Fired black officer can take racial discrimination case to trial

A black former Whitley County merit officer who raised a racial discrimination claim after he was fired will present his case to a jury after the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals determined Tuesday he had evidence of possible racial discrimination by the Whitley County Sheriff’s Department.

In August 2013, then-Whitley County Sheriff Mark Hodges hired Terrance McKinney to work for the sheriff’s department, the first black police officer ever hired in Whitley County. McKinney was hired as a full-time merit officer, a position that came with a one-year probationary period during which the sheriff could fire him at his sole discretion.

Shortly after beginning his work, McKinney said he began experiencing racial discrimination, such as an officer using the “n-word” in front of him and others refusing to speak to or train him. Hodges suggested that McKinney watch the movie “42” – which chronicles Jackie Robinson’s journey as a black man in Major League Baseball – because it would “help (him) out.”

Then in May 2014, Hodges fired McKinney, claiming McKinney submitted false work hours and violated the standard operating procedures for filing complete monthly reports and fueling county vehicles. McKinney then received a termination letter from the Whitley County Board of Commissioners that add two more reasons for his termination: damaging a county vehicle and failing to complete a transport and follow verbal instructions.

McKinney filed suit against the sheriff’s department and Deputy Sheriff Tony Helfrich, but the instant appeal in the case of Terrance S. McKinney v. Office of the Sheriff of Whitley County, 16-4131, deals only with McKinney’s racial discrimination claim against the sheriff’s department. After McKinney filed suit, the sheriff’s department presented three more reasons for firing him: texting while driving, crashing a county vehicle and belatedly transporting a juvenile to court.

The sheriff’s department moved for summary judgment, arguing McKinney could not establish his claims of race discrimination. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana agreed and granted summary judgment to McKinney’s former employer.

“The court did not address most of McKinney’s evidence, writing that ‘all that McKinney offers is his own assertions that he was meeting Defendant’s legitimate job expectations,” 7th Circuit Judge David Hamilton wrote in the opinion overturning the grant of summary judgment. “The court discounted this testimony as ‘self-serving, speculative, and conclusory.’”

In finding for McKinney, Hamilton wrote there was “no valid ground” for the district court to refuse to consider McKinney’s evidence, which included hundreds of pages of documents including testimony, gas receipts, scheduling records and other similar documents. Instead, the court relied on the sheriff’s affidavit, which claimed McKinney failed to meet the legitimate employment expectations.

Without an explanation for its rejection of McKinney’s evidence, and no apparent violation of Local Rule 56-1 as the court seemed to indicate, Hamilton wrote the district court abused its discretion in failing to fully consider his evidence.

The 7th Circuit further rejected each of the various explanations given for firing McKinney, finding the former officer presented sufficient evidence to debunk each rationale. The appellate court found each of the explanations were pretextual and dishonest and that McKinney has presented sufficient evidence that would allow his racial discrimination case to survive summary judgment.

Additionally, the 7th Circuit found additional evidence to satisfy the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework in McKinney’s favor, as he presented evidence that he met his legitimate employment expectations and was treated differently than other similarly situated officers who were not black. McKinney specifically pointed to an incident in which a white officer who tore the front bumper off of his car did not receive a reprimand, while a slight ding to McKinney’s mirror was listed as a reason for his termination.

Finally, Hamilton wrote the district court erred in discounting McKinney’s testimony as “self-serving, speculative and conclusory” because “(s)elf-serving affidavits can indeed by a legitimate method of introducing facts on summary judgment.” Further, the district court erred when it determined the sheriff could have chosen not to hire McKinney if he wanted to discriminate against him – relying on the “common actor” inference – because such an inference should not be made on summary judgment.

McKinney’s case was remanded for trial.

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