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Date: 10-24-2019

Case Style:

Peter Daza v. State of Indiana

Case Number: 18-3102

Judge: Kanne

Court: United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit on appeal from the Southern District of Indiana (Marion County)

Plaintiff's Attorney:


Call 918-582-6422 if you need help finding a employment job discrimination lawyer in Indianapolis, Indiana.


Defendant's Attorney: Benjamin E. Ellis

Description:




After the Indiana Department of
Transportation (“INDOT”) fired Peter Daza from his position
as a geologist, Daza filed various claims against the State of
Indiana and INDOT employees, alleging that his firing was
unlawful. The district court granted summary judgment to
the defendants on all Daza’s claims. Daza appeals only the
grant of summary judgment on his claims under 42
2 No. 18‐3102
U.S.C. § 1983. Those claims alleged that the defendants violated
his First Amendment rights by discriminating and retaliating
against him for his political activities and affiliation. Because
Daza has failed to show that any of his alleged protected
activities or political affiliation motivated his firing, we
affirm.
I. BACKGROUND
Peter Daza began working for INDOT in 1993. During his
twenty‐two‐year tenure, he worked in INDOT’s Vincennes
District both as a geologist and as a supervisor. As a geologist,
Daza tested construction materials to ensure they complied
with INDOT standards. As a supervisor, Daza oversaw the
work of other INDOT employees.
Daza had not received any formal discipline until after a
change in leadership that occurred in September 2009. At that
time, a former Republican Indiana State Representative, Troy
Woodruff, was appointed District Deputy Commissioner of
INDOT’s Vincennes District. Almost a year later, Woodruff
was promoted to Chief of Operations, and Woodruff’s friend,
Russell Fowler, replaced Woodruff as Vincennes’s Deputy
Commissioner.
Daza alleges the political discrimination began two years
later, in 2011. INDOT employees learned that one of Daza’s
supervisees, Terry Goff, had posted political statements on his
private Facebook page. One employee asked Daza to speak
with Goff about the posts, expressing concern that the posts
might inhibit Goff’s ability to obtain a promotion.
Later that year, in August 2011, Goff interviewed for and
was denied a promotion. Upset with this decision, Goff told
the Director of Technical Services, Valerie Cockrum, that he
No. 18‐3102 3
felt disrespected by an interviewer who had texted during the
interview. But Daza had his own theory about why Goff did
not receive the promotion: politics. Daza voiced this concern
to Cockrum five days after Goff’s complaint, claiming that
Goff was consistently passed over for promotions because of
his connections to the Democratic party. Cockrum responded
that she would keep Daza’s complaint to herself, and she
commended Daza for his honesty and loyalty.
Goff’s troubles continued throughout 2011. Daza, who
completed a performance appraisal of Goff every year, gave
Goff an initial overall rating of “outstanding.” But because
Woodruff and Fowler disagreed with this assessment, Goff’s
final 2011 appraisal reflected an overall performance rating of
“exceeds expectations,” one level below his original “outstanding”
rating.
The next year and a half passed without incident. Around
February 2013, Chief of Operations Woodruff was involved in
a public scandal. It was discovered that he had previously
failed to disclose his financial interest in land purchased by
INDOT. This scandal received public attention and was discussed
by employees at INDOT’s Vincennes District. Daza
complained to Cockrum about Woodruff’s misuse of political
office.
One month after his complaint, Daza received his first
written reprimand. The Vincennes District had been unusually
busy due to construction on I‐69, so Fowler required employees
with an INDOT‐issued cell phone to be available for
calls after business hours. Daza did not take kindly to this requirement.
He complained and told other employees that it
was not a part of his job to work overtime. Daza’s supervisor,
Brent Schmitt, heard about these complaints and approached
4 No. 18‐3102
Daza directly to ask him to answer calls after hours. Daza repeatedly
told Schmitt he would not answer these calls, but ultimately
agreed to comply with this request. Schmitt issued
Daza a written reprimand for his insubordinate and defiant
behavior.
Still, 2013 was not all bad for Daza. Even with the written
reprimand, Daza received praise in his annual performance
appraisal. The report complimented Daza’s willingness to
help others and his ability to arrive at data‐based solutions.
But it also reflected Daza’s struggles to remain professional
with his colleagues. Daza received an overall performance
rating of “meets expectations” in 2013.
The following year, Daza again defended Goff from alleged
political discrimination. In March 2014, Goff declined to
help snow plow because of a shingles flare up. Schmitt alerted
Daza to this situation, noting that INDOT would both request
a doctor’s note and issue Goff a formal warning that could
lead to disciplinary action. Daza took issue with this treatment
of Goff, and he complained to Cockrum that Goff is “obviously
a target and they are trying to come at him with a
take‐no‐prisoners attitude.”
The same day Daza made this complaint, Nina Daniel, a
Human Resources Manager, emailed another employee about
Daza. In that email, Daniel mentioned that Daza’s supervisor,
Schmitt, had discussed Daza’s behavior with her: Schmitt told
Daniel that Daza’s job knowledge is “one of the best in the
state” but that Daza’s professionalism had been described as
a “cancer on the department.” Daniel’s email also pointed out
that there was “little on [Daza’s] file discipline wise,” but
there was evidence of a pattern of behavior.
No. 18‐3102 5
Tensions between Daza and Schmitt continued to run
high. Later that month, in March 2014, Daza emailed
Cockrum expressing discontent with Schmitt. Daza implied
that Schmitt never comes to work and even suggested that
Schmitt should quit. Then Daza took issue directly with
Cockrum, who had recently asked Daza to mentor another
INDOT geologist in a different district. Daza alleged that
Cockrum gave him this task to set him up for future bad evaluations.
Daza expected that his days with INDOT were numbered.
The following month, INDOT hired T.J. Brink, a Republican
City Council member, as Vincennes’s Safety Director.
This hiring, Daza argues, stands in stark contrast to how
INDOT treated Daza. Brink had no experience in safety, and
his only professional experience was as a Director of Business
Development. Yet, Fowler was “anxious” to offer Brink the
position. (Appellant’s Br. at 9.) Fowler just needed to determine
if there was an ethical problem with hiring a current City
Council member. There was not, and Brink was hired.
Over a year later, management again took issue with
Daza’s behavior. On November 22, 2015, Daza’s mother published
a letter to the editor with a regional newspaper, criticizing
then‐Indiana Governor Pence’s position on immigration.
Daza discussed this letter with Cockrum and other
INDOT employees. A few days later, Brink went to Cockrum
with concerns about Daza’s behavior. Brink complained that
Daza checked out a respirator after being told during training
not to use it. Cockrum pointed out the respirator was checked
out before Daza was given this instruction. Still, Brink complained
about Daza’s responses to questions during the
6 No. 18‐3102
training. Cockrum met with Daza and warned him not to further
antagonize Brink.
About a week later, on December 1, 2015, Daza attended
the first day of a training class scheduled for multiple days
that month. Daza alleges the trainer did not like him. The
trainer did take issue with Daza’s behavior during the session.
In her notes, the trainer stated that Daza refused to pay
attention and closed his eyes several times, that he refused to
participate in training activities, and that she heard Daza refer
to part of the training as “f_ _ _ _ ing gay.” The trainer’s supervisor
emailed these notes to Human Resources and stated
that she had concerns about Daza attending the second training
class scheduled for December 9.
After receiving this information, Human Resources employees
discussed with Fowler how to move forward with
Daza. Human Resources Manager Daniel noted that Daza’s
past behavior could be considered arrogant and insubordinate.
She said that INDOT had previously terminated a different
employee for a continued pattern of negative behavior.
However, due to a lack of progressive discipline in Daza’s
past, another employee recommended only a three‐to‐fiveday
suspension. In the same discussion, Fowler—who was
the ultimate authority on employment decisions—indicated
that he was ready to proceed with termination.
On December 7, 2015, Daza emailed employees he supervised,
telling them they had been nominated for a bonus
based on their recent work performance. Daza understood
that these bonuses are meant to surprise employees and that
the bonuses could still be denied. But Daza had sent these
emails for years, and Human Resources never took issue with
the practice. This time, Daniel expressed to another employee
No. 18‐3102 7
concerns about Daza’s December 7 emails. She questioned
how it would make management look if the bonus was later
denied.
The next day, December 8, 2015, Cockrum notified Daza
that he should not attend the second day of training on December
9. Daza asked for more information but was told to
wait until a December 10 meeting with Fowler.
At the December 10 meeting, Fowler informed Daza his
employment was being terminated. Fowler made this decision
without input from Daza’s supervisor and without allowing
Daza to respond to the allegations against him. Daza
received a memo explaining that he was fired because his behavior
consistently defied INDOT culture and expectations.
The memo recalled his 2013 written reprimand, 2013 performance
appraisal, and behavior during the December 1, 2015
training session.
Daza filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Indiana
Civil Rights Commission. He claimed INDOT discriminated
against him due to his race, color, age, and disability. One day
later, he filed a similar Civil Service Employee Complaint
with the Indiana State Personnel Department.
Daza then initiated this lawsuit in the Southern District of
Indiana, bringing various claims against the State of Indiana,
Fowler, Daniel, and Cockrum. He alleged that he was discriminated
and retaliated against based on his race, color, age, political
speech, and political affiliation. Specifically, Daza
brought claims under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981, 1983; the First and
Fourteenth Amendments; the Age Discrimination and Employment
Act, 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq.; and the Americans with
Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq. The defendants
8 No. 18‐3102
moved for, and the court granted, summary judgment on all
counts.
Daza appealed the district court’s grant of summary judgment
to the defendants on his § 1983 political‐discrimination
and political‐retaliation claims.
II. ANALYSIS
Summary judgment is appropriate when there is no dispute
of material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment
as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). We review grants of
summary judgment de novo and construe all facts and reasonable
inferences in a light most favorable to the nonmoving
party. Monroe v. Ind. Dep’t of Transp., 871 F.3d 495, 503 (7th Cir.
2017). But this “favor toward the nonmoving party does not
extend to drawing ‘inferences that are supported by only
speculation or conjecture.’” Argyropoulos v. City of Alton, 539
F.3d 724, 732 (7th Cir. 2008) (quoting Fischer v. Avanade, Inc.,
519 F.3d 393, 401 (7th Cir. 2008)).
Daza argues that INDOT’s series of acts, culminating in
his firing, amounts to a violation of his First Amendment
rights. The First Amendment prohibits public employers from
firing an employee based on that employee’s constitutionally
protected political conduct. See Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347,
357 (1976). Daza argues that his employer’s conduct amounts
to both political discrimination and retaliation under the First
Amendment. To establish a prima facie claim of First Amendment
political discrimination, a plaintiff must show: (1) that the
plaintiff’s conduct is constitutionally protected; and (2) that
the protected conduct was a motivating factor in the employer’s
actions. Bisluk v. Hamer, 800 F.3d 928, 933 (7th Cir.
2015). To state a prima facie claim of First Amendment political
No. 18‐3102 9
retaliation, the plaintiff must additionally show a deprivation
likely to deter free speech. Yahnke v. Kane Cty., 823 F.3d 1066,
1070 (7th Cir. 2016).
Here, Daza’s discrimination and retaliation claims each
fail because he has not shown that his alleged protected conduct
motivated his firing. We therefore need not decide
whether his defenses of Goff and discussions about his
mother’s letter to the editor are constitutionally protected
and—for his retaliation claim—whether he suffered a deprivation
likely to deter free speech.
To show that protected conduct was a motivating factor in
the employer’s action, a plaintiff must demonstrate a causal
connection between the conduct and the employer’s action.
Graber v. Clarke, 763 F.3d 888, 899 (7th Cir. 2014). As a threshold
matter, the plaintiff must show that the defendant was
aware of the protected conduct. See Hall v. Babb, 389 F.3d 758,
762 (7th Cir. 2004). If the defendant was aware of the conduct,
a causal connection can then be demonstrated by suspicious
timing alone only when the employer’s action follows on the
close heels of protected expression. Lalvani v. Cook Cty., 269
F.3d 785, 790 (7th Cir. 2001) (“As the time separating the protected
conduct and the adverse employment action grows, the
causal inference weakens and eventually time becomes the
plaintiff’s enemy.”). For an employer’s actions to be on the
close heels of an employee’s conduct, thus allowing an inference
of causation based on timing alone, we “typically allow
no more than a few days to elapse.” Kidwell v. Eisenhauer, 679
F.3d 957, 966 (7th Cir. 2012). But this is a context‐specific analysis
with no formal legal rule. Id.
When suspicious timing alone is insufficient to carry the
plaintiff’s burden, a plaintiff may “survive summary
10 No. 18‐3102
judgment if there is other evidence that supports the inference
of a causal link.” Culver v. Gorman & Co., 416 F.3d 540, 546 (7th
Cir. 2005).
In an attempt to satisfy this burden, Daza alleges political
discrimination and retaliation spanning four years. Daza
claims that his mistreatment began two years after Republicans
Woodruff and Fowler became leaders in the Vincennes
District. After years without any incidents, Daza believes
three protected political acts motivated his firing: (1) his defenses
of Goff, a Democrat he supervised, (2) his mother’s letter
to the editor criticizing a Republican Governor, and (3) his
status as a Democrat. Daza claims that complaints about his
behavior occurred after, and because of, his alleged political
activities during this time. But for the reasons discussed below,
the evidence does not demonstrate that Daza’s alleged
protected political activities were a motivating factor in his
firing. Consequently, Daza has failed to satisfy his burden on
an element of his claims.
A. Defenses of Goff
First, Daza has failed to connect his defenses of Goff to his
firing. He argues that his two separate defenses of Goff were
a motivating factor in Fowler’s decision to terminate his employment.
Daza defended Goff from perceived political discrimination
in August 2011 and again in March 2014 when Goff refused
to snow plow because of shingles. Daza was fired December
10, 2015, more than a year after his most recent defense
of Goff, and four years after his first defense of Goff.
Daza’s firing occurred well after both events, not on the close
heels of them. Lalvani, 269 F.3d at 790. And Daza offers no
No. 18‐3102 11
additional evidence showing these acts motivated his firing.
The memo explaining Daza’s firing, as well as internal communications,
did not mention these occurrences. In fact, his
defenses of Goff never led to disciplinary action. Time is
Daza’s enemy here, and he cannot show that defending Goff
motivated his firing.
B. Letter to the Editor
Daza also has not established that his mother’s letter to the
editor contributed to his firing. Daza alleges that being fired
weeks after discussing his mother’s letter to the editor with
INDOT employees is evidence of a causal connection. He additionally
points out that Cockrum and Fowler did not respond
negatively to Daza’s practice of emailing bonus nominees
until after his mother’s letter to the editor.
But for this theory to have legs, Fowler would need to be
aware of the letter and Daza’s connection to it. See Hall, 389
F.3d at 762. Fowler’s signed declaration states that he did not
learn about Daza’s mother’s letter until after he fired Daza,
and Daza fails to present any contrary evidence. So, as a
threshold matter, Daza fails to show Fowler was aware of this
alleged protected activity. Daza’s mother’s letter to the editor,
and Daza’s discussion of the letter with INDOT employees,
were therefore not a motivating factor in his firing.
C. Political Affiliation
Finally, Daza cannot show his status as a Democrat motivated
his firing. Political affiliation is protected by the First
Amendment. Hagan v. Quinn, 867 F.3d 816, 824 (7th Cir. 2017).
But to prove discrimination based on political affiliation, a
plaintiff must present evidence relevant to the question of
whether the plaintiff’s political affiliation was a motivating
12 No. 18‐3102
factor in their employer’s action. See Brown v. Cty. of Cook, 661
F.3d 333, 336 (7th Cir. 2011).
In Brown, we held that a sergeant in a sheriff’s office failed
to show his political affiliation was a motivating factor in the
sheriff’s decision to not promote him. Id. at 338. We specifically
noted that most of the evidence Brown tendered was irrelevant
to whether the sheriff considered political affiliation
in the decision to not promote Brown. Id. at 336. For example,
Brown presented as evidence of discrimination his ability to
accurately predict upcoming promotions before they were announced.
Id. at 338. But this evidence had nothing to do with
political affiliation, and even suggested that the promotions
were based on objective criteria rather than political party. Id.
Here, Daza claims to have a significant amount of evidence
showing his status as a Democrat motivated his firing.
He argues that his defenses of Goff and his mother’s letter to
the editor, in addition to a long list of other workplace occurrences,
are all evidence that he was fired because of his political
affiliation. The evidence Daza provides in support of this
claim includes: Daza’s various written and verbal complaints
to Cockrum; Fowler’s treatment of Daza compared to the hiring
of Brink; INDOT’s failure to progressively discipline
Daza; Brink’s and Fowler’s complaints about Daza’s behavior
following his mother’s letter to the editor; the trainer’s comments
on Daza’s behavior shortly after his mother’s letter to
the editor; Daniel’s complaint about Daza’s emails, sent on
December 7, 2015, to potential bonus recipients; and Fowler’s
refusal to allow Daza to respond to the allegations against him
before terminating his employment.
But Daza fails to show how any of this evidence relates to
his political affiliation. For example, Daza believes that his
No. 18‐3102 13
various complaints to Cockrum, and her response thanking
him for his honesty, are evidence that he was fired because of
his political affiliation. But Cockrum’s compliment did not
reference Daza’s political affiliation. In fact, none of her communications
with Daza or Fowler ever referenced Daza’s political
affiliation.
Daza also alleges the trainer’s comments on his behavior
at the December 1, 2015 training somehow show that Fowler
terminated him based on his political affiliation. But the
trainer’s notes about Daza refer to specific instances from the
training and do not mention his political party. Nor does the
record show that the trainer was aware of Daza’s political affiliation.
So, it does not follow that the trainer’s notes about
Daza’s behavioral issues caused Fowler to fire Daza for his
political affiliation. The trainer’s notes instead suggest that
Fowler’s decision to fire Daza was based on a series of inappropriate
behavior that culminated in Daza’s offensive comments
at the December 1 training.
Daza similarly believes that Fowler’s refusal to allow Daza
to respond to negative allegations, while affording this opportunity
to other INDOT employees, is evidence of political discrimination.
But Daza does not produce the names of any specific
employees who were given an opportunity to respond to
allegations before they were fired. And Daza provides no evidence
that Fowler decided who can and cannot respond to
allegations based on their political affiliation. Instead, the record
shows Fowler made the decision to proceed with termination
based on his frustrations with how Daza, a supervisor,
consistently failed to comply with INDOT’s behavioral expectations.
14 No. 18‐3102
Daza’s other alleged evidence of discrimination based on
political affiliation meets a similar fate. Daza provides a long
list of occurrences and simply assumes that they happened
because he is a Democrat. But Daza does not present a single
piece of evidence relevant to his political affiliation. Cf. Brown,
661 F.3d at 336. The evidence presented actually shows that
management had taken issue with Daza’s conduct for years,
and the decision to fire him was made after his offensive comments
during the December 1 training. So, Daza has failed to
show that his political affiliation was a motivating factor in his
firing.
All the evidence presented by Daza, viewed as a whole
and in a light most favorable to Daza, fails to satisfy his burden
of proving his alleged protected activities were a motivating
factor in INDOT’s decision to fire him. And because Daza
has failed to meet his burden on the motivating‐factor element—
a necessity for political discrimination and retaliation
claims—we need not address whether he carried his burdens
to show that his defenses of Goff and discussion of his
mother’s letter to the editor are protected by the First Amendment
and (for the retaliation claim) that he suffered a deprivation
likely to deter free speech.

Outcome: III. CONCLUSION
Daza presented a long string of facts occurring over four
years but presented no evidence that his alleged political activities
or affiliation motivated his firing. So, Daza has failed
to prove an element of his political retaliation and discrimination
claims. The district court correctly granted summary
judgment to the defendants on those claims. We therefore
AFFIRM the judgment of the district court.

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