Former employee could not establish comparator for her “unique” but low level position so summary judgment was proper for Town

Morris v. Town of Independence; Michael Ragusa, 15- 30986 (5th Cir.  June28,2016)

This is a racial discrimination in employment under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 where the 5th Circuit affirmed the granting of the Town’s summary judgment motion.

Morris, an African-American woman, was a part-time employee of the Town of Independence.  She was listed as an assistant town clerk but the job duties fluctuated. Morris testified that she was ultimately asked to collect water and sewer bills. Mayor Ragusa similarly testified that Morris’s job was to “be at the window and collect the water bills, sewer, tickets and things like that.” Morris characterizes this position as that of a “water clerk.” Mayor Ragusa discharged Morris seven months after she was hired. According to Morris, Mayor Ragusa stated that the discharge was due to budget cuts. During his deposition, Mayor Ragusa explained that the Town experienced a 22% reduction in budget across the board.  Mayor Ragusa also testified he received performance complaints regarding Morris. Morris sued for race discrimination. The trial court granted the Town’s motion for summary judgment and Morris appealed.

Morris notes that a Caucasian, full-time, Assistant Town Clerk, Rhonda Crocker, retained her job while Morris was discharged, despite Crocker’s later hiring date. Crocker was hired the day after the prior Assistant Town Clerk, Patanella, was discharged due to a conflict of interest, and about one month before Morris was discharged. Additionally, she held a Caucasian male was hired in the water department. However, the Town asserted that, unlike Crocker, Morris held a part-time and non-essential position, performed tasks that “mimicked [those] of other workers in the department,” and was the subject of performance concerns. The Town further claims that the Caucasian male hired in the Water and Sewer Department “is irrelevant because its budget is separate from that of the Administrative Staff” and that Morris lacked necessary certifications for the position.”  After analyzing the record, the 5th Circuit held Morris failed to set forth a prima facie case, since she offered no similarly situated comparators. Morris’s part-time employment and differing job functions, coupled with the sui generis nature of her employment, distinguished her position from that of the proffered comparator. That Mayor Ragusa had received verbal complaints about Morris’s performance are additional relevant, distinguishing factors. As a result, the trial court properly granted summary judgment for the Town.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.  Panel: Judge Owen, Judge Higginbotham, and Judge smith.  Opinion delivered by Judge Owen. Attorney for Appellant: Ebony Shadae Morris.  Attorney for Appellee: John Scott Thomas of Baton Rouge, LA