated male employees that engaged is the same conduct.

         As to Baker's retaliation claims, she claims that the Department retaliated against her for four separate reasons: First, Baker claims that the Department violated the FLSA when it retaliated against her and fired her after she led the effort to remedy the Department's failure to compensate employees for overtime work. Second, Baker claims that the Department violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act by firing her in retaliation for her opposition to Miller's unwanted sexual advances. Third, she asserts a claim under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 arguing that the Department violated the First Amendment when it fired her in retaliation for statements she made to citizens during traffic stops. Finally, Baker asserts a claim that the Department violated Title VII, and 42 U.S.C. Section 1981 and the Equal Protection Clause, by firing her in retaliation for her opposition to the Department's allegedly racist ticketing policies.

         The Department now requests summary judgment in its favor on all of Baker's claims. The Department first argues that Baker abandoned her gender discrimination claim. As to Baker's retaliation claims, the Department argues that Baker cannot establish elements of her claims, and that even if she could, the Department fired her for legitimate non-discriminatory reasons.

         Summary Judgment Standard

         Summary Judgment is warranted when the evidence reveals no genuine dispute regarding any material fact, and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The rule “mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986).

         The moving party “bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion and identifying those portions of [the record] which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Id. at 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548. The nonmoving party must then “go beyond the pleadings” and “designate ‘specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Id. at 324, 106 S.Ct. 2548 (citation omitted). In reviewing the evidence, factual controversies are to be resolved in favor of the non-movant, “but only when both parties have submitted evidence of contradictory facts.” Little v. Liquid Air Corp., 37 F.3d 1069, 1075 (5th Cir. 1994) (en banc). When such contradictory facts exist, the Court may “not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence.” Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150, 120 S.Ct. 2097, 147 L.Ed.2d 105 (2000). Conclusory allegations, speculation, unsubstantiated assertions, and legalistic arguments are not an adequate substitute for specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial. TIG Ins. Co. v. Sedgwick James of Wash., 276 F.3d 754, 759 (5th Cir. 2002); SEC v. Recile, 10 F.3d 1093, 1097 (5th Cir. 1997); Little, 37 F.3d at 1075.

         Discussion and Analysis

         i. Title VII: Gender Discrimination

         As noted above, in her Complaint, Baker claims that the Department violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act by treating her differently from similarly situated male employees. Specifically, that the Department fired her, but did not act against similarly situated male employees that engaged is the same conduct. The Defendant now requests summary judgment in its favor on this claim for procedural and substantive reasons. The Plaintiff did not offer a response to the Defendant's arguments, and did not address her gender claim in her response at all. Because the Plaintiff has abandoned this claim, Summary Judgment is granted in the Defendant's favor as to Baker's gender discrimination claim asserted under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. See Cutrera v. Board of Sup'rs of Louisiana State University, 429 F.3d 108 (5th Cir. 2005) (finding a District Court's grant of Summary Judgment proper when a party abandons the claim in their briefing).

         ii. Retaliation: Fair Labor Standards Act

         The Fair Labor Standards Act includes an anti-retaliation provision, which strengthens employees' ability to assert their FLSA rights without having to worry that their employer will punish them for doing so. Susan Prince, Employer's Guide to Fair Labor Standards. Act ¶ 940 (2015). The Act states in relevant part:

. . . it shall be unlawful for any person . . . to discharge or in any other manner discriminate against any employee because such employee has filed any complaint or instituted or caused to be instituted any proceeding under or related to this chapter, or has testified or is about to testify in any such proceeding, or has served or is about to serve on an industry committee.

29 U.S.C. § 215(a)(3). In order to establish a prima facie case for an FLSA retaliation claim, a plaintiff must make a showing of (1) participation in protected activity under the FLSA; (2) an adverse employment action; and (3) a causal link between the activity and the adverse action. Hagan v. Echostar Satellite, L.L.C., 529 F.3d 617, 624 (5th Cir. 2008) (citing McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 93 S.Ct. 1817, 36 L.Ed.2d 668 (1973)).[2] If a plaintiff establishes a prima facie case, the burden shifts to the defendant to articulate a legitimate non-retaliatory reason for the adverse action. McDonnell Douglas, 411 U.S. at 802, 93 S.Ct. 1817. If a defendant meets its burden of production by articulating a legitimate reason for the adverse action, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to establish pretext. Id. at 805, 93 S.Ct. 1817. A plaintiff must ultimately prove by a preponderance of the evidence that “the adverse employment action would not have occurred ‘but for' plaintiff's protected activity.” Kanida v. Gulf Coast Med. Pers. LP, 363 F.3d 568, 580 (5th Cir. 2004).

         Baker raised objections to the Department's failure to accurately pay the officers for overtime hours after she noticed that her pay stubs incorrectly reflected the hours that she worked. She was not alone, her fellow officers shared a similar experience. The summary judgment record supports the allegation that Baker led the charge to remedy this pay disparity. During a meeting with Deputy Chief Gilbert and Captain Bell, Baker informed them that she planned to contact the Department of Labor if they did not address the problem. Not only did she contact the Department of Labor, she encouraged her co-workers to follow suit. The Department fired ...


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