By Ronald Miller, J.D.
Finding that a county was a legally separate and distinct entity that did not control fundamental aspects of the employment relationship between a district attorney and its criminal investigators, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the county against an investigator’s Title VII and the Equal Pay Act claims. The appeals court rejected the employee’s argument that the county and district attorney acted as "joint employers" because the county was responsible for approving the district attorney’s budget, and paying the employee’s salary and benefits (Peppers v. Cobb County, Georgia
, August 25, 2016, Marcus, S.).
A retired criminal investigator filed suit against Cobb County under Title VII and the Equal Pay Act, alleging sex discrimination after he learned that a less-experienced female in his office was earning a substantially higher salary for the same job, despite his superior qualifications, experience, and higher rank within the department. The employee sought relief in the form of a recovery of the difference in compensation between what he received and what higher-paid female employees received, as well as an equal amount of liquidated damages.
The undisputed facts revealed that the county had no involvement in the recruitment of the employee, the establishment of his job responsibilities, the regulation of his work environment, or his supervision. All of these core functions were performed by the district attorney. Moreover, the county did not set compensation for the district attorney’s employees. However, the employee was actually paid by the county, his compensation came from Cobb County funds, and his employment benefits were the same as those available to other county employees. The county also approved the annual operating budget of the district attorney’s office, which included individual employee salaries. In fact, the district attorney’s office and Cobb County were distinct legal entities, each created separately by state law.
Both parties moved for summary judgment. A magistrate judge recommended that the county’s motion be granted. The employee unsuccessfully filed objections in the district court. Most importantly, in granting summary judgment the district court concluded that an admission that the investigator was on the county payroll could not be taken as an admission that the county was his employer for purposes of Title VII or the Equal Pay Act. This appeal ensued.
The county argued that regardless of the merits of the employee’s claim, the district court lacked jurisdiction to consider the matter because he filed an EEOC charge against the district attorney’s office and not against the county itself. The Eleventh Circuit has long recognized that in the federal tandem, jurisdiction takes precedence over the merits. So, unless and until jurisdiction is found, both appellate and trial courts should eschew substantive adjudication. As a consequence, the appeals court was obliged to consider its power to entertain the employee’s claim.
Generally, only a party named in an EEOC charge can subsequently be charged in a lawsuit filed in court under Title VII. There was no dispute in this case that the county received adequate notice of the charges. Moreover, there was at least a similarity of interests between the county and the district attorney’s office on personnel matters. Finally, the county was not stopped from participating in the EEOC’s reconciliation process as a result of its failure to be named. Thus, the county cannot show any prejudice it suffered as a result of the employee’s failure to name it in his EEOC claim. As a result, both the district court and appeals court had jurisdiction to entertain the employee’s claim.
On the merits, the Eleventh Circuit was not persuaded that the county acted as the employee’s "joint employer," thus exposing it to liability and suit under the federal anti-discrimination laws. A Title VII workplace discrimination claim can only be brought by an employee against his employer. Whether the county qualified as the employee’s employer required consideration of the totality of the employment relationship.
Here, it was undisputed that the county and district attorney’s office were legally distinct governmental entities. Further, as a matter of Georgia law, the county lacked the authority to supervise, hire, or fire employees of the district attorney. Thus, the county only possessed the power to approve the "manner and amount of compensation" for employees that was set by the district attorney. However, that did not end the inquiry. It was still possible to aggregate the county and the district attorney so that they can both be characterized as his joint employers.
In considering whether the county and district attorney were properly aggregated, the Eleventh Circuit first looked to its decision in Lyes v City of Riviera Beach
. The appeals court held that "where a state legislative body creates a public entity and declares it to be separate and distinct, that declaration should be entitled to a significant degree of deference, amounting to a presumption that the public entity is indeed separate and distinct for purposes of Title VII."
In this instance, it was self-evident from the basic laws of the State of Georgia that Cobb County and the district attorney’s office were distinct entities, and there was no argument that the Lyes
standard for aggregating the two had been met. Moreover, the appeals court pointed out that district attorneys serve a judicial district, not a specific county. Additionally, there was nothing in the record to support a conclusion that the separation between the county and the district attorney was created for the purpose of evading federal employment discrimination law, or that other factors manifestly indicated that the two entities are so closely interrelated that they should be considered as being one entity.
Because the employee had not adduced any evidence to establish that the county and the district attorney acted as his joint employers with regard to his total employment situation, the record established that the county was not his employer, even though it provided paymaster, administrative, and budgetary functions for the district attorney’s office.