White County Administrator Loses Race Bias, Age Retaliation Claims

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By Jay-Anne B. Casuga

June 24 — A white county administrator in Texas who alleged that Hispanic officials voted to unlawfully eliminate his position because of his race can't proceed with a federal discrimination claim, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled ( Heggemeier v. Caldwell Cty. , 2016 BL 202145, 5th Cir., No. 15-50485, 6/23/16 ).

The ruling provides an example of when a Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act plaintiff will fail to demonstrate that similarly situated employees who aren't in his or her protected class received better treatment, which must be established in order for a bias claim to survive.

Ronald Heggemeier was terminated in a reduction in force along with Rhoda Chavira, who is Hispanic and lead the Indigent Health Services Department for Caldwell County, Texas.

The Fifth Circuit rejected Heggemeier's argument that Chavira was a similarly situated non-white employee who received more favorable treatment, given that they both lost their jobs.

Heggemeier contended that Chavira received more notice about the termination and a bigger severance package. However, the court said the two weren't similarly situated because Chavira had worked for the county for 20 years whereas Heggemeier had been there for only three.

ADEA Retaliation Claim Also Fails

The Fifth Circuit also upheld the dismissal of Heggemeier's claim that he was fired in retaliation for complaining that the county's health-insurance policy violated the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

The court said Heggemeier raised concerns that older workers received “fewer dollars per capita” than younger workers under the policy, which included coverage for dependent children. Heggemeier reasoned that older workers were less likely to have children than younger workers.

The court said even if it assumed that Heggemeier's complaint qualified as activity protected by the ADEA, Heggemeier's claim still fails because he can't demonstrate that the complaint caused his discharge 21 months later.

Additionally, the court said the officials who voted for his termination were the same decisionmakers who promoted him to his position after he already had made the complaint.

“[I]f the same actor takes a positive employment action towards an employee after that employee engages in protected activity, any inference of retaliation dissipates,” the court said.

Wrongful Discharge Claim Dismissed

Furthermore, the appeals court affirmed summary judgment to the county on Heggemeier's wrongful discharge claim under the Civil Rights Act of 1871 (42 U.S.C. § 1983).

The court said Heggemeier failed to prove he had a constitutionally protected property interest in continued employment.

Judges Edith B. Clement, Priscilla Owen and Daniel P. Jordan joined in the June 23 per curiam opinion.

Judge, Kostura & Putman represented Heggemeier. Allison, Bass & Magee represented the county.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jay-Anne B. Casuga in Washington at jcasuga@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Susan J. McGolrick at smcgolrick@bna.com

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