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Sykes v. Board of Trustees of University of Alabama

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

October 21, 2019




         Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), the parties have consented to the jurisdiction of a United States Magistrate Judge. Pending before the court is the Motion for Summary Judgment filed by Defendant Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama (“the Board”). Doc. 28. Plaintiff Robert Lee Sykes, Jr. has filed a response in opposition to the motion. Doc. 32. The Board has filed a reply brief in support of its motion. Doc. 33. After careful consideration of the parties' submissions and the applicable law, and for the reasons that follow, the court concludes that the Motion for Summary Judgment is due to be granted.


         The court has jurisdiction over the claims in this lawsuit pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332. The parties do not contest personal jurisdiction, nor do they contest that venue is proper in the Northern District of Alabama. The court finds adequate allegations to support the propriety of both.


         In November 2011, Sykes began working as a police officer for the University of Alabama at Birmingham Police Department (“UABPD”) in Birmingham, Alabama. Doc. 30-1 at 11. During Sykes' employment, Anthony Purcell served as Chief of Police, Marvin Atmore and Zandral Washington were Deputy Chiefs of Police, and James Granade was Captain. Doc. 30-1 at 12. Sykes, Chief Purcell, Deputy Chief Atmore, and Deputy Chief Washington are black, while Captain Granade is white. Doc. 30-1 at 12. Purcell promoted Sykes twice during Sykes' tenure at UABPD, first to Field Training Officer in September 2013, and then to Corporal in December 2014. Doc. 30-1 at 16. As Corporal, Sykes supervised shifts of approximately 12 to 15 police officers. Doc. 30-1 at 16. While employed at UABPD, Sykes was subject to its Code of Conduct, which included standards for both on- and off-duty behavior. Doc. 30-1 at 15; Doc. 30-2 at 47-59.

         A. Traffic Stop

         At around 11:30 p.m. on July 4, 2017, Alabama State Trooper Michael Hale pulled over Sykes on Interstate 59 while Sykes was returning home from a barbeque at his parents' home in Uniontown, Alabama. Doc. 30-1 at 19; Doc. 30-2 at 67-68. Trooper Hale performed a breath analyzer test on Sykes. Doc. 30-1 at 21; Doc. 30-4 at 3. After Sykes announced that he was a police officer, Trooper Hale informed UABPD that he had pulled over Sykes and that he would not permit Sykes to drive home but would release him to the custody of another UABPD officer. Doc. 30-4 at 2-3; Doc. 30-1 at 19; Doc. 30-2 at 67. Trooper Hale later stated that he decided not to arrest Sykes because he did not want to arrest a police officer. Doc. 30-2 at 66. Deputy Chief Atmore directed Captain Granade to send an officer to the scene, so Granade sent Corporal Tonikos Vandiber. Doc. 30-4 at 3. Sykes also called UABPD Lieutenant Kerry Bester, who ultimately drove him home. Doc. 30-1 at 20. Trooper Hale issued citations to Sykes for speeding and possessing an open container of alcohol. Doc. 30-1 at 29-30; Doc. 30-2 at 67. Sykes denies having a container of alcohol in the vehicle. Doc. 30-2 at 66-67. Trooper Hale would have arrested Sykes for driving under the influence of alcohol (“DUI”) if a UABPD officer had not arrived to drive him home. Doc. 30-4 at 3.

         B. Investigation

         On July 6, 2017, Chief Purcell placed Sykes on administrative leave with pay pending the outcome of an investigation into the incident. Doc. 30-2 at 66; Doc. 30-1 at 19. Chief Purcell informed Sykes of this decision by providing him with a memorandum during a meeting in Chief Purcell's office. Doc. 30-1 at 19. Sykes claims that the statement in Chief Purcell's memorandum that Sykes was pulled over for DUI is false, because Sykes maintains that he was pulled over for speeding. Doc. 30-1 at 19.

         Chief Purcell directed Captain Granade to conduct the investigation. Doc. 30-4 at 3; Doc. 30-2 at 66. Granade obtained a written statement from Sykes. Doc. 30-4 at 3. He also interviewed Trooper Hale, who explained why he stopped Sykes' vehicle and provided the results of the breath analyzer test. Doc. 30-4 at 3. Finally, Granade interviewed Corporal Vandiber and Lieutenant Bester, and he reviewed Sykes' personnel file. Doc. 30-4 at 3. Granade then prepared a written report summarizing his findings and provided the report to Deputy Chief Washington. Doc. 30-4 at 3; Doc. 30-4 at 5-9.

         Trooper Hale told Captain Granade that he observed “what appeared to be a beer can in the center console” of Sykes' vehicle and that “he could smell alcohol on [Sykes'] person.” Doc. 30-4 at 8. Trooper Hale stated that Sykes' breath analyzer tests registered .089 and .09 percent.[1] Doc. 30-4 at 8. He then made the decision in conjunction with his supervisor to release Sykes to the custody of a UABPD officer.[2]Doc. 30-4 at 8.

         C. Disciplinary Decision

         Captain Granade's report recommended that UABPD demote Sykes, suspend him without pay, and formally reprimand him for “his egregious unacceptable personal conduct.” Doc. 30-4 at 9. On July 13, 2017, Chief Purcell gave Sykes a written reprimand during a meeting. Doc. 30-3 at 3. The letter explained that Sykes had violated UABPD's Code of Conduct and his oath of office, and concluded that the incident “demonstrated a lack of judgment and created a trustworthy and credibility issue for [Sykes] as a supervisor.” Doc. 30-2 at 70. Chief Purcell also demoted Sykes from Corporal to Police Officer, decreased his salary, and suspended him for two days without pay. Doc. 30-2 at 70. Chief Purcell testified by declaration that he was concerned about Sykes' conduct for a variety of reasons: (1) Sykes violated multiple traffic laws, (2) he violated the UABPD Code of Conduct, and (3) Chief Purcell perceived the incident to have “seriously damaged [Sykes'] credibility” since he was a supervisor. Doc. 30-3 at 3. Chief Purcell explained that he “hold[s] supervisors to a higher standard of conduct and performance, and will often discipline them more severely than lower ranked personnel for similar infractions.” Doc. 30-3 at 3.

         Chief Purcell also required Sykes to meet with Kelly Mayer, the UABPD Director of Human Resources Employee Relations. Doc. 30-1 at 24; Doc. 30-5 at 1- 2. Mayer told Sykes that he would be referred for a substance abuse treatment assessment under UAB's Impaired Employee Program (“IEP”). Doc. 30-5 at 3. UAB permits employees with substance abuse issues to participate in IEP as an alternative to the termination of their employment. Doc. 30-5 at 3. First, employees must undergo an assessment by an approved substance abuse treatment program to determine if treatment is necessary. Doc. 30-5 at 3. Employees also must abide by any of IEP's recommendations, including participation in rehabilitation programs or substance abuse testing. Doc. 30-5 at 3. Employees are required to pay the cost of each drug test, which are about $50 each. Doc. 30-5 at 3.

         Sykes met with Dr. Peter Lane, the Director of UAB's Addiction Recovery Program, for an assessment. Doc. 30-5 at 3. After their meeting, Dr. Lane told Mayer that he did not believe Sykes needed substance abuse rehabilitation treatment but that he had concerns about Sykes' alcohol use. Doc. 30-5 at 3. Thus, he recommended that Sykes undergo random substance abuse testing for six months to one year. Doc. 30-5 at 3. Following this recommendation, Mayer and Captain Granade met with Sykes on August 2, 2017 and told him that he would be required to undergo random substance abuse testing at least once per month for one year. Doc. 30-5 at 4. Sykes thereafter participated in random testing and tested negative every time. Doc. 30-1 at 29.

         On August 18, 2017, Sykes filed a Charge of Discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), alleging that similarly situated white employees with alcohol-related incidents “have not had to submit to drug and alcohol testing, nor made to pay for same, and have not been given the same severe level of punishment and restrictions” he received. Doc. 30-2 at 74. Sykes has identified three white UABPD officers that he claims were treated differently after comparable off-duty incidents involving alcohol: Darrell Catchings, Karl Martin, and Sarah Wolpert. Doc. 30-1 at 30.

         D. Other UABPD Off-Duty Incidents

         Darrell Catchings worked for UABPD as a Police Officer. Doc. 30-3 at 3. On February 8, 2014, while off duty, Catchings “attempted to intervene” in a traffic stop conducted near an apartment complex by the Montevallo, Alabama Police Department. Doc. 30-3 at 4. Catchings was under the influence of alcohol at the time. Doc. 30-3 at 4. Police released him from the scene without a citation after verifying that he was a UABPD officer. Doc. 30-3 at 4. Chief Purcell gave Catchings a written reprimand, suspended him for two days without pay, placed him on a 60-day probationary period, and referred him for a ...

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