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Watkins v. City of Adamsville

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

July 30, 2019

KENNETH WATKINS, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF ADAMSVILLE, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          R. DAVID PROCTOR, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This case is before the court on the Motion for Summary Judgment filed by the City of Adamsville (“the City”) and Gayle Phillips (“Phillips”) (collectively, “Defendants”). (Doc. # 29). The Motion is fully briefed (Docs. # 29, 36, 45) and is ripe for review. After careful consideration, and for the reasons explained below, the court concludes that Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. # 29) is due to be granted in its entirety.

         I. Factual Background[1]

         This case involves the City's employment of Plaintiff Kenneth Watkins, an African-American male, from August 12, 2013 until his resignation on March 30, 2016. Proceeding under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Plaintiff asserts that the City and Phillips, both in her individual and official capacities as Plaintiff's direct supervisor, subjected him to discrimination on the basis of his race in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment (Count One). (Doc. # 1 at ¶¶ 81-84). Additionally, Plaintiff claims that the City and Phillips discriminated him on the basis of his gender in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the Equal Protection Clause (Count Three). (Id. at ¶¶ 90-103). Finally, Plaintiff argues that when he complained about the alleged disparate treatment, the City and Phillips retaliated against him in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments by treating him differently than white female employees and ultimately forcing his resignation. (Counts Two and Four). (Id. at ¶¶ 85-89, 104-108).[2]

         The court begins its analysis by outlining the general structure of the jail and dispatch operations within the City's Police Department. Next, the court summarizes Plaintiff's performance evaluations during his training period. The court then details several events involving Plaintiff and his co-workers and/or supervisors that he characterizes as discriminatory and retaliatory. Finally, the court discusses the Rule 56 evidence regarding the two primary disciplinary events that led to Plaintiff's departure from his employment.

         A. Structure of the City's Jail and Dispatch Operations

          On August 12, 2013, the City hired Plaintiff as a jailor and 911 dispatcher. (Doc. # 34-1 at 17, p. 55). Plaintiff's jailor duties included securing the male and female inmates in their separate facilities and ensuring they received their meals and recreational breaks. (Id.). As a dispatcher, Plaintiff answered 911 calls and transferred the calls to the proper agency. (Id. at 17, p. 56). All jailors employed by the City during this time were required to perform both sets of duties. (Id.).

         The City's Police Department includes the jail and dispatch operations. (Doc. # 29-2 at 4, p. 11). During Plaintiff's employment with the City, Robert Carter (“Chief Carter”), a white male, was the Chief of Police. (Id. at 3, p. 8). Chief Carter described the chain of authority within the City's Police Department from top to bottom as follows: Chief of Police, lieutenants, sergeants, then officers. (Id. at 3, p. 11). Chief Carter relied on the reports of Lynn Lindsey (Chief Carter's assistant) and Defendant Gayle Phillips (Jail and Dispatch Supervisor) (both white females) in supervising the daily operations of the jail and dispatch. (Id. at 3, pp. 11-12). Lindsey's position as Chief Carter's assistant was equivalent to a lieutenant rank, while Phillips acted as a sergeant. (Id. at 3, p. 12). Plaintiff's position as a jailor/dispatcher was equivalent to an officer's rank. (Id.). Based on this hierarchy, Phillips was Plaintiff's immediate supervisor. (Doc. # 34-1 at 17, p. 56).

         Because Lindsey and Phillips oversaw the daily operation of the jail and dispatch, they handled most internal disciplinary matters and employee complaints without the intervention of Chief Carter. (Doc. # 29-2 at 4-5, pp. 12-13). If Lindsey and Phillips felt the matter was particularly serious, they would report it up the chain to Chief Carter. (Id.). They also needed Chief Carter's approval to suspend or terminate an employee. (Id. at 5, p. 14). So, while Lindsey and Phillips could strongly recommend that an employee be fired, the ultimate decision-making authority rested with Chief Carter. (Doc. # 29-4 at 24, p. 89).

         When Plaintiff was initially hired, there were six female and four male jailor/dispatch employees. (Id. at 18, pp. 57-60).[3] The female employees included Phillips, Deirdre Lavies, Cindy Jackson, Lois Cunningham, Elizabeth Money, and Elizabeth Green. (Id. at 18, pp. 58-60). Shortly after Plaintiff began work, the City also hired Jana Jameson as another female jailor/dispatcher. (Id. at 18, p. 58). The male employees included Plaintiff, James Thomas, Joseph Burr, and Drew Neal. (Id.). Plaintiff and Lois Cunningham were the only African-American jailor/dispatchers. (Id. at 19, pp. 62-63). In fact, Plaintiff testified that he and Cunningham were two of the only four African-American employees in the entire Police Department. (Id.).

         B. Plaintiff's Initial Performance Evaluations

         During Plaintiff's one-year training period, Lindsey and Phillips prepared two performance evaluations of Plaintiff. (Doc. # 29-6). On October 11, 2013, Lindsey noted (and Phillips agreed) that Plaintiff's performance was generally “acceptable, ” but he needed improvement in two areas: “acceptance of feedback” and “general demeanor.” (Id. at 3-4). Specifically, Lindsey commented that Plaintiff's principal weakness was that he “gets a little argumentative with supervisors while training when corrected.” (Id. at 5). His February 25, 2014 evaluation documented general improvement across the board. (Id. at 7-9). However, Lindsey advised Plaintiff to “use caution when shutting cell doors when inmates are present. No. angry outbursts.” (Id. at 9). This notation appears to reference an informal counseling session between Phillips and Plaintiff on January 7, 2014, when she counseled him on “his anger issues including slamming a jail cell door without regard to the safety of inmates” and his “inappropriate conversations with inmates.” (Doc. # 29-7).

         C. Employment Events Plaintiff Characterizes as Discriminatory and/or Retaliatory

          Plaintiff argues that throughout his employment, Phillips and the City subjected him to numerous incidents of wrongful discriminatory and retaliatory treatment. Generally speaking, Plaintiff felt as though Phillips singled him out and talked down to him on a daily basis. (Doc. # 34-1 at 23, pp. 77-79). Several of Plaintiff's co-workers testified as to what they observed regarding Plaintiff's interactions with Phillips. For example, Lois Cunningham testified that at times, Phillips's tone while speaking to Plaintiff seemed “less pleasant” than when she spoke to other employees. (Doc. # 34-15 at 9, p. 28). In her view, Phillips and Plaintiff did not always “get along.” (Id. at 8, p. 25). Similarly, Cindy Jackson testified that Phillips was sometimes “rude” and “hateful” towards Plaintiff, but Phillips behaved “that way to a lot of people.” (Doc. # 34-18 at 5, p. 11-12). In fact, Jackson also stated that Phillips spoke to Plaintiff the same way she spoke to female employees. (Id. at 5, p. 10). By contrast, Jana Jameson never observed an instance where Phillips demeaned Plaintiff or any other male employee. (Doc. # 29-15 at 7, p. 24).

         In addition to Phillips's general behavior towards him, Plaintiff cites several specific events that occurred throughout his employment, which he characterizes as discriminatory and/or retaliatory. The court summarizes the Rule 56 evidence surrounding these events below.

         1. Initial Shift Assignments

         Part of Phillips's duties as the Jail and Dispatch Supervisor (and Plaintiff's immediate supervisor) included scheduling and managing jailor/dispatcher shifts. (Doc. # 29-4 at 4, p. 12). There were three shifts within the jail/dispatch department: 6:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. (first shift); 2:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. (second shift); and 10:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. (third shift). (Id.). Each shift required a minimum of two jailor/dispatchers on duty, with each respective employee assigned primarily either jailor or dispatcher duties for that particular shift. (Id.). Chief Carter preferred having one male jailor/dispatcher on each shift, particularly the first and second shifts, so that male and female inmates would feel more comfortable being searched and processed by jailors of their same sex. (Id. at 8-9, pp. 28-29). Phillips also considered hardships and seniority in scheduling shift assignments. (Id. at 9, pp. 29).

         Plaintiff was initially trained on the first shift. (Id. at 7, pp. 21; 34-1; 34-1 at 19 at p. 61). Plaintiff testified that before his training period ended, sometime between August and November 2013, he asked Phillips to place him on the night shift because he had a second job. (Doc. # 34-1 at 20-21, p. 68). Phillips does not recall Plaintiff asking to be placed on the night shift. (Doc. # 29-4 at 6, p. 20). Without consulting Plaintiff about hardships, Phillips scheduled Plaintiff on the second shift, and assigned Jana Jameson, a less senior employee (by about two weeks), to the third shift. (Id. at 7, 9, pp. 21, 29). According to Plaintiff, Jameson had asked for the second shift. (Doc. # 34-1 at 20, p. 76). Phillips explained during her deposition that Plaintiff was likely assigned to the second shift due to Chief Carter's preference to have one male jailor/dispatcher working the first and second shifts. (Doc. # 29-4 at 9, p. 29). Plaintiff further testified that he overheard Phillips and Jameson giggling when Phillips showed Jameson the schedule. (Doc. # 34-1 at 21, pp. 69-71). Plaintiff did not hear them talking about him, but he thought they were laughing because Jameson was given the night shift that he requested. (Id.). Phillips and Jameson do not recall this incident. (Doc. # 29-4 at 8, p. 28; 29-15 at 9, pp. 31-32). Finally, Plaintiff never complained to Phillips or any other supervisor about not being assigned his shift of choice. (Doc. # 34-1 at 23, p. 77).

         2. January 2014 Book Incident Involving Elizabeth Money

          On January 18, 2014, Elizabeth Money threw a book at Plaintiff's back while in the dispatch office during the second shift. (Doc. # 34-1 at 23-25, pp. 80-85; 34-10). Plaintiff immediately reported the incident to Phillips. (Doc. # 34-1 at 24, p. 81). Phillips prepared a report for Lindsey. (Doc. # 29-4 at 9, p. 32). Although Phillips testified that she verbally recommended termination as the penalty, Chief Carter recalled that Phillips's recommended penalty was suspension. With Chief Carter's approval, the City ultimately suspended Money from January 25, 2014 to January 28, 2014. (Id. at 9-10, pp. 32-33; 34-10; 29-2 at 5, pp. 13-14).

         In Plaintiff's view, suspension was an inadequate punishment in light of a similar incident involving another white female employee, Deirdre Lavies. (Doc. # 34-1 at 25, pp. 86-88). Plaintiff testified that, sometime before Money threw the book at him, Lavies hit another white employee on the back of the head and was terminated. (Id.). But, the Rule 56 evidence indicates that Phillips was never made aware of an incident involving Lavies hitting another employee. (Doc. # 29-4 at 13, p. 48). Instead, Chief Carter and Phillips confirmed that Lavies was fired because she made racist statements targeted at Lois Cunningham, a female African-American employee. (Id. at 14, p. 49; 29-2 at 7-8, pp. 24-27). Phillips recommended that the City fire her. (Id.).

         Plaintiff also testified that Chief Carter questioned him in his office regarding the book incident. (Doc. # 34-1 at 64, pp. 243-244). According to Plaintiff, he told Carter that “it's kind of hard to be a male over [in the jail/dispatch department].” Carter denies that this conversation occurred. (Doc. # 29-2 at 14, p. 52). In fact, Carter testified that Plaintiff never complained to him about being treated differently due to his race or gender. (Id. at 13, p. 47). As Rule 56 caselaw requires, the court assumes the accuracy of Plaintiff's statement in this area.

         When Money returned to work, she was placed on the third shift as a form of punishment for throwing a book at Plaintiff. (Doc. # 34-1 at 26, pp. 90-91; 29-4 at 15, p. 54). According to Plaintiff, in March 2014, Money complained about working the third shift and was reassigned to the second shift. (Doc. # 34-1 at 26, pp. 91-95). Plaintiff was then scheduled to the third shift. (Id. at 27, pp. 95-96). No. City employee consulted him prior to implementing this schedule change. (Id.). At this point in Plaintiff's employment, working the night shift presented a problem because he had already arranged his schedule to accommodate his children. (Id.). However, while Plaintiff contends that he viewed this event as an indication that the needs of Money, a white female employee, were valued above his own, he never complained to his supervisors about it. (Id. at 28, pp. 99-100).

         In addition to throwing a book at Plaintiff, Money was also written up, counselled, and/or disciplined for other work-related misconduct during her employment. For example, in January 2011, Money called in sick, but was spotted at a Walmart store picking up supplies for a party. (Doc. # 20). Phillips reported the incident to Lindsey, but the Rule 56 record does not indicate that Chief Carter was made aware of the issue or that any additional discipline was instituted against Money. (Id.). In November 2015, a civilian filed a complaint against Money claiming that she was rude and dismissive while performing dispatch duties. (Id.). Money's disciplinary record also includes several other disciplinary forms addressing such things as her failure to log dispatch calls, divulging confidential department information to the public, and sleeping on the job. (Id.). Although the Rule 56 record does not reflect when, Money was fired but subsequently reinstated after a hearing. (Doc. # 29-4 at 11-12, pp. 40-41).

         3. Plaintiff's Night Shift

         After Plaintiff was transferred to the third shift, Leah Fields, another white jailor/dispatcher, told Plaintiff that Phillips had asked her to keep an eye on him. (Doc. # 34-1 at 29, p. 101). Cunningham also testified that Jameson had told her that Phillips asked Jameson to watch Plaintiff. (Id. at 29, pp. 102-103; 34-15 at 10, p. 30). Phillips admitted that she asked Jameson to inform her if something happened during third shift that she should know about since she did not work that shift. (Doc. # 29-4 at 8, p. 27). But, she denied instructing any other jailor/dispatcher to specifically watch Plaintiff. (Id. at 8, pp. 26-27). (Again, the court treats Plaintiff's version as true for purposes of its Rule 56 analysis). Phillips never asked Plaintiff to monitor the shifts she was not working. (Doc. # 34-1 at 30, p. 105).

         Plaintiff also testified that Fields and Jameson both behaved inappropriately while working the third shift. For example, Fields regularly slept on the job. (Id. at 73, p. 280). He claims Fields also had a sexual relationship with a male inmate. (Id. at 74, pp. 281-82). As a result, Chief Carter gave Fields a choice of termination or resignation, and she resigned her employment. (Doc. # 29- 2 at 9, pp. 30-31). Before Fields resigned, the male inmate with whom she had a sexual relationship committed suicide during Jameson's night shift. (Doc. # 34-1 at 74, p. 283). According to Plaintiff, Jameson gave him a pillow and blankets even though he exhibited signs of depression. (Id.). She also did not check on him for a period of 40 minutes, which was against policy at the time. (Id. at 35, pp. 127-28). Neither Phillips nor Chief Carter were present at the time of the inmate's death. (Docs. # 29-4 at 26, p. 98; 29-2 at 9-10, p. 32-35), so Jameson was not disciplined for giving blankets to an emotional inmate. (Id.).

         4. March 2014 Memorandum

          On March 13, 2014, three days after Plaintiff was moved to the third shift, Phillips gave Plaintiff a written memorandum outlining areas in which he could improve his job performance. (Doc. # 34-1 at 30-34; 29-4 at 17-18). The memorandum was based on several complaints Phillips had received from the female inmates. (Doc. # 29-4 at 19, p. 72). The memorandum reads as follows:

Kenneth,
I wanted you to know the criteria an inmate can file a grievance against a jailer- unfortunately some of your behavior I have heard about would fall under that.
(1) Denying coffee to females for no reason while serving it to the males-coffee was mandated by the Mayor.
(2) Waking up the females every time you go back there during the night-they were complaining you sing and whistle and hum and slam doors and that you talk on your phone all night. Kenneth they need to sleep, if you need to learn how to tell if they are breathing okay during night shift let me know.
(3) We have to keep the jail office cool because of the equipment so please do not take the blankets from the females-if they disregard your orders then write them up.
(4) 3:00 AM is a bit early to get the inmates up, chief wanted them to start between 4:00-4:30 AM.

(Doc. # 34-2 at 2). Phillips also attached a sample “Grievance Procedures Form” that inmates may file against jailors. (Id. at 3). The form provided a list of potential grounds for the initiation of a grievance. (Id.). Phillips had circled “Violation of civil rights” and “Unjust denial or restriction of inmate privileges” on the form. (Id.). Phillips left the memorandum for Plaintiff to find hanging off a desk in the dispatch office. (Doc. # 34-1 at 32, p. 114; 29-4 at 21-22 pp. 80-82). While Plaintiff insisted the document was left open, Phillips testified she “taped it up so nobody could open it.” (Doc. # 29-4 at 22, p. 81).

         Plaintiff disputed several of Phillips's criticisms. For example, Plaintiff testified that he actually gave the female inmates one cup of coffee that morning, but informed Phillips that they might need more because the coffee he gave them tasted strangely. (Doc. # 34-1 at 32, pp. 115-116). However, Phillips denied that any such conversation motivated the preparation of the memorandum. (Doc. # 29-4 at 20-21, pp. 75-77). Instead, she explained that her criticism was based on the female inmates' report that the male inmates received two cups of coffee when they only received one cup. (Id.). Furthermore, Plaintiff testified the reason he took blankets away from female inmates was because they refused to comply with his instruction to remove the blankets from their faces. (Doc. # 34-1 at 32, p. 114). Finally, Plaintiff stated that other female jailors made plenty of mistakes while on shift, but he never saw letters addressed to them in the dispatch office. (Doc. # 34-1 at 33-34, pp. 118-122). According to Plaintiff, they only received verbal feedback. (Id.). Although Plaintiff viewed this memorandum as a gender-motivated threat and an attempt to get him fired (Doc. # 34-1 at 33, p. 119), Phillips did not discipline Plaintiff beyond writing this memorandum. (Id. at 31, p. 111). She did not issue a formal write-up or attempt to fire Plaintiff. (Id.). By contrast, Phillips explained that because Plaintiff was not fully trained for the night shift, she wrote the memorandum with the intention of helping Plaintiff. (Doc. # 29-4 at 20, pp. 73-74). Plaintiff discussed the memorandum with Phillips the following day, but he did not complain to any other City employee. (Doc. # 34-1 at 34, pp. 123-24).

         5. Alleged Nepotism

         Plaintiff asked Lindsey whether it was possible for family members to work within the department. (Doc. # 34-1 at 36-37, pp. 132-34). Plaintiff testified that Lindsey replied, “we're trying to get away from that.” (Id. at 37, p. 133). There is no evidence in the Rule 56 record that a member of Plaintiff's family actually submitted an employment application to the City. Nevertheless, about one month after Plaintiff's conversation with Lindsey, the City hired Derrick Mills, a white male and stepson to Sergeant Nicks. (Id. at 37, p. 135).

         Shortly thereafter, on July 22, 2015, Plaintiff asked Phillips if he could switch from the third shift to the first shift. (Id. at 38, p. 137; 34-22). Phillips responded no, because Derrick Mills and Sergeant Nicks were related and could not work together on the same shift. (Id. at 37-38, pp. 135-38; Id.; 29-4 at 28, p. 107). Plaintiff did not complain to any of his supervisors that Phillips refused his request to change shifts. (Doc. # 34-2 at 38, p. 138).

         In fact, on August 20, 2015, Lindsey called Plaintiff and offered him the first shift. (Id.; 34-9). Plaintiff refused Lindsey's offer because he had already adjusted his children's babysitting arrangements to work the third shift. (Id.). However, Lindsey's memo documenting this conversation shows that Plaintiff “was given a choice to decide which shift he would like” beginning on August 31, 2015. (Doc. # 34-9).

         6. June 2015 T-shirt Incident

          On June 10, 2015, Mills hung a T-shirt in the dispatch bathroom that depicted Plaintiff as an inmate of the jail. (Docs. # 34-1 at 75, pp. 285-86; 34-4). Plaintiff told Mills that the T-shirt was not funny because he was the only African-American male employee, and the shirt implied he was a criminal. (Id. at 75, p. 286). Phillips also saw the T-shirt and told Mills to put it away because it was inappropriate. (Doc. # 29-4 at 14-15, pp. 49-53). She did not, however, report the incident to Chief Carter or institute any further discipline against Mills. (Id.).

         Additionally, Plaintiff testified that several police officers discussed the Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown shooting cases in his presence at the dispatch office. (Doc. # 34-1 at 78-79, pp. 300-301). Plaintiff stated that “[t]here was never any sympathy shown towards the victims, ” and the officers defended George Zimmerman, the person involved in one of the shootings. (Id. at 78, p. 300). Jameson, however, never heard co-workers talking about these shootings. (Doc. # 34-28 at 7, p. 16).

         7. August 2015 Charges Against Female Inmate

          In August 2015, a female inmate threw food at Plaintiff. (Doc. # 34-1 at 38-39, pp. 138-42). Plaintiff wanted to press charges against the inmate, but the charges were never entered in the system. (Id. at 39, p. 142). Both Phillips and Chief Carter testified that once an employee files a charge report, the magistrate judge determines “what they need to issue on or what they don't need to issue on [it].” (Docs. # 29-2 at 13-14, pp. 48, 51; 29-4 at 35, p. 134). In other words, their involvement ends once the magistrate judge screens the charges. (Id.). Again, Plaintiff did not complain to any of his supervisors about the charges not appearing in the system. (Doc. # 34-1 at 39, p. 142).

         8. November 2015 Disagreement with Cunningham

          During the November 2-3, 2015 night shift, Plaintiff and Cunningham had a disagreement about who would perform dispatch duties and who would make rounds in the jail. (Doc. # 34-1 at 61-62, pp. 231-36). Cunningham called Phillips to report the incident. (Doc. # 34-14) On November 4, 2015, Phillips prepared the following memorandum documenting Cunningham's call:

I received a call on my personal phone from dispatcher Lois Cunningham. This was around 12:30 a.m. on Tuesday, November 3, 2015. Ms. Cunningham said Dispatcher Kenneth Watkins was being aggressive towards her, speaking to her in “that voice.” Ms. Cunningham had come to work before Mr. Watkins so Ms. Cunningham sat at the dispatch desk. Mr. Watkins came in and told her to move. She said no. He said “I'm not playing, move.” She again said no. He said it once more aggressively the third time but she didn't relent. Ms. Cunningham said Mr. Watkins spent the rest of the time out in the shed in the dark. Ms. Cunningham said she wasn't afraid of him but did say he seems to be getting worse.

(Doc. # 34-14 at 3). Attached to Phillips's memorandum is a Disciplinary Action Form listing Phillips and Chief Carter as Plaintiff's supervisors. (Id. at 2). The form describes the incident as “insubordination” because Plaintiff said he would not work the jail and recommends termination as the next action step. (Id.). However, the Disciplinary Action Form is not dated or signed, and it does not indicate what type of disciplinary action was actually taken. (Id.). Phillips never confronted Plaintiff about the incident. (Doc. # 34-1 at 62, p. 233). In fact, Phillips denied preparing a write-up or ...


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