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Police officer’s Taser ruling reversed by en banc court


An en banc federal appeals court has reversed its panel’s decision and ruled against a fired police officer who was terminated after she asked to be excused from Taser training because of a heart condition.

The 8-3 ruling by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta in Jacqueline Lewis vs. City of Union City, Georgia, et al. deals with the standard that should be used in discrimination cases in determining whether others who were not discriminated against are similarly situated.

The ruling concludes that a plaintiff who asserts an intentional discrimination claim must demonstrate others “were similarly situated in all material respects.”

The case involves Jacqueline Lewis, an African-American woman who joined the Union City, Georgia, police force in 2000 and was promoted to detective in 2008, according to court papers in Jacqueline Lewis vs. City of Union City, Georgia, et al. 

Ms. Lewis was scheduled for Taser training, but in June 2010 her doctor sent the department a note stating he was worried the Taser ’s electrical current could cause her heart undue stress and recommended a Taser gun not be used on or near her.

Two days later, Ms. Lewis was placed on administrative leave without pay and terminated the following month. Ms. Lewis filed suit in U.S. District Court in Atlanta on charges including disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and race and gender discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The District Court granted Union City summary judgment dismissing the charges.

A divided three-judge 11th Circuit panel reinstated the charges in its opinion, with the majority saying the case should be decided by a jury.

To establish a prima facie case of discrimination, a plaintiff must prove, among other things, that she was treated differently from another “similarly situated” individual, or “comparator,” said Thursday’s en banc ruling.

“The obvious question: Just how ‘similarly situated’ must a plaintiff and her comparators be?” asked the ruling, which adds, “To date, our attempts to answer that question have only sown confusion.”

The ruling concludes that to provide an intentional discrimination claim using circumstantial evidence, a plaintiff must demonstrate “she was treated differently from other individuals with whom she was similarly situated in all material respects.”

This was not the case here, said the ruling. It states the other two officers with whom Ms. Lewis compared herself “were subject to different personnel policies and placed on leave for different underlying conditions.”

They “were not similar to Lewis ‘in all material respects,’ and thus were not valid comparators for purposes of Lewis’s prima facie case,” said the majority option, in ruling against Ms. Lewis.

The minority opinion in the case says the majority opinion “drops an anvil on the employer’s side of the balance” between an employee’s right to work free from discrimination and an employer’s to act against an employee for any nondiscriminatory reason.

“As a result, plaintiffs proceeding by circumstantial evidence in this Circuit will have a difficult time budging the now off-kilter balance and surviving summary judgment,” it said.

Attorneys in the case could not immediately be reached for comment.

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