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Coleman v. City of Irondale

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division

September 15, 2017




         This is an employment discrimination case brought by the plaintiff, Cedric M. Coleman, against the City of Irondale. The parties have unanimously consented to magistrate judge jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). (Doc. 10). Presently pending is the City's motion for summary judgment (Doc. 20), which is fully briefed and ripe for adjudication (Docs. 21-22). For the reasons that follow, the motion for summary judgment will be granted in its entirety.

         I. FACTS

         In December 2004, the City hired Coleman, who is black, as a rookie Police Officer. (Doc. 20-1 at 2). During the relevant time period, Jerry McIntosh was the City's Chief of Police ("Chief McIntosh"); Jason Wiggins and Paul Wiggins were Lieutenants; and Kyle Roberson ("Sgt. Roberson") was initially a fellow officer who was later promoted to be Coleman's shift supervisor. (Id.; Doc. 20-10 at 3). For approximately one month, Coleman received on-the-job training by riding along with Officer Kennedy on patrols. (Doc. 20-1 at 2; Doc. 20-2 at 12). Coleman then attended the police academy for approximately three months; after successfully completing the police academy, Coleman trained on the job with Officer Ronnie Melton for four to six weeks. (Doc. 20-1 at 2; Doc. 20-2 at 11-12; see Doc. 21 at 3). Coleman testified his training with Melton included patrolling with him, responding to calls, and issuing citations. (Doc. 20-2 at 11, 13). Although he did not contemporaneously report any problems regarding his training, Coleman testified that Melton "didn't really do any training." (Doc. 20-2 at 13). Coleman notes that an unnamed white rookie officer hired three months after Coleman received training from Sgt. Roberson, who Coleman describes as a "highly regarded training officer." (Doc. 21 at 4).

         Approximately a year after Coleman was hired, he received his first reprimand for a policy infraction for liability arising from interactions with intoxicated drivers; Coleman attended a class on the subject. (Doc. 20-1 at 3). Over the next seven years, Coleman received nineteen additional verbal and written reprimands for various violations, including: repeated failure to turn in paperwork, participate in legal proceedings, or attend hearings incident to citations, warrants, and arrests; repeated tardiness; absenteeism; releasing information to unauthorized persons; failure to report to training; failure to maintain his vehicle; and failure to respond to a call for two and a half hours when he was at his residence during his shift. (Id. at 3-5). For the vast majority of these incidents, Coleman did not contest the City's findings and simply signed the reprimands. (Doc. 20-1 at 3). As discipline, Coleman received: (1) a one-day suspension without pay on November 9, 2006, for failing to complete a complaint and probable cause hearing within 48 hours, failing to verify a traffic citation, and failing to attend a trial on a speeding ticket for which he had been subpoenaed; (2) a thirty-day suspension from all off-duty employment on August 25, 2010, for failing to attend court, despite being subpoenaed, resulting in dismissal of the charges; and (3) a three-day suspension without pay on March 17, 2011, for failure to answer a dispatch call during the night shift. (Doc. 20-1 at 3-4, 6).

         In response to the City's recitation of his employment disciplinary history, Coleman characterizes his 2006 infractions-regarding interactions with DUI suspects and failure to participate in a probable cause hearing-as training issues, rather than disciplinary issues. (Doc. 21 at 4). Coleman relies on his testimony that he received "no training" during the four to six weeks he spent accompanying Officer Melton after the police academy.[1]

         The City's police officers are required to submit monthly productivity reports quantifying traffic enforcement efforts, felony and misdemeanor arrests, accident reports, and issuance of warnings, parking tickets, and traffic citations. (Doc. 20-1 at 6). Officers submit the monthly productivity reports to supervisors for approval. (Id.). During 2012 and 2013, nine of Coleman's monthly productivity reports were disapproved by at least one supervisor. (Id. at 6). On December 4, 2013, Coleman met with Sgt. Roberson and Lt. Wiggins regarding his monthly reports, and Coleman was informed he would lose his off-duty job privileges if his productivity did not improve. (Id.).[2] Coleman testified that reports, showing similar productivity, submitted by Officer Hay, who is white, were accepted by supervisors. (Doc. 20-2 at 40). The City contends Officer Hay was more productive over time and had legitimate reasons for lower productivity months, such as being on vacation. (Doc. 20-1 at 6-7).

         As to shift assignments, Officers request their desired shifts and days off in September of each year, and the City assigns shifts based on seniority. (Id. at 7). Although the parties' briefs do not include a timeline regarding Coleman's assigned shifts, it appears he was initially assigned to a night shift before the City accepted his request to move to a day shift at some point. (Doc. 20-1 at 7). Coleman testified that after initially working a night shift for two to four years, he was transferred to the day shift. (Doc. 20-2 at 14-15).[3]

         The City contends it issues new equipment based on a number of factors, including productivity, seniority, driving history, and officers' maintenance and care of their equipment. (Doc. 20-1 at 7). Vehicle assignment can change during the year based on the occurrence of "at fault accidents" and "maintenance issues." (Id.). From 2011 through his resignation, Coleman was assigned a 2005 Ford Crown Victoria. (Id.). In 2014, the City purchased a Chevrolet Tahoe and six new Dodge Chargers. (Id.). At some earlier point, the City purchased five 2006 Crown Victorias and three 2008 Crown Victorias. (Id.). The City contends Coleman was not assigned one of these newer vehicles because of maintenance issues with his assigned vehicle, lack of productivity, and "poor job performance generally." (Id. at 7-8). As to maintenance issues, the City notes that in March 2014, despite previous instructions to the contrary, Coleman's vehicle went 5, 000 miles beyond its scheduled maintenance and the oil level to dropped to one quart. (Id. at 8). The City also notes that white officers with Coleman's level of seniority were not assigned new vehicles: (1) Officer Pauly was assigned to a 2005 Crown Victoria due to his driving history, before being reassigned to a 2008 Crown Victoria in 2014; and (2) Officer Hay was assigned to a 2005 Crown Victoria "due to lack of cleanliness." (Id.).[4]

         The City's officers typically utilize laptop computers while on patrol. Coleman alleges he was denied access to a laptop for approximately one year and did not receive a laptop until he contacted his attorney in this matter. Relying on the affidavit of Sgt. Roberson, Coleman's shift supervisor, the City contends Coleman's computer was sent to be serviced in December 2013. (Doc. 20-1 at 8-9). The computer's return was delayed, first because "a new air card had to be ordered" and subsequently because the computer crashed and "could not be recovered." (Id.). Roberson averred that he "kept Coleman apprised of the process as it was ongoing." (Doc. 20-10 at 3). It is unclear when the laptop was returned to Coleman, but it was at some point after he hired an attorney. (Doc. 20-2 at 28). Emails attached to the affidavit support Roberson's version of events concerning the laptop maintenance. (Doc. 20-11 at 7-9). The City also notes that the time during which Coleman's computer was unavailable coincided with a period when Coleman was restricted to light duty and, thus, not assigned to patrol. (Doc. 20-1 at 8-9; Doc. 20-2 at 28).[5] Accordingly, the City contends Coleman was not denied access to a laptop for use during patrol. (Doc. 20-1 at 8-9). Coleman does not dispute the City's version of events concerning his laptop. (See generally Doc. 21).

         The Jefferson County Personnel Board handles hiring and advancement within the City's police department. (Doc. 20-1 at 9). When a position becomes available, the Chief requests a list of eligible candidates, which includes the candidates who have passed the Personnel Board's promotional exam. (Id.). The promotional exam, which is given every two to three years, determines each officer's eligibility for certain positions and ranks. (Id.). The City contends selection for open positions is based on job performance, leadership qualities, the Personnel Board's ranking, and employment history. (Id.).

         Coleman contends he applied for a K-9 position in 2007; the position was awarded to Sgt. Roberson. Coleman acknowledged that Sgt. Roberson had more seniority but contends he should have gotten the position because he lived in Irondale, while Roberson lived outside the jurisdiction. (Doc. 20-1 at 9-10). In addition to noting that Coleman already had multiple violations by 2007-Sgt. Roberson had no violations at the time-the City also notes that Coleman lived in an apartment at the time, which is "not ideal for a K-9 position." (Doc. 20-1 at 10).

         Coleman also alleges that Larry Fowler-a white officer with less seniority-received a detective position in 2008. The City notes that Fowler was a veteran of the Birmingham Police Department with experience performing the duties of a detective. (Doc. 20-1 at 10). The City also notes that Coleman never complained to anyone regarding Fowler's selection for the detective position in 2008. (Id.).[6]

         In response to Coleman's allegations that he was denied training and educational opportunities, the City contends he: (1) had the same opportunities as all other officers; (2) was never denied any training; and (3) was granted every educational opportunity he requested. (Doc. 20-1 at 10). Coleman's testimony support's the City's contentions in this regard. (Doc. 20-2 at 28). In particular, the City notes that Coleman requested a modified schedule in 2013, so that he could attend classes at Virginia College. (Doc. 20-1 at 10-11). It is true that Lt. Wiggins initially denied Coleman's request because the City disfavored modified schedules for all officers. (Id. at 11). However, after Coleman met with the Chief, the City granted Coleman's request for a modified schedule. (Id.). Coleman does not contest the City's recitation of facts concerning training, educational opportunities, or his 2013 request for a modified schedule to accommodate his educational aspirations.

         The City maintains policies and procedures regarding duty requirements, grievances, equipment, equal employment opportunities, and harassment. (Doc. 20-1 at 11). The harassment policy provides "the employee shall immediately notify his or her supervisor of the harassment, as soon as possible, so that steps may be taken to protect the employee from further harassment, and appropriate investigative and disciplinary measures may[ ]be initiated." (Doc. 20-1 at 11). Coleman received the policy when he was hired and was familiar with the grievance procedure. (Id.).

         On May 9, 2014, Coleman met with the City's mayor and Chief McIntosh, where he complained about workplace harassment, including issuance of equipment, his patrol vehicle, and racially charged incidents, including: (1) a 2011 text message; and (2) a screensaver on a computer in the squad room. (Doc. 20-1 at 11). Regarding the text message, in 2011 Sgt. Roberson sent Coleman a message including the "N-word." (Doc. 20-1 at 12). Sgt. Roberson contended that he accidently included Coleman as a recipient of the message and contemporaneously apologized to Coleman when he realized his mistake. (Id.). The City contends Coleman did not file a grievance or report the text message until the May 9, 2014 meeting. (Id.). In response, Coleman contends he did contemporaneously report the text message to Sgt. Meadows, who in turn reported it to Lt. Wiggins. (Doc. 21 at 6). On summary judgment, this factual dispute will be resolved in Coleman's favor. In any event, following the May 9, 2014 meeting, the City investigated the 2011 text message and sent Roberson to sensitivity training. (Doc. 20-1 at 12).

         Regarding the screensaver, during the May 9, 2014 meeting Coleman complained about a computer in the squad room with a screensaver depicting a black man with an afro and the NBA logo, which had been manipulated to read "pimps, players and hustlers." (Doc. 20-1 at 12).[7] The timing of the screensaver's appearance is unclear, but it appears Coleman noticed it during the Spring of 2014;[8] the May 9, 2014 meeting was the first time Coleman mentioned it to anyone at the City. (Id.). Following the meeting, the City investigated the complaint, conducted training, and on June 13, 2017, issued a memorandum banning screensavers displaying images or messages of a political, personal, religious, sexual, or offensive nature. (Id.; Doc. 20-9 at 3). Coleman did not observe any additional inappropriate screensavers after the meeting. (Doc. 20-1 at 12-13; Doc.20-2 at 32). Coleman does not contest the City's version of events surrounding any offensive screensaver.

         On June 13, 2014, Coleman found a picture taped to the outside of his locker door. (Doc. 21 at 6). Coleman's locker was located with the other officers' lockers in the squad room where officers met at the beginning of shifts. (Doc. 20-2 at 34). Coleman immediately complained to the City, describing the picture as a photo of a black man with a noose around his neck. (Doc. 20-1 at 13). Lieutenant Kellogg immediately investigated, and on June 14, 2014, Officer Chip Arrington admitted to posting a photo of the 1980s-era professional wrestler, Junkyard Dog, on Coleman's locker. (Id.). Arrington stated that in February 2014, he posted photos of various professional wrestlers on various officers' lockers-including Coleman's-in an effort to "boost morale." (Id.). The photo depicts Junkyard Dog holding a chain attached to a dog collar on his neck, his signature attire in the ring. (See id.; Doc. 20-13 at 12). Coleman testified that although he noticed pictures of other wrestlers taped to other officers' lockers, he did not see the picture of Junkyard Dog on his locker until June 13, 2014, the day after his attorney wrote a letter to the City regarding racial discrimination and disparate treatment. (Doc. 20-2 at 34; see Doc. 21 at 6; Doc. 1-4). Coleman testified he never asked anyone why the photo was placed on his locker because he was scared. (Doc. 20-2 at 34-35). The Junkyard Dog photo was removed-as were the other photos of professional wrestlers on other officers' lockers-when the City concluded its investigation. (Doc. 20-12 at 3). After the Junkyard Dog photo was removed, Coleman did not notice any other pictures on his locker.

         June 12, 2014, Coleman's counsel wrote a letter to the City, summarizing Coleman's allegations of disparate treatment and a racial discrimination. (Doc. 1-4). On July 9, 2014, Coleman filed his EEOC charge, alleging retaliation and a racially hostile work environment. (Doc. 1-1). The EEOC charge: (1) alleged that almost immediately following his hiring in 2004, he was subjected to racially offensive conduct by white coworkers and supervisors; (2) described the offensive 2011 text message from Sgt. Roberson; and (3) alleged Coleman "was denied new equipment, favorable assignments, and opportunities to extend [his] education or advance within the department." (Id.). The EEOC charge also notes the May 9, 2014 meeting with the mayor and Chief McIntosh and alleges no actions were taken as a result. The charge further contends that following the meeting, Coleman noticed the offensive computer screensavers[9] and the photo of Junkyard Dog. (Id.). The EEOC issued a right to sue letter on March 18, 2015. (Doc. 1-2).

         On Coleman resigned on September 12, 2014. (Doc. 21 at 6; Doc. 20-1 at 13). In his letter of resignation, Coleman stated he suffered from nearly ten years of psychological abuse and discrimination and he feared for his safety. (Doc. 20-1 at 13). During his deposition, Coleman testified the picture of Junkyard Dog was the incident that made him fear for his safety. (See id.; see also Doc. 21 at 6). On June 17, 2015, Coleman initiated the instant lawsuit. (Doc. 1). The complaint asserts claims under Title VII for constructive discharge, retaliatory hostile work environment, and retaliation.


         Before addressing the merits of the motion for summary judgment, the undersigned will address the City's objection to Coleman's reliance on excerpts of his journal to support his opposition. (Doc. 22 at 2). These handwritten journal excerpts were attached as an exhibit to Coleman's deposition and, thus, appear on the record in this matter. (Doc. 20-4 at 18-39). At his deposition, Coleman testified that he keeps a journal "[o]ff and on" and wrote the excerpts at issue sometime before he met with Chief McIntosh and the mayor; he testified he probably wrote the entries "around the beginning of [] 2014." (Doc. 20-2 at 39). Coleman has not responded to the City's objection or sought leave to file a sur-reply regarding reliance on the journal.

         Coleman's response in opposition to the motion for summary judgment relies heavily on the journal. Coleman cites the journal as the sole basis of support for the following assertions: (1) an unnamed white rookie officer, hired shortly after Coleman, was trained by Sgt. Roberson, "a highly regarded training officer;" (2) at an unspecified time, a less-senior white rookie officer was assigned a newer patrol car than Coleman, despite being involved in numerous accidents; (3) this same white rookie officer's patrol car had a computer, while Coleman's did not; (4) unnamed white officers with less seniority were assigned new patrol cars; (5) at some unspecified point, Coleman was assigned to the "midnight shift;" (6) the City had an unwritten "two o'clock rule, " meaning officers were discouraged from ...

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