CHICAGO — A former deputy sheriff in Whitley County who claims he was fired because of his race will get another day in court.
A panel of three judges in the U.S. Court of Appeals on Aug. 8 reversed a decision by a federal district court judge that summarily dismissed a discrimination lawsuit filed by the first black police officer in the Whitley County Sheriff’s Department.
The appellate court for the seventh circuit remanded the case filed by former deputy Terrance McKinney back to the trial court for further proceedings.
The appellate ruling was critical of the district court’s summary judgment in favor of the defendants, the sheriff’s office and Deputy Tony Helfrich.
“As we explain in detail, the defendant has offered an ever-growing list of rationales for firing McKinney that fall apart in the face of his evidence,” the opinion read.
“The Seventh Circuit wanted to make it very clear what legal standards and evidentiary standards need to be followed for future cases,” added Fort Wayne attorney Robert Vegeler, who represented McKinney, the plaintiff.
Leading up to the case
McKinney was hired in 2013 by Sheriff Mark Hodges, who allegedly discussed McKinney’s race with him during his job interview. McKinney later testified that he did not expect that he would experience racial discrimination at the sheriff’s office.
After he began, however, a number of incidents started to make him feel uncomfortable. One officer allegedly used the “n-word” in front of him. Once when buying coffee, McKinney’s fellow officer allegedly said that he wanted his “coffee black like my partner,” the opinion noted.
McKinney also testified that the other officers allegedly refused to train him and sometimes would not speak to him. Sheriff Hodges allegedly told McKinney that he should watch the movie “42,” which is about Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in major league baseball in 1947.
Hodges told McKinney that the movie would “help [him] out,” according to the opinion.
In May 2014, Hodges fired McKinney, and McKinney subsequently filed suit. The district court ruled in favor of the sheriff’s office, but McKinney appealed and arguments were heard by the appellate court in April.
The original termination notice gave three reasons for McKinney’s firing. It claimed he submitted false work hours while attending the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy; violated the standard operating procedure that requires filing complete monthly reports; and violated the standard operating procedure that governs fueling county vehicles.
Four days after his firing, the Whitley County Board of Commissioners also sent McKinney a termination letter that added two more reasons for his discharge: damaging a county vehicle and “failure to complete a transport and follow verbal instructions.”
The appeals court found the original three reasons and the commissioners’ added two all fell short.
McKinney’s testimony refuted the claims, and his evidence “is so specific that a jury could reasonably conclude that these added rationales for his firing were not only mistaken but dishonest,” the appellate court said.
After McKinney brought suit, the defense added three more reasons.
“Yet patch after patch, the defense arguments for summary judgment still will not hold water,” the appellate court wrote. “McKinney presented evidence that he was treated differently than his similarly situated colleagues who are not black. He also presented substantial evidence that the many rationales offered for firing him were baseless and pretextual.”
The district court also overestimated the strength of the so-called “common actor” inference when it said that if the sheriff had wanted to discriminate against McKinney, he would have refused to hire him in the first place, the appellate ruling concluded.
“After reviewing this evidence, a reasonable fact-finder could conclude that McKinney was fired because of his race,” the appeals court wrote.
Julie Havenith, who represented the sheriff’s department on behalf of its insurer, said she was not authorized to comment on the case.
McKinney no longer works in law enforcement. He currently lives in Florida, Vegeler said.