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Tony Reaves v. Pennsylvania State Police

October 17, 2012

TONY REAVES,
PLAINTIFF
v.
PENNSYLVANIA STATE POLICE, DEFENDANT



The opinion of the court was delivered by: (Judge Conner)

MEMORANDUM

Presently before the court is defendant Pennsylvania State Police's ("PSP") motion for summary judgment (Doc. 19) and the magistrate judge's report (Doc. 39) recommending that it be denied. PSP filed objections to the magistrate judge's report and recommendation ("R&R"), and the parties fully briefed the issues raised by PSP's objections. (See Docs. 44, 47, 50). For the reasons set forth below, the court will adopt the R&R in part and reject it in part.

I. Factual Background & Procedural History*fn1

Plaintiff Tony Reaves ("Reaves") was a full-time trooper for PSP on probationary status at the Avondale barracks. He is an African-American. Reaves's probationary status was extended in March, 2007. In August and September, 2007, Corporal Steven Ranck ("Cpl. Ranck") prepared a supplemental General Investigation ("GI") report in review of Reaves's probationary trooper status. The report noted a number of negative incidents involving Reaves, including three different traffic stops.*fn2 Although a majority of Reaves's supervisors recommended retention, Cpl. Ranck recommended that Reaves not be retained. Upon Cpl. Ranck's recommendation, Captain Jack Laufer ("Capt. Laufer") made the decision to terminate plaintiff. The Probationary Trooper Administrative Review Panel agreed with the determination to dismiss plaintiff. Reaves was officially terminated on October 4, 2007.

Reaves spoke with Cpl. Ranck in July, 2007, about his belief that he was treated differently than others. Additionally, he contacted the PSP Equal Employment Opportunity ("EEO") office on numerous occasions from March, 2007, after his probation was extended, until his dismissal in October, 2007. Reaves also spoke several times with his station commander, Lieutenant Shelton Sneed ("Lt. Sneed"), about his perceived differential treatment. Sometime in September 2007, Reaves sent a complaint letter to Lt. Sneed outlining a number of issues and concerns regarding his perceived differential treatment.

Reaves filed the instant suit on December 28, 2009, alleging violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. (Doc. 1). PSP filed the instant motion for summary judgment on February 28, 2011. (See Docs. 19-21). The court referred PSP's summary judgment motion to the Magistrate Judge, (see Doc. 38), who recommended denying the motion. PSP filed objections to the R&R on April 5, 2012. (Doc. 44). The parties fully briefed the issues raised in PSP's objections to the R&R, and the matter is now ripe for review.

II. Standard of Review

A. Standard of Review for a Motion for Summary Judgment

Through summary adjudication the court may dispose of those claims that do not present a "genuine dispute as to any material fact" and for which a jury trial would be an empty and unnecessary formality. See FED. R. CIV. P. 56(a). The burden of proof is upon the non-moving party to come forth with "affirmative evidence, beyond the allegations of the pleadings," in support of its right to relief. Pappas v. City of Lebanon, 331 F. Supp. 2d 311, 315 (M.D. Pa. 2004); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). This evidence must be adequate, as a matter of law, to sustain a judgment in favor of the non-moving party on the claims. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250-57 (1986); Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587-89 (1986). Only if this threshold is met may the cause of action proceed. Pappas, 331 F. Supp. 2d at 315.

In reviewing a motion for summary judgment under Title VII, which relies upon indirect evidence, the Third Circuit applies the three-step test set forth in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973). First, plaintiff must establish a prima facie case of discrimination or retaliation. Id. at 802. Second, the burden shifts to the defendant to offer a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse action taken. Id. Third, the plaintiff must show that the defendant's proffered reasons are mere pretext. Id.

B. Standard of Review for a Magistrate Judge's Recommendation

Where objections to a magistrate judge's report and recommendation are filed, the court must perform a de novo review of the contested portions of the report. Sample v. Diecks, 885 F.2d 1099, 1106 n.3 (3d Cir. 1989) (citing 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(c)). Local Rule 72.3 requires "written objections which . . . specifically identify the portions of the proposed findings, recommendations or report to which objection is made and the basis for such objections."

III. Discussion

PSP objects to the R&R insofar as it concludes that PSP is not entitled to summary judgment on Reaves's Title VII discrimination and retaliation claims PSP raises four specific objections: (1) the Magistrate Judge incorrectly found a dispute of material fact regarding whether comparators were sufficiently similarly situated to Reaves; (2) the Magistrate Judge erred in finding that Reaves established pretext; (3) the Magistrate Judge incorrectly concluded that Reaves engaged in a protected activity; and (4) the Magistrate Judge erred in not addressing defendant's causal connection argument. The court will address each objection in turn.

A. Title VII Discrimination Claim

In order to establish a prima facie case of employment discrimination, Reaves must show (1) his membership in a protected class; (2) his qualification for his position; (3) that he suffered an adverse employment action; and (4) that the employer took the adverse action against him under circumstances raising an inference of discrimination. Sarullo v. U.S. Postal Serv., 352 F.3d 789, 797 (3d Cir. 2003) (citing McDonnell Douglas, 411 U.S. at 802; Pivirotto v. Innovative Sys., Inc., 191 F.3d 344, 348 n.1, 352, 356 (3d Cir. 1999). Here, only the fourth element is at issue. A plaintiff can establish an inference of discrimination where he or she was treated differently than similarly situated employees outside his or her protected class. Goosby v. Johnson & Johnson Med., Inc., 228 F.3d 313, 318-19 (3d Cir. 2000).

PSP objects to the Magistrate Judge's finding that there is a dispute of fact regarding whether there are PSP employees sufficiently similarly situated that their differential treatment would give rise to an inference of discrimination.As further discussed by the Magistrate Judge, different courts have varying definitions of the term "similarlysituated." (See Doc. 39, at 17-19). "While 'similarly situated' does not mean identically situated, the [comparators] must nevertheless be similar in 'all relevant respects.'" Opsatnik v. Norfolk S. Corp., 335 Fed. Appx. 220, 222-23 (3d Cir. 2009) (quoting Holifield v. Reno, 115 F.3d 1555, 1562 (11th Cir. 1997)). It often involves a showing that "the individuals with whom the plaintiff seeks to compare [his] treatment must have dealt with the same supervisor, have been subject to the same standards and have engaged in the same conduct without such differentiating or mitigating circumstances that would distinguish their conduct or the employer's treatment of them for it." Ogden v. Keystone Residence, 226 F. Supp. 2d 588, 604 (M.D. Pa. 2002) (quoting Morris v. G.E. Financial Assurance Holdings, No. 00-3849, 2001 WL 1558039, at *6-*8 (E.D. Pa. Dec. 3, 2001) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted)).

Reaves offers the following PSP troopers as similarly situated, all of whom had various traffic altercations: Chris Winesburg, Vicki Spencer, Curtis Confer, Gary Wilson, Donald Neisner, David Sawicky, Michael Snyder, Norman Strauss, Matt Hudak, Jonathan Burnham, Frank Pawlowski, Jeffrey Miller, Jeffrey Dillig, Paul McManamon, Heather Seifrit. Some of these alleged comparators can be dismissed with little comment as they are obviously not similarly situated.*fn3 The following state troopers are left as potential comparators: Winesburg, Spencer, Seifrit, Neisner, Snyder, Hudak, and Burnham.

For the remaining comparators, Reaves simply denies many of Defendant's statements of undisputed material fact without citing or producing any affirmative evidence outside the allegations contained in his complaint. (See Doc. 29 ¶ ¶ 142, 143, 144, 145, 150, 152, 153). Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c)(1) states that the non-movant must establish a genuine dispute of material fact by either "citing to particular parts of materials in the record" or "showing that the materials cited [by the movant] do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute." In doing so, a non-moving party "may not simply sit back and rest on the allegations in its complaint." Corneal v. Jackson Township, 313 F. Supp. 2d 457, 464 (M.D. Pa. 2003), aff'd, 94 Fed. Appx. 76 (3d Cir. 2004). Local Rule 56.1 states that any material facts set forth by the movant "will be deemed to be admitted unless controverted" by the non-movant.

Reaves denies many of PSP's statements of fact with the bare explanation that "defendant did not produce all of the requested and relevant probationary trooper files, and the evidence remains in defendant PSP's possession." (See Doc. 29 ¶ ¶ 142 n.12, 147, 148, 149, 150, 151, 152, 153, 154, 155, 156, 157, 158, 159, 160). Specifically, Reaves explains that:

[i]n this federal court proceeding, Plaintiff Requests for

Production of Documents also asked for personnel data specifically relating to comparators, including probationary employment records. See Exhibit 43, Defendants' Responses to Plaintiff's Requests for Production of Documents No. 4; see also Exhibit 46. Defendant refused to produce the requested records, eventually produced what it deems "official personnel files" for some comparators and only one "probationary trooper file," namely for Heather Seifrit. However, the Defendant's regulation defines a "personal record" as "any recorded ...


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