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Obregon v. Blackman

United States District Court, S.D. Florida

November 20, 2017

HIRAM OBREGON, Plaintiff,
v.
SHERIFF PAUL BLACKMAN, in his official capacity as Sheriff of Highlands County, Florida Defendant.

          ORDER

          ROBIN L. ROSENBERG, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         THIS CAUSE is before the Court on Defendant, Sheriff Paul Blackman's Motion for Summary Judgment [D.E. 46], filed September 5, 2017 (the “Motion”). Plaintiff, Hiram Obregon filed a Memorandum of Law in Opposition to Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment [D.E. 57] on October 3, 2017 (the “Response”). Defendant filed a Reply [D.E. 58] on October 10, 2017. The Court has carefully considered the Complaint [D.E. 1], the written submissions, the factual record, and applicable law.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff, Hiram Obregon, a Hispanic male, was hired as a Sheriff's Deputy with the Highlands County Sheriff's Office (the “Sheriff's Office”) on October 3, 2012. (Compl. ¶ 11; Obregon Dep. 17:4-17:7). As part of his employment, Plaintiff was assigned a patrol vehicle. (Obregon Depo. 23:1-23:9). Plaintiff's vehicle contained Mobile Video Recording (“MVR”) equipment, which automatically activates and creates a video recording when the vehicle in which it is installed exceeds a “speed trigger” of 90 MPH. (Id. 52:4-52:25). On April 28, 2013, while conducting a routine review of MVR in-car videos, Lieutenant Keith Starling observed that Plaintiff had a speed-triggered MVR activation. (Def. Facts Ex. 1 - Part 2 [D.E. 47-2] at 1, 37;[1]Def. Facts Ex. 2 [D.E. 47-3] ¶ 6). Under the Sheriff's Office policy, police vehicles are prohibited from exceeding posted speed limits unless the officer is in a “Code Three” emergency situation. (Def. Facts Ex. 1 - Part 2 [D.E. 47-2] at 30).

         On April 29, 2013, during his scheduled day off, Plaintiff responded to a call from Lieutenant Gus Garcia and agreed to transport a 14-year old minor from Lake Placid, Florida, to Tampa, Florida. (Id. at 37-38). Plaintiff picked up the minor in his regular patrol vehicle. (Obregon Dep. 62:6-62:11). During the course of Plaintiff's transport of the minor, an off-duty officer of the Tampa Police force, Sergeant P.J. Gray, contacted the Sheriff's Office to report Plaintiff's driving, stating he had witnessed Plaintiff's vehicle driving “in excess of 70-75 mph darting in and out of rush hour traffic, ” and reporting at one point witnessing the vehicle “[drive] on the shoulder and then [jump] back into the lane of traffic cutting off vehicles.” (Def. Facts Ex. 1 - Part 2 at 21-22, 38). Due to its driving pattern, Sergeant Gray suspected Plaintiff's vehicle may have been stolen. (Id. at 21-22, 38). Approximately 30 minutes after Sergeant Gray's call, an “unknown male” contacted the Sheriff's Office and identified Plaintiff's vehicle driving “irresponsibly, ” namely, “driving on top of people . . . swerving in and out . . . [and] not using his signal.” (Id. at 23, 38-39).

         On May 1, 2013, in response to the two phone calls received on April 29, Lieutenant Starling completed a more fulsome review of Plaintiff's MVR videos, discovering a total of 11 “speed trigger related videos.” (Id. 1, 40; Def. Facts Ex. 2 ¶ 9). Based on the two phone calls and these 11 videos, Lieutenant Starling suggested further review of Plaintiff's actions. (Def. Facts Ex. 1 - Part 2 at 1). On May 1, 2013, Major David Paeplow, who was Plaintiff's supervisor at all times relevant to this lawsuit, informed Plaintiff he was being “temporarily assigned to the Court Related Services pending the outcome of an investigation regarding General Order violations.” (Id. at 2; Compl. ¶ 14).

         Lieutenant Darin Hood conducted an internal investigation, which included an interview of the Plaintiff; on June 4, 2013, Lieutenant Hood submitted an Internal Investigation Report (the “Report”). (Def. Facts Ex. 5 [D.E. 47-6] ¶¶ 2-3; Def. Facts Ex. 1 - Part 2 at 37-53). The Findings of Fact in the Report describe: Nine separate instances of Plaintiff driving in excess of 90 MPH without emergency lights or siren in non-Code Three emergency situations (Def. Facts Ex. 1 - Part 2 at 6-28, 44-52);[2] Plaintiff's deactivation of the MVR equipment during each of these nine instances without submission of a reason for deactivation (Id.); the “unprofessional” manner in which Plaintiff drove on August 29 while transporting the minor, as witnessed by Sergeant Gray (Id. at 22, 51); and an instance of Plaintiff “cursing” in front of said minor during the transport. (Id. at 52).

         Major Paeplow reviewed the Report and on June 19, 2013, submitted to Plaintiff a Notice of Proposed Disciplinary Action, proposing Plaintiff's dismissal from the Sheriff's Office- citing violations of Sheriff's Office General Orders #2216.00(I.E.), #420.00(IV.B.), and #1061.00(C.1.).[3] (Id. at 6, 37, 54; Def. Facts Ex. 2 ¶ 12). The Notice of Proposed Disciplinary Action also notified Plaintiff of a Pre-Disciplinary Hearing, scheduled for June 26, 2013, during which he would be given the opportunity to address the findings of the internal investigation and the proposed disciplinary action. (Def. Facts Ex. 1 - Part 2 at 54). Plaintiff attended the Pre-Disciplinary Hearing as scheduled. (Obregon Dep. 72:21-75:8).

         On June 28, 2013, Major Paeplow issued a Memorandum, adopting the Findings of Fact from the Report, sustaining his previously cited General Order violations, and recommending Plaintiff's dismissal. (Def. Facts Ex. 1 - Part 2 at 56; Def. Facts Ex. 6 [D.E. 47-7]). On July 3, 2013, Sheriff Susan Benton approved the recommended discipline, and Plaintiff was dismissed from his position with the Sheriff's Office. (Def. Facts Ex. 1 - Part 2 at 57).

         Following his termination, Plaintiff filed a formal charge with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), claiming he was fired from the Sheriff's Office because of his national origin, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. (Def. Facts Ex. 1 - Part 2 at 76; Compl. ¶ 6). The EEOC issued to Plaintiff a Notice of Right to Sue Letter, giving him the option of filing a civil action in an appropriate United States District Court. (Compl. ¶ 7). As a result, on October 28, 2016, Plaintiff filed the Complaint, which alleges race discrimination in violation of Title VII-specifically that the motivating factor in the decision to fire him was his Hispanic race. (Compl. ¶ 23).

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         Summary judgment is rendered if the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material facts and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a), (c). “A factual dispute is genuine ‘if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.'” Channa Imps., Inc. v. Hybur, Ltd., No. 07-CV-21516, 2008 WL 2914977, at *2 (S.D. Fla. July 25, 2008) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). An issue of fact is material if “it would affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law . . . .” Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Fla. v. United States, 516 F.3d 1235, 1243 (11th Cir. 2008). At the summary judgment stage, the moving party has the burden of proving the absence of a genuine dispute of material fact, and all factual inferences are drawn in favor of the nonmoving party. Allen v. Tyson Foods, Inc., 121 F.3d 642, 646 (11th Cir. 1997).

         III. DISCUSSION

         Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 provides that it is unlawful for an employer “to discharge any individual . . . because of such individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). Where, as here, there is no direct evidence of discrimination, a plaintiff may make his claim through circumstantial evidence, using the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework. McCann v. Tillman, 526 F.3d 1370, 1373 (11th Cir. 2008); McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802 (1973). Under this framework, the plaintiff must carry the initial burden of establishing a prima facie case of racial discrimination, by a preponderance of the evidence. Id.; Texas Dep't of Cmty. Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 252 (1981). The proof required to establish a prima facie case may vary depending on the specific facts of the case (for example, whether it is a case of discriminatory termination versus a case of failure to hire). See McDonnell Douglas, 411 U.S. at 802 n.13 (“The facts necessarily will vary in Title VII cases, and the specification . . . of the prima facie proof required . . . is not necessarily applicable in every respect to differing factual situations.”); Rioux v. City of Atlanta, Ga., 520 F.3d 1269, 1275 (11th Cir. 2008) (“More than one formulation of the elements of a prima facie case exist.”). Ultimately, to establish his prima facie case, Plaintiff must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that he was discharged from the position for which he was qualified under circumstances which give rise to a presumption of unlawful discrimination. See Walker v. Mortham, 158 F.3d 1177, 1184 n.10 (11th Cir. 1998) (explaining the prima facie case gives rise to a presumption, and not an inference, of intentional discrimination); Burdine, 450 U.S. at 254 (“Establishment of the prima facie case in effect creates a presumption that the employer unlawfully discriminated against the employee.”).

         Establishing a prima facie case causes the burden to shift to the employer to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the employment action. McDonnell Douglas, 411 U.S. at 802; Rioux, 520 F.3d at 1275 (11th Cir. 2008). If the employer articulates such a reason, the presumption of discrimination is rebutted, and the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to produce sufficient evidence showing the proffered reason is a pretext for unlawful discrimination. Rioux, 520 F.3d at 1275.

         A. Prima Facie Case

         A plaintiff may establish a prima facie case of discrimination under Title VII through showing that: (1) he is a member of a protected class; (2) he was subjected to an adverse employment action; (3) his employer treated similarly situated employees outside of his protected class more favorably than he was treated; and (4) he was qualified to do the job.[4] Burke-Fowler v. Orange Cty., Fla., 447 F.3d 1319, 1323 (11th Cir. 2006) (citing E.E.O.C. v. Joe's Stone Crab, Inc., 220 F.3d 1263, 1286 (11th Cir. 2000)); Archie v. Frank Cockrell Body Shop, Inc., 581 Fed.Appx. 795, 798 (11th Cir. 2014). In the Motion, Defendant argues Plaintiff has failed to establish a prima facie case of discrimination by failing to satisfy the third prong of the Burke-Fowler test-the “similarly situated” prong. (Motion 5-9).

         In order to satisfy the “similarly situated” prong, Plaintiff must identify a comparator employee outside his protected class who is similarly situated “in all relevant aspects.” Wilson v. B/E Aerospace, Inc., 376 F.3d 1079, 1091 (11th Cir. 2004). In his pleadings, Plaintiff identifies one comparator, Deputy Cory Tomblin, a white non-Hispanic officer whom he alleges received less punishment for substantially similar conduct. (Compl. ¶ 16; Resp. 11-12; Def. Facts [D.E. 47] ¶ 38).

         On the night of October 27, 20012, while responding to a Code Three emergency call regarding a home invasion, Deputy Tomblin struck a pedestrian, who died as a result. (Def. Facts Ex. 9 [D.E. 47-10] at 1; Pl. Facts Ex. 1 [D.E. 56-1] at 6-7). In response, Sheriff Benton requested an administrative review and internal investigation regarding Deputy Tomblin's actions, which were both completed by Lieutenant Kenny Johnson. (Def. Facts Ex. 9 at 2; Def. Facts Ex. 10 [D.E. 47-11] ¶ 4). The internal investigation revealed: Deputy Tomblin initially responded to the call in Emergency Mode while within Lake Placid city limits, activating his emergency lights and siren, but deactivated this emergency equipment upon exiting the city (Def. Facts Ex. 9 at 3); Deputy Tomblin's vehicle struck the pedestrian while its lights and siren were deactivated (Id. at 4); a subsequent Florida Highway Patrol Traffic Homicide Investigation estimated Deputy Tomblin's speed at 84.7 MPH (Id.); and, although the call was a Code Three emergency, Deputy Tomblin admitted to not getting through to nor receiving permission from his immediate supervisor to respond in Emergency Mode, in violation of Sheriff's Office policy. (Id.; Def. Facts Ex. 1 - Part 2 at 31; Pl. Facts Ex. 2 [D.E. 56-2] at 18). Deputy Tomblin was ultimately found to have violated Sheriff's Office General Orders #2216.00(I.F.2.) and #2216.00(I.F.6.), [5] and was given a formal reprimand with three days suspension without pay, one year Corrective Action probation, and remedial training of General Order 2216.00. (Def. Facts Ex. 12 [D.E. 47-13] at 1; Def. Facts Ex. 13 [D.E. 47-14]).

         “In determining whether employees are similarly situated for purposes of establishing a prima facie case, it is necessary to consider whether the employees are involved in or accused of the same or similar conduct and are disciplined in different ways.” Maniccia v. Brown, 171 F.3d 1364, 1368 (11th Cir. 1999) (quoting Jones v. Bessemer Carraway Med. Ctr., 137 F.3d 1306, 1311 (11th Cir. 1998), opinion modified by151 F.3d 1321 (11th Cir. 1998)) (internal quotation marks omitted). Further, “[w]e require that the quantity and quality of the comparator's misconduct be nearly identical to prevent courts from second-guessing employers' reasonable decisions and confusing apples with oranges.” Id. “Misconduct merely ‘similar' to the misconduct of ...


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