White Female Police Officer’s Race and Gender Discrimination Claim Survives Summary Judgment When Black Mayor Wants to Hire “His People”

By David Worley

In Zagaja v. Village of Freeport (116 FEP Cases 1227), the plaintiff’s claims of race and gender discrimination, survived summary judgment when she pleaded sufficient facts to indicate that the Mayor’s hiring of minority and male candidates (and demotion of herself), was based on race, and any other reasons were pretextual.

The plaintiff here, claimed to be a victim of race and gender discrimination in four instances:  When the newly-elected black mayor demoted plaintiff from Deputy Chief, failed to promote plaintiff to Assistant Chief, failed to promote plaintiff to Chief of Police, and failed to create a separate female superior officers’ locker room.  The court found there was ample evidence for the claims to survive summary judgment for the first three instances, but summary judgment was proper on the gender discrimination claim regarding the female locker room.

The court performed a layered, three-part analysis to determine the validity of the claims.  First, the plaintiff must claim they are qualified for the position and a member of a protected class, an adverse employment action took place, and that action was motivated by a discriminatory purpose.  Second, the burden shifts to the defendant to articulate a non-discriminatory reason for the adverse action.  Finally, the plaintiff can then make a showing that the non-discriminatory reason is merely pretextual.

The court concluded that there was ample evidence to support the claims of the plaintiff.  She was repeatedly passed over for promotions that went to lesser qualified, male, or minority candidates.  The mayor also frequently and openly stated that he wished to have more minorities in high-ranking positions.  The mayor wished to replace the “old guard” with “his people.” He also attempted to remove a required civil service exam from the requirements of the Chief of Police position, so that an underqualified minority candidate could fill the position.  These positions were only available because the previous white candidates were forced to retire.

Discussing the first of the claims, the court applied the facts to the three-part analysis:

Both plaintiff and defendants agree that plaintiff was qualified for the position, and that plaintiff is a member of a protected class based upon her race and gender. Plaintiff has also produced evidence, that she was stripped of her title, supervisory authority, and command staff responsibilities, and that she lost both income and status. Plaintiff has also produced evidence from which a rational jury, construing the evidence in the light most favorable to plaintiff, could find an inference of discrimination. In their briefs, defendants have failed to articulate a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for failing to promote plaintiff to the Assistant Chief position. Assuming, however, that defendants posit the same reasons for failing to promote plaintiff as they stated in defense of their decision to demote plaintiff from Deputy Chief, the Court concludes . . . that there is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether those reasons are a pretext for race, ethnicity, and gender discrimination.

The court rejected a separate claim that the City’s failure to construct separate locker facilities for high-ranking and low-ranking female officers, constituted unlawful discrimination.  Here, the city argued that it simply did not have room in the building to construct such facilities, and offered to construct them in a separate building.  The plaintiff turned down this offer.  The court found that no rational jury would reject the City’s explanation.  Further, it noted, no separate lockers had ever existed.