Even the writers of the television series Sons of Anarchy probably couldn’t have dreamed of this plot twist: a black police captain in Alabama gets fired for associating with an “outlaw” biker gang, but then gets his day in court in a race discrimination lawsuit against the police department.
The plot gets even more interesting when it turns out that the police captain’s supervisor shows a great deal of fondness for the Confederacy and openly displays Confederate memorabilia in his office.
Thin Blue Line on Wheels of Steel
In his spare time, Captain Ivan “Keith” Gray of the Dothan, Alabama, Police Department was also the president of a local predominantly black motorcycle club called the Bama Boyz.
While it appears that the Bama Boyz were more interested in holding charity events than in riding on the wrong side of the law, a police investigation into an assault at the clubhouse of an outlaw biker club called Outcast revealed that Gray was also known to hang around the Outcast clubhouse and that the Bama Boyz had received a “blessing” from Outcast.
Gray’s association with Outcast was deemed to be “conduct unbecoming of an officer” and sufficient grounds for him to be fired, even though he was not involved in the clubhouse assault.
Thrown Under the Bus?
Gray admitted to associating with the outlaw bikers of Outcast, but he told an entirely different story about why he was fired.
According to Gray, he had been subjected to severe racial discrimination ever since he joined the force in 1985. He described a history of being denied promotions and training opportunities in favor of white officers. He also alleged that white officers, including his supervisor, were affiliated with racist organizations like the Sons of Confederate Veterans and that he witnessed them engage in racially offensive behavior, such as posing for a group photo behind a large Confederate flag.
These actions led to Gray filing charges against the department with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2013, which he asserts was the real reason he was fired.
Rebel With a Cause (of Action)
Gray filed a federal lawsuit against the police department after he was fired, and the court denied the department’s request to put the brakes on most of his claims. Gray v. City of Dothan, 127 FEP Cases 753, 2015 BL 197564 (M.D. Ala., June 22, 2015).
Gray argued that his association with the Outcast club was nothing more than a pretext for the department to fire him, since the investigation into the Outcast club began a mere three weeks after he filed his EEOC complaint.
The court agreed and noted that the sheer amount of evidence in Gray’s favor would not only permit a jury to find that Gray’s race was a “motivating factor” in his firing, but even that it was the onlyfactor.
Also, the court said that Gray could go to trial on his separate claim that he was subjected to a hostile work environment, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Easy Ride to the Courthouse
Captain Gray’s case highlights the principle that an employer can be held liable under federal law for engaging in race or sex discrimination in some cases even when it may also have legitimate reasons to discipline or fire an employee.
If the evidence shows that discrimination is a “motivating” factor for taking action against an employee, even if not the only reason, an employer can expect a bumpy ride on the wheels of justice.
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