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Blazing Saddles Screening Not Proof of Racial Discrimination

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By Robyn Hagan Cain on January 13, 2012 3:01 PM

The Warrick County Sheriff terminated Kevin Harris’s probationary employment as a deputy sheriff based on violations of standard operating procedures, failure to follow orders, and insufficient commitment to the job.

Harris claimed that he was fired for being African-American.

This week, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Harris’ circumstantial evidence of discrimination fell far short of supporting an inference that he was terminated because of his race, and affirmed the district court’s dismissal of his racial discrimination lawsuit.

Harris started a one-year probationary period as a deputy sheriff with the Warrick County Sheriff's Department in 2007. The probationary period, required of all new deputies, focused on learning basic law-enforcement techniques from field training officers.

Shortly after the start of Harris' probationary period, his superiors became concerned about his lack of respect for departmental policies and his commitment to the job. (Our favorite departmental violations from this case: Harris installed non-issue lights on his assigned patrol car, and affixed a nonstandard patch on his uniform jacket. Apparently, the Department doesn't appreciate pieces of flair.)

Five months into the probationary period, Sheriff Marvin Heilman and his staff unanimously voted to terminate Harris' employment based on his habit of disregarding orders, his casual approach to standard operating procedures, and his lack of motivation. A written statement memorializing the reasons for Harris's termination was consistent with Heilman's explanation.

Harris filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against the Department. He claimed that both before and after his termination, several white deputies had performance problems during their probationary employment but were retained. He also testified in his deposition to several events during his employment that he claimed were evidence of racial harassment.

Harris said that detectives watched excerpts from the movie Blazing Saddles in his presence on one occasion, and other deputies gave him racially tinged nicknames, ranging from "Urkel" (the name of an African-American character on the '90s sitcom Family Matters), to "Tubbs" (the name of an African-American police officer on the '80s crime classic Miami Vice). The only other African-American deputy in the Department was subjected to similar nicknames.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that there was no evidence to suggest that the sheriff, or other decision-makers, participated in any of the alleged racially-charged behavior. (The court also added that Blazing Saddles "makes racism ridiculous, not acceptable.")

Although Harris identified several white deputies who were retained despite performance problems during their probationary employment, the court found that their misconduct was not comparable to his, so they could not be considered similarly-situated.

To prove employment discrimination, a plaintiff needs direct or circumstantial evidence that the decision-maker has acted for a prohibited reason. Statements by subordinates normally are not probative of intent to retaliate by the decision-maker. Here, Harris' racial discrimination lawsuit failed because he did not prove that the decision-maker, Sheriff Heilman, acted for a prohibited reason.

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