Fired INDOT employee loses appeal claiming political firing

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A former Indiana Department of Transportation supervisor who claimed his firing was motivated in part by his defense of a Democratic employee and a letter to the editor that the supervisor’s mother wrote criticizing former Gov. Mike Pence’s immigration policies failed to prove he was discriminated against, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled.

Peter Daza had been a 22-year employee of INDOT as a geologist and a supervisor when he was fired in December 2015 on the heels of an Interstate 69 expansion land-acquisition scandal involving former department official Troy Woodruff. The former Republican lawmaker was appointed deputy Vincennes District commissioner in 2009 and was promoted to INDOT chief of operations in 2010.

Daza alleges political discrimination began a year later, after an employee he supervised posted political statements on his private Facebook account, and a co-worker asked Daza to speak to the employee about it. The employee was later passed over for a promotion, and Woodruff and others downgraded Daza’s overall rating of the employee.

After news broke in 2013 that Woodruff failed to disclose his financial interest in land acquired for the I-69 project, Daza complained about it to INDOT’s director of technical services, Valerie Cockrum. Woodruff was eventually cleared by the Indiana Inspector General’s Office after an ethics investigation.

One month after Daza complained, he received his first written reprimand for contesting an INDOT directive for employees with INDOT-issued cellphones to be available for calls after business hours.

Another year later, Daza again came to the defense of the employee he felt INDOT was targeting after he called in sick. Then, “(o)n November 22, 2015, Daza’s mother published a letter to the editor with a regional newspaper, criticizing then‐Indiana Governor Pence’s position on immigration,” Judge Michael Kanne wrote for the panel in Peter Daza v. State of Indiana, et al., 18-3102.

Daza got in more hot water for calling an INDOT training session “f—ing gay,” and he was fired less than a month after his mother’s letter to the editor was published. “Daza received a memo explaining that he was fired because his behavior consistently defied INDOT culture and expectations. The memo recalled his 2013 written reprimand, 2013 performance appraisal, and behavior during the December 1, 2015 training session,” Kanne wrote.

Daza sued INDOT and named officials, alleging he was discriminated and retaliated against based on his race, color, age, political speech and political affiliation. INDOT won summary judgment in the Southern Indiana District Court, and the 7th Circuit panel affirmed Thursday.

“Here, Daza’s discrimination and retaliation claims each fail because he has not shown that his alleged protected conduct motivated his firing. We therefore need not decide whether his defenses of (his subordinate) and discussions about his mother’s letter to the editor are constitutionally protected and — for his retaliation claim — whether he suffered a deprivation likely to deter free speech,” Kanne wrote.

The panel found none of Daza’s conversations with superiors ever referenced Daza’s Democratic political affiliation, and there was no evidence showing the official who fired him was aware of his mother’s letter or other politically protected speech.

“Daza presented a long string of facts occurring over four years but presented no evidence that his alleged political activities or affiliation motivated his firing. So, Daza has failed to prove an element of his political retaliation and discrimination claims. The district court correctly granted summary judgment to the defendants on those claims,” the panel concluded.

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