Florida Sheriff’s Department May Have Had “Mixed Motive” in Demoting Female Officer

By:  Loyd Willaford and Clive Pontusson

In Montoya v. Morgan, a female employee of a Florida Sheriff’s Department filed a lawsuit for gender discrimination in violation of federal law. Laura Montoya argued that widespread sexism in the Sheriff’s department created a hostile work environment and that she was wrongfully discharged because of gender bias in the Sheriff’s Department. The Court ruled that she had not proven that she suffered from a hostile work environment. However, based on the facts presented, the Court determined that gender discrimination could have been a part of her employer’s decision to fire her. As a result, that component of her lawsuit was allowed to continue.

Laura Montoya was a long-serving Deputy and was eventually promoted to Colonel and put in charge of criminal investigations. However, throughout her career at the Sheriff’s Office, Montoya claimed she was insulted and intimidated by her superiors because she was a woman. Other officers complained that these superiors were generally abusive to everyone. Montoya felt she was operating in a hostile work environment and could not do her job. She unwillingly accepted a demotion as a result. When another female employee of the department filed a gender discrimination lawsuit, Montoya was called to testify. She brought internal office documents with her when she went to give her testimony—documents she had been told to delete. When the Sheriff found out she had brought these internal documents with her, the Sheriff opened an investigation. An independent Disciplinary Review Board also considered the evidence. Montoya was fired on the basis of these investigations.

Montoya filed suit in federal court, arguing that the Sheriff’s Office had treated her differently because she was a woman, and also charging that the Sheriff had created a hostile work environment. Montoya argued that she met the requirements for a case of gender discrimination, because she was subject to gender-based insults, and her ability to do her job was sabotaged by her superiors. She also argued she was terminated because she spoke up about gender discrimination by testifying for the other employee’s lawsuit. Under a different legal theory, Montoya argued that all of the hardship she faced amounted to a hostile work environment: the Sheriff repeatedly turned a blind eye to discriminatory misconduct by individuals under the Sheriff’s command. As a result, there was a culture of discrimination at the Sheriff’s Office that harmed Montoya.

The Sheriff’s Office denied that Montoya had established a bare claim for gender discrimination, but more importantly, they had offered valid, non-discriminatory reasons for taking action against her: she was demoted because she had not properly supervised investigations, and she was fired because she had violated clear directives by refusing to delete the documents she offered in testimony. The Sheriff also argued that while Montoya may have been insulted by some of the things said to her, this was not enough to create a “hostile work environment,” and the Sheriff was never really in control of the bad things that people said.

The Court did not agree with Montoya that her gender was the only reason she was demoted and fired, but the Court acknowledged that there was a dispute of fact as to whether or not gender was a part of the decision to demote her—as a result gender could be a motivating factor in the Sheriff’s decision, so the Court could not dismiss Montoya’s lawsuit. This was because the abusive supervisors had input on the decision to demote her. The Court explained,

A motivating factor can be shown by the conduct of a biased supervisor even when that person was not the final decisionmaker if the plaintiff shows that the biased supervisor used the final decisionmaker as his “cat’s paw”—that is, if the decisionmaker acted based on input from a biased supervisor without independently evaluating or investigating the situation.

However, the Court also found that Montoya had not established facts that indicated she was in a hostile work environment. This was because while the environment may have been hostile, it was not specifically hostile to women:

[Montoya alleged] one statement by Haines in 2011 commenting on a sex act and another in 2014 that Montoya should stay home where she belonged; she also alleges one comment by Shelby in 2013 that women should not be in charge of investigations and name calling of unknown frequency. These inappropriate remarks and Shelby’s name calling undoubtedly indicate possible gender-bias on their part, and, as noted above, may be considered when determining whether discriminatory input impacted Sheriff Morgan’s ultimate demotion decision. But bias alone does not equate to a hostile work environment where the gender-based harassment consists of sporadic and isolated instances.

As a result, the Court dismissed Montoya’s claim regarding a hostile work environment, but allowed her lawsuit to continue on the theory that gender bias was a motivating factor in the decision to demote her.

This case illustrates what can happen to apparently valid claims in the hands of a judge committed to dismissing them.  The dismissal of Montoya’s claim of retaliation is particularly troubling.  Montoya testified in a gender discrimination suit in a way that was adverse to the Sheriff.  She was then fired for keeping a copy of a document that she then shared at the deposition.  A jury could easily conclude Montoya’s firing was in retaliation for testifying and sharing documents in that suit.  The Court’s improperly weighed the evidence and usurped the role of the jury in concluding that there was no evidence that the discipline was pretextual when Montaya presented evidence that others had not been fired for other insubordinate behavior.   The Court only allowed Montoya’s claim that she was discriminated against by being demoted to move forward.  The facts that led the Court to keep that claim alive were also relevant to the termination decision.

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