Officer’s Behavior Dooms Discrimination Claims

A recent decision from a D.C. federal court offers a reminder that employers who investigate workplace disputes and make employment decisions based on documented evidence put themselves in a better position to defeat lawsuits challenging those decisions.  Ladson v. George Wash. Univ., No. 14-cv-001586 (D.D.C. Sept. 1, 2016).

Todd Ladson was a 24 year veteran of the George Washington University (GW) campus police when, in 2013, he was accused of making inappropriate comments about a fellow officer’s sexual preference and activities, and the sexuality of another officer.  Ladson suggested that the officer was involved with another female officer, talked about the officers being lesbians, and told another officer that she would “have men and women after her.”

GW thoroughly investigated the allegations and suspended Ladson pending the investigation.  The investigator interviewed over a dozen individuals, including Ladson, and learned that Ladson had made “lots of racist and sexually graphic” comments, made trainees do demeaning things, and had taught a colleague how to use marijuana without being caught.  Ladson denied making the comments, saying instead that the accusations were made out of jealousy.  The investigator concluded that Ladson had a lengthy history of misconduct of the type discovered during the investigation.

Following the investigation, GW held a hearing regarding the claims against Ladson.  Multiple officers testified with examples of Ladson’s behavior and comments.  Ladson presented no evidence to rebut GW’s evidence.  The panel deferred the employment decision to GW’s police department, which fired Ladson.

Ladson sued, claiming that he was fired because of his race in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 1981, and the D.C. Human Rights Act (DCHRA), and because of his age in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the DCHRA.  Ladson argued that GW had not similarly punished similar conduct by white and younger officers.  He also denied the comments, assailed the University’s investigation as biased, and said that, even if he made the comments, they were not harassing.

The court found that GW presented a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for terminating Ladson — violation of the University’s sexual harassment policy.  The court rejected each of Ladson’s pretext arguments, reasoning that:  (1) GW was permitted to take into account the evidence learned from other officers, even if there was some subjectivity; (2) there was sufficient documentation of Ladson’s behavior; (3) there was no evidence of a biased investigation; and (4) the comparators Ladson argued as showing discrimination were not similarly situated because the other officers either had a different supervisor or the investigation into the allegations into those officers did not reveal conduct at all comparable to what Ladson had done.

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