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Court Shoots Down Diabetic's Bias Claims Because Budget Cuts Entitled to Immunity

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Maryland Transit Administration and Maryland Department of Transportation cannot be held liable for any alleged discriminatory intent in the elimination of a technician's position as part of a statewide budget reduction, the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland decided Jan. 16 (McCray v. Md Dep't of Transp., D. Md., No. 1:11-cv-03732, 1/16/13).

Marie McCray cannot advance her claims of discriminatory discharge on the bases of race, sex, age, or disability under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act or the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act, the court decided, because the state agencies were entitled to legislative immunity for the budgetary decision.

Even though the agencies only recommended the elimination of McCray's position, the court found that their actions played a significant role in the legislative act of selecting state jobs for elimination.

“Although defendants did not render the final decision in approving those budget cuts, and plaintiff's claims are premised on the claim of discriminatory animus harbored by her supervisors, defendants are entitled to the defense of legislative immunity for their role in the FY09 budget cuts,” Judge Ellen Lipton Hollander wrote. 

Position Eliminated as Part of Budget Cut

McCray, an African American woman over 40 years old, began working for MTA in 1971.

In 1995, McCray was diagnosed with diabetes and began administering herself insulin shots at work.

McCray's condition did not affect her job performance until she fainted in the office due to low blood sugar June 14, 2007, and went to the hospital.

After a week off, MTA's human resources department insisted that McCray submit to medical examination to be cleared to resume work.

In 2008, Deputy Director of Service Development Michael Deets reassigned some of McCray's responsibilities to a consultant. McCray claimed she did not have other significant job responsibilities and was unable to obtain additional work.

MTA then informed McCray Oct. 15, 2008, that her position as transportation engineering technician had been eliminated due to statewide budget cuts.

Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley and the Maryland Board of Public Works had approved approximately $345 million in state budget reductions, including the elimination of more than 830 state jobs.

Deets and other MTA senior management had been asked to identify potential job positions for reduction, and had created a list that included McCray's position and was forwarded to the governor and board. McCray's job was one of 63 MTA positions that were abolished.

McCray filed suit Dec. 27, 2011, for discrimination on the bases of race, sex, age, and disability under Title VII and the ADAAA.

MTA and MDOT filed a motion for dismissal of McCray's claims or, in the alternative, summary judgment. 

Legislative Enactment Entitled to Immunity

The court agreed with the agency defendants that McCray's claims were barred by legislative immunity because her job was eliminated as part of a legislative act by the governor and board.

Legislative immunity attaches to all actions taken within the sphere of legislative activity, the court explained. Officials outside the legislative branch are entitled to legislative immunity when they perform legislative functions, it said.

“Notably,” Hollander wrote, “considerations of intent or motive of the official, as well as job title, are irrelevant to the determination of whether an act is legislative.”

The court determined that the budget reduction decision was a legislative act.

Hollander wrote, “although the FY09 budget cuts were undertaken by the State's executive branch and resulted in McCray's job termination, they were legislative in function because they conformed to formal legislative procedures.”

The court rejected McCray's contention that the reduction-in-force was not entitled to immunity because it was based on management's discriminatory animus.

McCray's job was eliminated along with over 800 other positions, the court noted, as an exercise of the governor and board's authority to terminate funding in the state budget for an existing position.

The decision also eliminated funding for a variety of positions and projects, the court said, creating possible implications for the state beyond the single elimination of McCray's position.

As Hollander said, “the budget cuts reflected discretionary policymaking decisions that affected the broader population.”

That several employees whose positions were eliminated were subsequently rehired by the state did not change the court's conclusion. 

Agencies' Action Led to Legislative Conduct

MTA and MDOT can invoke legislative immunity, the court decided, despite McCray's argument that her complaint centered on management's recommendation of her position's elimination and not the decision of the governor and board to initiate budget reductions.

“Where an employee's job is eliminated by operation of a budget cut,” Hollander wrote, “the employee may not evade legislative immunity by invoking discriminatory animus on the part of individuals who merely recommended elimination of the position.”

“Rather,” she said, “only the motive of the final decisionmaker in eliminating the job position--here, the Governor and the Board--is at issue.” Because legislative immunity does not depend on a defendant's motives, she added, the intent of the governor and the board in enacting the budget cuts did not determine the availability of immunity.

Management's recommendations were not binding, the court noted, and it was the governor and board's legislative conduct in creating the budget cuts that eliminated funding for McCray's position.

The court concluded that MTA and MDOT were protected by legislative immunity because the agencies played a role in eliminating McCray's position through the budget reduction.

“In this case,” Hollander wrote, “the recommendations submitted by defendants in response to the Governor's request for cost-cutting measures, including job position eliminations, involved the same exercise of discretion as the Governor and the Board, and were undertaken in direct assistance of formulating and passing budget cuts.” 

Cannot Create 'Cat's Paw' Liability

The court decided that the “cat's paw” theory of liability was not available for McCray to hold the agencies responsible for her supervisors' alleged discriminatory animus.

The court explained that the cat's paw theory permits holding an employer liable for the discriminatory act of a supervisor, if the act is the proximate cause of the ultimate employment action.

As the court pointed out, however, the cat's paw theory has never been applied to a defense of legislative immunity.

“Indeed,” Hollander said, “accepting such a theory would appear to undermine the very purpose of legislative immunity, which is to preserve the exercise of independent judgment in the legislative context, unhindered by the threat of litigation.”

The court thus granted MTA and MDOT's motion for summary judgment on McCray's discrimination claims.

John Henry Morris Jr. in Baltimore represented McCray. Eric Scott Hartwig of Maryland's attorney general's office in Baltimore represented MTA and MDOT.

By Anne A. Marchessault


Text of the opinion is available at /uploadedFiles/Content/News/Legal_and_Business/Bloomberg_Law/Legal_Reports/McCray-Ruling(1).pdf.

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