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Argo v. Gregory

United States District Court, S.D. Georgia, Brunswick Division

September 10, 2014

WILLIAM ARGO, MICHAEL G. JOHNSON and JOHN M. SPANGLER, Plaintiffs,
v.
Sheriff TOMMY J. GREGORY, in his official capacity, Defendant.

ORDER

J. RANDAL HALL, District Judge.

Presently before the Court is Defendant Sheriff Tommy Gregory's ("Sheriff") motion for summary judgment. (Doc. no. 27.) Plaintiffs, former deputies in the Camden County Sheriff's Office ("Sheriff's Office"), were terminated on June 29, 2011, as part of a reduction in force purportedly because of a limited budget. However, they allege that they were discriminated against on the basis of their age and retaliated against in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, 29 U.S.C. § 621, et. seq. ("ADEA"). Additionally, Plaintiffs William Argo and Michael Johnson claim that they were discriminated against in violation of the American with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. § 12102(1)(A). As discussed below, the Sheriff's motion for summary judgment is GRANTED IN PART AND DENIED IN PART.

I. BACKGROUND

A. Factual Background

1. Plaintiffs' Employment History and Terminations

This case arises out of Plaintiffs' employment with the Sheriff's Office. William Argo ("Argo") was hired in 2001 by former Sheriff Bill Smith as a corrections officer. (Argo Dep. at 8.) Argo remained in that position until 2005 when he obtained his POST certification and was transferred to work as a deputy in courthouse security. (Id. at 10; Argo Decl. ¶ 4.) Originally, he worked at the front desk, but was reassigned to the courtroom. (Argo Decl. ¶ 4.) Argo remained in this position until his termination. (Id. ¶ 5.)

Johnson, likewise, was hired by Sheriff Smith in 1996. (Johnson Decl. ¶¶ 1-2.) He was originally hired as a corrections officer and received a promotion to Sergeant within six months. (Id. ¶ 2.) In 1999, he became POST certified and was transferred to work as a patrol deputy shortly thereafter. (Id. ¶ 4.) After approximately six months on patrol, he was transferred to the civil service and courts division. (Id. ¶ 5.) In this position, his responsibilities included serving civil warrants, transporting prisoners, and occasionally working as a courtroom deputy. (Id. ¶ 7.) Johnson remained in this position until he was terminated. (See Doc. no. 31-1 ¶ 5.

John Spangler was hired by Sheriff Smith in 2002. (Spangler Dep. at 8.) Although the record does not reflect the position Spangler worked when he was hired, he served as a transport officer at one point during his tenure. (Spangler Decl. ¶ 3.) He was transferred, however, several weeks prior to his termination and was working as a corrections officer when he was laid off. (Id. ¶¶ 2-3.)

On June 29, 2011, Plaintiffs, along with six other employees, were laid off. (See Doc. no. 31 at 8.) At the time of their termination, Argo was 70, Spangler was 56, and Johnson was 43. (Id.) Sheriff Gregory contends that the lay-offs were necessary due to an "underfunded budget." (Gregory Dep. at 6, 8.) Apparently, the Sheriff requested a budget for the 2012 fiscal year of approximately $8 million, but the Camden County Board of Commissioners approved a budget for the Sheriff's Office (including the Jail/Corrections division) of only $5.5 million. (Fender Dep. at 12.) Michael Fender, the Director of Finance for Camden County, testified that this represented a decrease of approximately $600, 000 from the 2011 budget. (Id.) Plaintiffs argue the decrease was far less, only $164, 170. (See Doc. no. 31-1 at 7.)

Sheriff Gregory explains that once he determined that layoffs were necessary, he asked each division leader to rank his or her employees. (Gregory Dep. at 7.) Purportedly, the employees at the bottom of each list were those at risk of being terminated. (Id.) Lori Whitlow, the Executive Administrative Assistant to Sheriff Gregory, supervised the courthouse security and warrants and civil service divisions. (Whitlow Aff. ¶¶ 2, 4.) She testified that in making her list, she considered an employee's work history, attendance, and any disciplinary actions. (Id. ¶ 9.) Applying these criteria, Argo and Johnson ranked at the bottom of their divisions. (Id. ¶ 10.)

Spangler, however, did not rank at the bottom of his supervisors' lists. Rather, April Palmer, his direct supervisor, ranked Spangler 22nd out of 35 employees. (See Doc. no. 31 at 25.) Similarly, Charles Byerly ranked Spangler 24th out of 34. (Id. at 26.) Byerly testified that in making his list he considered the employee's job performance, any disciplinary actions, and his own personal knowledge and opinion of the employee. (Byerly Dep. at 17.) Although Spangler was not ranked at the bottom of the list, Byerly explained that Spangler was one of two full-time transport officers. (Id. at 25-26, 31.) And because Jessica Miller, the other transport officer, was more essential, Spangler was terminated when the Sheriff made the decision that he only had the funds for one full-time transport officer. (Id. at 25-26, 31.)

2. 2012 Hirings

Despite laying off nine employees aged 70, 66, 56, 54, 50, 43, 41, and 38 because of allegedly limited funds, [1] Sheriff Gregory continued to advertise for and hire new employees throughout 2011 and 2012. In fact, the Sheriff hired three employees - one corrections officer and two deputies - on June 27, 2011, two days prior to the lay-offs. (See Doc. no. 31-1 at 8.) The ages of the new hires were 25, 39, and 51. (Id.)

As early as September 30, 2011, the Sheriff placed advertisements requesting applications for open correctional officer positions in the newspaper. (See Doc. no. 27-3 at 71.) And over the next several months, the Sheriff hired an additional eighteen employees, including four deputies, twelve corrections officers, one finance officer, and one administrative clerk. (See Doc. no. 31 at 8.) The ages of the new hires ranged from 19 to 51, and only three of the hires were over the age of 40. (Id.) Argo and Spangler testify that they were replaced by deputies with less training and experience who were significantly younger than them. (Argo Decl. ¶¶ 21-22; Spangler Decl. ¶¶ 14-15.) And Johnson claims that he was senior to and more qualified than his co-worker who was not terminated, Brenda Nason. (Johnson Decl. ¶¶ 14-15.)

Despite being aware of the advertisements, Plaintiffs did not reapply for employment with the Sheriff's Office. Plaintiffs did not believe that they needed to reapply because when they were terminated they were not informed that they would have to reapply if they wanted to return to service. (Argo Decl. ¶ 17; Johnson Decl. ¶¶ 12-13; Spangler Decl. ¶ 10.) They argue that they were not rehired because they filed claims of age discrimination with the EEOC shortly after their terminations. (See Doc. no. 31-1 at 29.)

3. Argo and Johnson's ADA Claims

Argo and Johnson also claim that Sheriff Gregory discriminated against them on the basis of their disabilities. (See Am. Compl. ¶¶ 44-61.) Specifically, Johnson suffered from hearing loss. However, Johnson did not file ADA discrimination charges with the EEOC. (See Doc. no. 27-4 at 115.) Argo, on the other hand, did file discrimination EEOC charges based upon his disability - colon cancer, which he was diagnosed with in 2010. (See Argo Decl. ¶ 9.) Following surgery to remove the cancer, Argo was out of work for approximately six weeks. (Id.) Despite undergoing chemotherapy treatments when he returned to work, his doctor did not place any limitations on him. (Argo Dep. at 27-28.) And while he did not suffer any side effects initially, after the third or fourth treatment he began to experience nausea and diarrhea. (Id. at 28-29.) His condition, however, did not have any effect on his ability to carry out his duties other than the need to be able to take frequent restroom breaks. (Id. at 30, 32.)

B. Procedural Background

On December 27, 2012, Plaintiffs filed suit in this Court. (Doc. no. 1.) The Sheriff filed a motion to dismiss the individual capacity claims on June 25, 2013. (Doc. no. 14.) Plaintiffs subsequently filed an Amended Complaint dropping the individual capacity claims, which were dismissed by Court Order on July 30, 2013. (Doc. nos. 17, 19.) On September 25, 2013, Sheriff Gregory filed his motion for summary judgment on all of Plaintiffs' claims. (Doc. no. 27.) The time for any further responses has expired, and the motions are ready and ripe for adjudication.

II. SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD

Summary judgment is appropriate only if "there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Facts are "material" if they could affect the outcome of the suit under the governing substantive law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc. , 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). The Court must view the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp. , 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986), and must draw "all justifiable inferences in ...


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