Consistent treatment of similarly situated employees is one way in which employers can defend against claims of discrimination. Inconsistent treatment, however, can support allegations of discrimination. A recent decision from Maryland federal court provides an instructive example of how inconsistent enforcement of work rules and disciplining comparable employees differently can create problems under anti-discrimination laws. Jones v. City of Salisbury, 1:22-cv-02628-JRR (D. Md. Aug. 28, 2023).
Kamel Jones was a Police Communications Officer for the Salisbury Police Department (SPD) from October 2017 until May 2021. While Jones was working in dispatch in April 2021, a woman entered the SPD lobby, threw chairs, and lied down on the floor. Jones took a photo of the woman and shared it with other officers through social media. After a recipient of Jones’ photo reported it up the chain of command, the SPD suspended Jones with pay pending an investigation pursuant to SPD policy regarding social media use. The SPD Police Chief informed Jones on May 12, 2021 that his employment would be terminated unless he resigned. Jones took the latter option.
Jones filed a charge of discrimination in February 2022 and a lawsuit in October 2022 alleging that he was forced to resign from the SPD, subjected to race discrimination, and retaliated against in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Section 1981.
The City and the Police Chief moved to dismiss Jones’ lawsuit. In late August the court dismissed Jones’ retaliation claim but denied the motion as to Jones’ race discrimination claims. The court, as it must on a motion to dismiss, accepted the factual allegations in Jones’ lawsuit as true.
To state a claim of race discrimination under Title VII, a plaintiff can allege facts showing that the plaintiff is a member of a protected class; the plaintiff has performed satisfactorily on the job; the plaintiff suffered an adverse employment action; and the treatment of the plaintiff was inconsistent from how similarly situated employees outside the protected class were treated.
Defendants argued in opposition that Jones’ Title VII race discrimination claim warranted dismissal because the City provided a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for Jones’ termination. Such reasons, however, are not considered at the motion to dismiss stage. The court focused instead on whether Jones sufficiently alleged that elements of his Title VII claim. He did. Jones alleged membership in a protected class, that he was forced to resign, and that he was treated differently than other non-Black Communications Officers. For these reasons, Jones’ sufficiently alleged that race was a motivating factor in the SPD’s decision to force his resignation.
As with Jones’ Title VII claims, the court did not entertain the City’s argument that there was a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for forcing Jones’ resignation when considering whether to dismiss Jones’ Section 1981 race discrimination claim. It was sufficient for Jones to allege that he was unlawfully disciplined because of his race and treated differently than similarly situated SPD employees outside his protected class.
Jones, according to the court, presented more than “bare conclusory allegation[s] that similarly situated individuals were treated differently.” He pled that white Communications Officers who fell under the same supervisors and workplace rules were not terminated or forced to resign for similar policy infractions. For these reasons, both of Jones’ race discrimination claims survived the defendants’ motion to dismiss.
As to the retaliation claim, the court concluded that Jones did not sufficiently allege a causal connection between protected activity and his termination/forced resignation. In this case, the decision to terminate Jones’ employment with the SPD was too attenuated from his internal complaints of discrimination for his retaliation claim to survive. Jones alleged that he complained about race discrimination in June 2020 and March 2021. The June 2020 protected activity was not connected to the May 2021 suspension and termination/forced resignation. His March 2021 protected activity was not causally connected to the suspension and separation of his employment because the April 28, 2021 social media incident was the basis for that decision. The court, therefore, dismissed the retaliation claim.