Monday, 22 April 2013 14:34
By Gina Helou
A female city police officer working in Tennessee sued her city-employer for gender and pregnancy discrimination under the Tennessee Human Rights Act. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the employer, dismissing the case. The trial court stated the female officer presented no credible evidence she was treated differently and less favorable than similarly situated male police officers. On appeal, the appellate court reversed the trial court’s decision.
The police department employed the female officer in 2006, after an interview where the chief advised her there was “nowhere for pregnant officers to work.” She assured the chief she did not plan to have more children, and started a position as a patrol officer. In late 2008, a male officer attempted to get involved romantically with the female officer, to no avail. He began harassing her, and on one occasion tried to break into her home. During this incident, another male officer was present and tried to stop the harassing male officer from breaking into a window at the female officer’s home. An altercation ensued, which ultimately ended in the female officer shooting the harassing male officer in the hip. She had an order of protection issued preventing the harasser from being in her vicinity. The other male officer (the hero) in the altercation subsequently became romantically involved with the female officer, which led to the pregnancy at issue in the discrimination lawsuit.
In 2009, the female officer crossed paths with her harasser and called the police to have an incident report filed showing he violated the order of protection. The officers at the scene refused to issue an incident report, so the female officer filed a complaint in General Sessions Court. The chief investigated the matter and came to the conclusion that the female officer had lied and filed a false complaint. He then had the complaint dismissed and ordered an internal affairs investigation regarding the female officer’s actions. In the interim, the harasser filed criminal charges against the female officer for his gunshot wound and for filing the false complaint against him. The chief placed the female officer on a paid suspension, saying she could not return to work until the criminal charges against her were dropped.
During her second month of the pregnancy, the criminal charges were dismissed, but she was not reinstated to her position. When she asked for a desk or dispatch job, she was denied. The chief conducted a hearing on the results of the internal affairs investigation and decided that, because she had tarnished her credibility as an officer by filing what he deemed to be a false complaint, she would be terminated. The discrimination lawsuit against the city followed.
The Tennessee Human Rights Act (the Act) prohibits the discrimination of an employee based on, among other things, gender and pregnancy. Successful discrimination claims must show that other similarly situated employees were treated differently and more favorable based on, in this situation, their gender. To support her claims under the Act, the female officer provided examples where male officers who were arrested and convicted of crimes which damaged their credibility were not investigated, suspended or terminated. Some of these similarly situated male employees were convicted of crimes such as filing a false report, theft, reckless homicide and severe child abuse. The female officer also provided information showing that during her suspension, the chief found out she was pregnant, and this was why, after the criminal charges against her were dismissed, he did not reinstate her and ultimately terminated her.
The city argued the examples of other male officers were irrelevant because the facts of the situation were different and the men did not hold the exact same position and she did. They also claimed the comments the chief may have made during the interview in 2006 were not relevant to the female officer’s claim of pregnancy discrimination. The trial court agreed. The appellate court, however, disagreed, finding that a comparator employee did not have to hold the exact same position with all of the exact same responsibilities. The male officers need only be similarly situated to the female officer. For example, holding the same rank and reporting to the same supervisors could be enough, and was so in this case. Their alleged infractions were not identical to the female officer’s, but the chief reasoned her termination on the issue of her credibility. He went as far as to say the infractions of the male officers did not negatively affect the integrity of the police department as heavily as the female officer’s actions did. The appellate court respectfully disagreed.
Lastly, the appellate court stated the pregnancy-related comments made by the chief were highly relevant to the pregnancy discrimination claim. The trial court’s decision not to consider all of these factors as disputed facts and evidence was clearly in error, and therefore summary judgment was premature, and the case should go back to the trial court to be properly briefed and ruled on.
Comments made in the workplace can follow an employer for years. Inadequately trained supervisors and managers can create discrimination lawsuits with a single sentence, even if it is not meant to be hurtful or out of spite. Furthermore, this is an eye-opener for employers who may not have known that, legally, the terms “similarly situated” does not necessarily mean “the same.” Properly training staff members whose actions can reflect against the company is essential. Also, implementing policies that afford all employees the same opportunities and the same punishments for similar actions will help prevent potential discrimination litigation.