Employment Law Daily City can’t be liable for race discrimination if no official discriminated against employee
News
Tuesday, September 3, 2019

City can’t be liable for race discrimination if no official discriminated against employee

By Ronald Miller, J.D.

A municipality can act only through its employees, so an employee seeking damages against a municipality under Section 1983 for race discrimination that violated Section 1981 must show that a municipal official or employee racially discriminated against him.

Finding insufficient evidence that any city official, or a combination of the mayor and other municipal officials or employees, discriminated against an African-American employee on the basis of his race, the Eighth Circuit reversed the lower court’s judgment for the employee against the city. Where an employee seeks damages based on illegal actions of a municipal official, there is no authority to award damages against the municipality when the jury finds the official committed no wrong. Accordingly, the appeals court agreed with the city that once the jury determined the mayor was not liable for discrimination, it necessarily followed that the city could not be liable either. Because there was no race discrimination in violation of Section 1981, the city could not be held liable for damages under Section 1983 (Ridgell v. City of Pine Bluff, August 29, 2019, Colloton, S.).

Discharge. The African-American male was hired by the City of Pine Bluff in June 2007 to be the City Collector. In January 2013, a Caucasian woman took over as mayor of the city. Over the next few months, the employee failed to meet various deadlines related to implementation of a new software system in the collector’s office. On July 31, the mayor terminated his employment for “unsatisfactory work performance,” based on his failure to meet those deadlines.

Mayor overridden. Thereafter, the employee appealed his termination to the eight-member city council. Six votes were required to override the mayor’s action. Six council members voted to reinstate the employee. One councilman testified that the council voted to override the mayor’s action because the employee did not have full authority to make necessary changes to the new software system and there was a lack of documentation as to what assigned tasks he had failed to complete.

The employee returned to work on August 26. Over the next two months, the mayor twice disciplined him for “unsatisfactory work quality.” On September 11, she gave him a written warning after he failed to produce a report she had requested. Two weeks later, the mayor suspended him for five days based on his continued inability to meet deadlines and his failure to make progress on collecting taxes from delinquent businesses.

Second discharge. On October 15, the employee arrived at work at least 30 minutes late. The mayor terminated him for insubordination. The employee once again appealed to the city council, but this time only five members voted to override the mayor’s action, and her decision was sustained. Thereafter, the employee sued the city and mayor under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming that they racially discriminated against him in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981.

Split verdict. A jury returned a verdict in favor of the mayor but against the city on the employee’s claims of race discrimination and awarded damages of $24,080. The district court entered judgment for the employee against the city. Thereafter, the district court denied the city’s renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law or in the alternative, to alter or amend the judgment.

On appeal, the city argued that the jury’s verdict for the mayor required judgment in its favor. A municipality can act only through its employees, so an employee seeking damages against a municipality under Section 1983 for race discrimination that violated Section 1981 must show that a municipal official or employee racially discriminated against him.

No finding of race discrimination. Where an employee seeks damages based on illegal actions of a municipal official, there is no authority to award damages against the municipality when the jury concludes that the official committed no wrong. Accordingly, the appeals court agreed with the city that once the jury found that the mayor was not liable for discrimination, it necessarily followed that the city could not be liable either.

On the merits, the employee did not challenge the jury’s verdict finding that the mayor was not liable for race discrimination. As to the city’s liability, the appropriate question was “whether a verdict or decision exonerating the individual governmental actor can be harmonized with a concomitant verdict or decision imposing liability on the municipal entity.” If the two cannot be reconciled, then the city was entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

Contrary to the employee’s contention, the appeals court found that the verdicts could not be reconciled. Insofar as the case rested entirely on alleged wrongdoing by the mayor, the city was entitled to judgment. The jury’s finding that the mayor did not racially discriminate against the employee meant that the city could not be held liable based on discrimination by the mayor.

Actions of city council member. Moreover, the appeals court concluded that there was insufficient evidence in the record from which a reasonable jury could have concluded that a city council member’s vote against overriding the mayor’s action was based on race. Here, the court noted that the council member voted to override the mayor’s first termination of the employee because he believed at the time that the employee “was in the right.” He later met with the city’s HR director and the mayor and learned about the problems with the employee’s work performance and tardiness. Based on that information, the council member concluded that the employee’s second termination was the right decision.

Because there was no race discrimination in violation of Section 1981, the city could not be held liable for damages under Section 1983. Accordingly, the judgment of the district court was reversed, and the case remanded with directions to enter judgment for the city on the employee’s race discrimination claim.

Interested in submitting an article?

Submit your information to us today!

Learn More
Employment Law Daily

Employment Law Daily: Breaking legal news at your fingertips

Sign up today for your free trial to this daily reporting service created by attorneys, for attorneys. Stay up to date on employment legal matters with same-day coverage of breaking news, court decisions, legislation, and regulatory activity with easy access through email or mobile app.

Free Trial Learn More