Supreme Court backs Fairburn in personnel dispute

Mon, 11/12/2007 - 9:32am
By: Ben Nelms

The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear a case claiming retaliation of a personnel action by the city of Fairburn that resulted in the 2004 termination of police Major Daniel Crawford.

Hired in March 2003 and fired in February 2004, Crawford had been assigned to investigate a female officer’s claim of sexual harassment by a police sergeant. Crawford interviewed approximately 25 witnesses and reviewed documents before completing a report in which he concluded that the sergeant subjected the female employee to harassment and disrespectful conduct because of her sex, although the conduct did not create a hostile work environment, the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court said.

Crawford was dismissed within a month of his report. He filed a lawsuit alleging that he was fired in retaliation for his role in the sexual harassment investigation. Crawford offered evidence that city administrator Jim Williams complained that Crawford’s investigation “opened a can of worms” and complicated the city’s defense of a charge filed by the female officer, but a federal district court granted a summary judgment in the city’s favor, the court said.

Crawford appealed, but the Eleventh Circuit panel upheld the decision, followed by a March 29, 2007 decision by the court of appeals to substitute a new ruling. The appellate court said Crawford failed to establish that a number of nondiscrimintory reasons for discharge offered by the city were pretextural, or misleading, and that this failure precluded his proceeding to trial on his retaliation claim.

Where an employer claims a nondiscriminatory reason for discharge, “the plaintiff must meet the reason proffered head on and rebut it,” the court said. “If the employer offers more than one reason for a firing, the plaintiff must rebut each of the reasons to survive a motion of summary judgment,” the court added.

The city of Fairburn cited the inaccuracy of Crawford’s sexual harassment investigation as one of the reasons for firing him, the Eleventh Circuit said, but is also claimed that Crawford’s discharge was motivated by four other concerns, including patrols and traffic stops, problems working with other employees and complaints of low morale and favoritism. The appellate court said that Crawford did not attempt to rebut any of the reasons offered by the city, but relied on the administrator’s comments referring to a “can of worms” and citing the inaccuracy of the investigation Crawford conducted.

“By failing to rebut each of the legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons of the city, Crawford has failed to raise a genuine issue of material fact about whether those reasons were pretext for discrimination,” the court of appeals said.

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