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Brown v. Pettway

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

March 25, 2019

ERIC BROWN, Plaintiff,
v.
MARK PETTWAY, in his official Capacity as Sheriff of Jefferson County, Alabama, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          KAJ ON OWEN BOWDRE CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Federal authorities publicly identified Plaintiff Eric Brown, a Jefferson County Sheriff's Deputy, as potentially connected to a money laundering scheme after he purchased two cars, each with a value in excess of Mr. Brown's annual salary. The investigation did not ultimately lead to any formal charges, but Mr. Brown suffered consequences all the same-namely, that his employer placed him on administrative leave for over one year and placed administrative restrictions on him once he returned to work. Mr. Brown now alleges his race motivated his superiors to punish him as severely as they did.

         This matter comes before the court on Defendant's motion for summary judgment. (Doc. 36). In the motion and his brief in support, Defendant Mark Pettway[1] asks the court to enter summary judgment in his favor on Plaintiff's race discrimination claim.

         Defendant Mark Pettway, in his official capacity as Sheriff of Jefferson County, Alabama, is the only defendant remaining in this case, and the court already dismissed the only other claim Mr. Brown brought against him. So ruling in Defendant's favor on this motion would constitute a final judgment in this case.

         For the reasons stated below, this court WILL GRANT Defendant's motion for summary judgment. (Doc. 36).

         I. Standard of Review

         Summary judgment allows a trial court to decide cases when no genuine issues of material fact are present and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56. When a district court reviews a motion for summary judgment, it must determine two things: whether any genuine issues of material fact exist, and whether the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Id.

         The moving party “always bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of ‘the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any,' which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56).

         Once the moving party meets its burden of showing the district court that no genuine issues of material fact exist, the burden then shifts to the non-moving party “to demonstrate that there is indeed a material issue of fact that precludes summary judgment.” Clark v. Coats & Clark, Inc., 929 F.2d 604, 608 (11th Cir. 1991). Disagreement between the parties is not significant unless the disagreement presents a “genuine issue of material fact.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 251-52 (1986). Inferences can create genuine issues of material fact. Carlson v. FedEx Ground Package Systems, Inc., 787 F.3d 1313, 1318 (11th Cir. 2015).

         In response, the non-moving party “must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material fact.” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). The non-moving party must “go beyond the pleadings and by [its] own affidavits, or by the ‘depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file,' designate ‘specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324 (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)) (emphasis added).

         The court must “view the evidence presented through the prism of the substantive evidentiary burden, ” to determine whether the non-moving party presented sufficient evidence on which a jury could reasonably find for the nonmoving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 254. The court must refrain from weighing the evidence and making credibility determinations because these decisions belong to a jury. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986).

         Further, all evidence and inferences drawn from the underlying facts must be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. See Graham v. State Farm Mut. Ins. Co., 193 F.3d 1274, 1282 (11th Cir. 1999). After both parties have addressed the motion for summary judgment, the court must grant the motion only if no genuine issues of material fact exist and if the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56.

         II. Factual Background

         Plaintiff Eric Brown has worked as a deputy sheriff for the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office (JCSO) since 2002. He worked in the Corrections Division until 2005 and then served as a Patrol Officer from 2005 until the incidents described below took place.

         In 2013, Mr. Brown, along with several other parties, purchased a 1969 Chevrolet Camaro. As part of the same transaction, Mr. Brown also signed a purchase agreement for a 1967 Ford Mustang, but he denies any knowledge of or involvement with that transaction, seemingly explaining his signature on the paperwork to be a clerical oversight.

         These two cars became the focus of an investigation by the United States Drug Enforcement Agency in 2014. The DEA suspected the cars were used to launder illicit “drug” money and took possession of both. The DEA also publicly identified Mr. Brown as a Jefferson County Deputy Sheriff under investigation for drug-related money laundering crimes related to the cars.

         On the same day as the DEA's public announcement of its active investigation, April 10, 2014, the JCSO placed Mr. Brown on administrative leave with pay. On June 12, 2014, with the DEA investigation ongoing, the JCSO placed Mr. Brown on administrative leave without pay. One year later, with the DEA investigation pending still, the JCSO reinstated Mr. Brown but involuntarily reassigned him to work in the Corrections Division with several administrative restrictions on him: disallowing him a patrol car to take home, disallowing him from wearing a uniform outside the correctional facility, and prohibiting him from making any arrests or performing any duties outside the correctional facility. (Doc. 10 at ¶¶ 14-18). Defendant's proffered rationale for these restrictions is that “the on-going federal investigation . . . would taint any arrest Deputy Brown had to make and any testimony he had to give concerning such an arrest.” (Doc. 37 at 30-31).

         Alleging both race and age discrimination, Mr. Brown filed a formal complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on October 13, 2015. The EEOC concluded its own investigation on August 14, 2016 and sent a right-to-sue letter to Mr. Brown on August 15, 2016. Mr. Brown filed this lawsuit on November 15, 2016.

         Mr. Brown's amended complaint says he received the right-to-sue letter on August 18, 2016. (Doc. 10 at ¶ 12). During his deposition, Mr. Brown stated that he could not recall the day or week he received the right-to-sue letter but that he knew it was in August. (Doc. 38-1 at 29, Eric Brown's Dep. at 109:1-13).

         Two months after Mr. Brown filed this lawsuit, the United States concluded its nearly three-year-long investigation and dismissed all pending actions against Mr. Brown. Almost a month later, when the JCSO learned of the dismissal, it lifted all administrative restrictions from Mr. Brown and allowed him to transfer to the Patrol Division at the next opening.

         III. Discussion

         A. Subject ...


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