Implicit Reference to Racial Discrimination in Complaints Saves Trooper’s Retaliation Claim from Summary Judgment

By Kate Acheson

A trooper who complained numerous times of disparate treatment, filed suit after his eventual termination, claiming his employer violated Title VII by discriminating and retaliating against him due to his race.  In Reaves v. Pennsylvania State Police, the Pennsylvania District Court found, “although the evidence [was] rather tenuous,” enough material dispute of fact existed for the trooper’s retaliation claim to survive summary judgment and go to the jury.  The trooper’s other Title VII claim – for discrimination – lacked sufficient evidence and was rejected as a matter of law.

Trooper Tony Reaves, an African American man, worked as a full-time probationary-status trooper for the Pennsylvania State Patrol (“PSP”).  At the end of Reave’s probationary period, Corporal Ranck prepared a report on Reaves’ probation, which ultimately recommended that Reaves be terminated.  Although a majority of Reaves’s supervisors recommended that Reaves be retained, the Captain and Administrative Review Panel decided to terminate Reaves effective October 4, 2007.

This termination followed numerous communications beginning in March of 2007, in which Reaves complained of perceived disparate treatment.  Reaves complained to the Equal Employment Opportunity (“EEO”) Office, to his supervisor (Corporal Ranck), and to his station commander (Lieutenant Sneed).  These communications included written complaints to both the EEO and Lieutenant Sneed.

On appeal to the Pennsylvania District Court, PSP argued for summary judgment on Reaves’ retaliation claim.  Because Reaves never complained that race was the motivation for the disparate treatment he received, PSP argued those complaints were not protected under Title VII.  The Court disagreed, noting that implicit discrimination may occur when a complaint identifies, but fails to explicitly link, the relationship between disparate treatments and a member of a protected class:

a complaint must ‘explicitly or implicitly allege that the unfair treatment stemmed from the plaintiff’s membership in a protected class …. In other words, the ‘opposition to an illegal employment practice must identify the employer and the practice — if not specifically, at least by context.’

In the months leading up to his termination, Reaves made several complaints of unfair treatment in which he identified himself as African American.  While Reaves never complained that his race was the cause of the different treatment he was complaining about, he claimed he “was being discriminated against,” noted he was the only black person in his troop, and compared his treatment to that of PSP’s other white troopers.  Although the evidence is tenuous, the Court concluded that a reasonable jury could conclude that Reaves’ complaints contained implicit allegations of discrimination which would be protected under Title VII.  Therefore, the Court denied PSP’s request for summary judgment on the retaliation claim.

PSP also argued for summary judgment on Reaves’ discrimination claim.  On this claim, the Court agreed.  The only disputed fact relevant to discrimination is whether PSP knew about the traffic incidents of another similarly-situated trooper who received a lesser punishment than Reaves.  However, the Court found that the resolution of that factual dispute to be immaterial to the case at hand because, even if PSP knew about the other officer’s conduct and treated Reaves differently, the conduct of the two is significantly distinguishable to justify the different treatment.  Reaves’ conduct included attitude and conduct issues, while the other officer’s conduct involved only traffic incidents.  Because Reave’s conduct is distinguishable, the Court found the disputed fact immaterial and granted summary judgment on the discrimination claim.