MARION COUNTY CORONER'S OFFICE v. EEOC (July 27, 2010)
Kenneth Ackles, an African-American male, was elected Marion County, Indiana coroner in November 2004. Two deputy coroners -- white male John Linehan and African-American female Alfarena Ballew -- sought the position of chief deputy coroner. The chief deputy coroner is responsible for the day-to-day management of the office. Ackles chose Linehan because he was currently serving in that position on an interim basis. Very early on, Ackles made it clear to Linehan that he wanted to increase the number of African-American employees (particularly deputies) in the office. The relationship between Ackles and Linehan did not go well: Ackles complained that Linehan received a salary increase without his knowledge, Ackles and Linehan disagreed over disciplining Ballew, Ackles instructed Linehan not to report Ballew's tardiness, Ackles told Linehan not to file a police report concerning a missing $3000, and Ackles instructed Linehan not to discipline the janitor who allegedly took the $3000. Finally Linehan filed a hostile work environment complaint with the human resources department. On that very day (November 14), Ackles told Linehan that he was going to make a change in the chief deputy position but that Linehan was to continue performing his duties. Some of those duties were later reassigned but Linehan continued to receive the same salary. A few weeks later (December 2), Linehan received a letter terminating his employment. Although the letter provided no reason for the termination of employment, Ackles testified later that he had "lost confidence and trust" in Linehan. Ackles named Ballew the new permanent chief deputy coroner. Shortly thereafter, Ackles and Ballew canceled an outsourcing contract for autopsies and hired directly several of the company's employees. They hired only African-Americans -- none of the white employees were offered positions. Linehan filed an EEO charge against the coroner's office. He alleged race, sex, and age discrimination as well as retaliation for protected activity. His charge was processed administratively at the EEOC pursuant to the Government Employee Rights Act (GERA). The ALJ found that Ackle's testimony was incredible (among other things), that his reason for terminating Linehan's employment was pretextual, and that Linehan was demoted and fired on account of his race and in retaliation for his complaint. The ALJ awarded front and back pay, attorney's fees, and compensatory damages in the amount of $200,000. The EEOC affirmed. The Coroner's Office petitions for review.
In their opinion, Judges Manion, Evans, and Sykes granted in part, denied in part, vacated in part, and reversed and remanded. The Court noted, under GERA, that it should uphold the decision of the EEOC if it is supported by substantial evidence. Here, the heart of the case is the pretext analysis. Although the Court admitted that this analysis looks only to whether the employer’s explanation was "honestly believed," it nevertheless found a wealth of evidence that the "lost confidence and trust" rationale was pretextual. It cited the testimony concerning the discipline of Ballew, the janitor theft, and Linehan’s raise in support of its conclusion. Next, it considered the issue of the EEOC’s jurisdiction. GERA applies only to policymaking employees chosen by an elected official. The coroner’s office argued that Linehan was not a policymaking employee when he was fired because of the November 14 demotion. The Court rejected the argument. Linehan was certainly stripped of some duties before he was fired but he was never formally demoted, he continued to receive his salary, and the December 2 letter advised that he was being terminated from the position of “Chief Deputy Coroner.” Finally, the Court addressed the $200,000 award of compensatory damages. The Court concluded that the award bore no rational relation to the very scant evidence of Linehan’s suffering and was excessive compared to similar cases. It offered a remittitur of $20,000 or a new hearing on damages.