In an Atlanta employment discrimination suit involving government officials as defendants, it is not unusual for defendants named in their individual capacity to seek dismissal of the claims against them based on qualified immunity. Although the doctrine of qualified immunity is complex, a court that grants dismissal of a claim based on qualified immunity is basically saying that a government official who performs a discretionary task in his or her official capacity should be shielded from suit. There are exceptions to qualified immunity, however. One of these involves situations in which the official violated a clearly established law (such as a constitutional right or a federal statute).
Facts of the Case
In a recent unpublished federal court case decided by the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit (which hears cases appealed from district courts in Georgia, Alabama, and Florida), the plaintiff was a former police officer who first joined the defendant city police department in 1997. He transferred to the defendant’s tactical unit in 2009; notably, the plaintiff’s application to transfer into the unit was initially denied but was granted after he filed a grievance with the personnel board. The plaintiff aspired to work in the unit’s K-9 department, but he was passed over, and white officers were given the positions when openings arose.
The defendant filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, complaining of the defendant sergeant’s failure to recommend him for a K-9 vacancy in 2013. In 2015, the EEOC issued a right-to-sue letter. In the meantime, the plaintiff had been injured in a motorcycle accident that limited him to administrative duties, and he subsequently retired. In his complaint, he sought legal redress under both 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981, 1983 and Title VII. The federal district court partially granted and partially denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment. The sergeant sought review of the district court’s decision, particularly its rejection of his claim for qualified immunity.
The Court of Appeals Decision
The court of appeals reversed the district court’s denial of qualified immunity to the sergeant and remanded the case for further proceedings. Although the plaintiff faulted the sergeant for not recommending him for a K-9 patrol position and, instead, recommending only white officers for the job, the appellate court found that, at the time in question, there was not a clearly established law to the effect that an “adverse employment action” could include the failure to recommend an applicant for a position that offered no additional pay or improvement in work conditions over the position currently held by the applicant (other than, arguably, prestige).
According to the appellate court, the defendant sergeant was acting within his discretionary authority in recommending – and in declining to recommend – candidates for the K-9 patrol position sought by the plaintiff. In the court’s opinion, the plaintiff had failed to carry his burden of showing that the sergeant violated a clearly established right in not recommending him for the position; thus, the sergeant was entitled to qualified immunity, and he should have been granted summary judgment.
Talk to an Atlanta Employment Discrimination Lawyer to See if You Have a Claim
It is fundamentally unfair to discriminate against a worker simply because of his or her race, gender, age, religion, or disability. If you believe that your employer has acted wrongfully against you, it is important that you consult an attorney who is well-versed in this area of the law. To schedule a consultation with an experienced Atlanta employment discrimination lawyer, please call Parks, Chesin & Walbert at 404-873-8048 and request an appointment at your earliest convenience.