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Holloman v. Chertoff

February 11, 2008

CHRISTOPHER HOLLOMAN, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL CHERTOFF, SECRETARY FOR DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Reggie B. Walton United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Christopher Holloman, the plaintiff in this civil lawsuit, seeks compensatory damages "in excess of" $300,000 and injunctive relief against Michael Chertoff, the Secretary for the Department of Homeland Security, in his capacity as Secretary for the Cabinet department overseeing the Transportation Security Administration and, through that agency, the Federal Air Marshal Service (the "FAMS"),*fn1 for alleged unlawful discrimination against the plaintiff on the basis of race and national origin pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e-2000e-17 (2000). Complaint (the "Compl.") ¶¶ 1, (i)-(iii). Currently before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. After carefully reviewing the pleadings filed in this case, the parties' motions, and all memoranda and exhibits relating thereto,*fn2 the Court concludes that it must grant the defendant's motion for summary judgment and deny the plaintiff's cross-motion for the reasons that follow.

I. Background

The following facts are either admitted or not in dispute.*fn3 The plaintiff, an African-American who "resides in the State of Maryland," Compl. ¶¶ 3-4, "was hired as a Federal Air Marshall [('FAM')] Officer on June 23, 2002." Pl.'s Facts ¶ 1. His "employment was conditioned upon successful completion" of a training program held at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (the "FLETC"), id., in Artesia, New Mexico. Compl. ¶ 11; Def.'s Facts ¶ 2.

"During the evening of July 26, 2002, and the early morning hours of July 27, 2002," Def.'s Facts ¶ 2, the plaintiff, along with fellow FAM trainees Albert Hill (also an African-American), William Felde, and Patrick Hickey (both Caucasian), "stopped at a convenience store[] off the FLETC premises[] to purchase something to eat," Compl. ¶ 12. "As the trainees entered the convenience store, two white local police officers approached Albert Hill, the designated driver," Pl.'s Facts ¶ 3, and "demanded to search the vehicle [in which the p]laintiff and his companions were traveling[,]" Compl. ¶ 14. "Upon search[ing] the vehicle, the officer found a beer bottle in the rear passenger floor board[,] . . . a cooler [(]also in the rear[)] with an unopened bottle of beer and a half bottle of Bacardi," Pl.'s Facts ¶ 4, and "an open bottle of beer on the floor near the front passenger seat," id. ¶ 5.

The officer asked the plaintiff whether "the open bottle of beer on the floor near the front passenger seat . . . belonged to him." Id. ¶ 5. When the plaintiff "denied that he drank from the beer bottle while on the parking lot of [the convenience store], but admitted that he drank from the bottle earlier," the officer "issued a citation for an [o]pen [c]ontainer infraction." Id. ¶ 6.*fn4 In contrast, "[t]he officer asked Patrick Hickey ([one of the] white trainee[s]) to discard the empty bottle [that the officer] found near [Hickey] in the rear of the vehicle" without issuing a citation to Hickey. Id. ¶ 4. Of the four trainees, the plaintiff was the "only person" who received a citation. Id. ¶ 6.*fn5

The officer who issued the plaintiff a citation also prepared a "supplemental report" that he appended to the citation. Def.'s Mem., Ex. C (State of New Mexico Supplemental Report) (the "Supplemental Report"). In that report, the officer states that the plaintiff became "very irate and verbally abusive" when approached by the officer, and had to be "physically subdue[d]" by his fellow trainees "as he became out of control." Id. at 1. The police officer further states that the plaintiff later said "that he was from 'D.C.' and didn't care about any open container citation." Id. The police officer states that at that point he "cited [the plaintiff] into the [m]agistrate court in Artesia." Id.

The FAMS "launched an investigation of the incident" the very next day. Pl.'s Facts ¶ 7.

As part of this investigation, "[the p]laintiff and the other FAM trainees[] were asked to write affidavit statements." Id. The trainees neither corroborated nor contradicted the specific factual allegations made in the Supplemental Report in their statements; however, two of the trainees noted the plaintiff's uncooperative behavior in dealing with the local police. See Def.'s Mem., Ex. J (Untitled Statement of Patrick Hickey) (the "Hickey Statement") at 2 ("The [o]fficer gave [the plaintiff] every opportunity possible to tell the truth and put this in the past[,] but [the plaintiff] would not comply and tell the truth."); id. at Ex. L (Memorandum to FAM Oversight Training Committee from William Felde) (the "Felde Memo") at 2 (describing the plaintiff as being "[t]he only person in our group that gave the officer any attitude"). In an interview with Timothy Davis, the "Team Leader on the Training Oversight Committee [(the 'Training Committee')] at [the] FLETC," Pl.'s Facts ¶ 2, the plaintiff "complained that he thought that the Eddy County Police Officers harassed him solely because of his race," id. ¶ 7. Nevertheless, Davis "recommended [the p]laintiff's dismissal." Id.

On July 31, 2002, "[the p]laintiff was removed from the training program based upon the incident that occurred at the convenience store on July 27, 2002." Compl. ¶ 17. "Via letter dated August 23, 2002," the FAMS terminated the plaintiff from his probationary position, citing "his behavior during the incident that led to his [citation]," which "caused the FAMS to lose confidence in his ability to perform as a [FAM]." Def.'s Facts ¶ 4. Specifically, the FAMS cited the plaintiff's "[lack of] judgment and uncooperative attitudes towards a local law enforcement officer" as the basis for the plaintiff's termination. Id. "The termination letter stated that the other trainee[s'] witnesses' declarations corroborated the incident as alleged by the police officer." Pl.'s Facts ¶ 9.

The plaintiff appealed his termination to the Merit Systems Protection Board on September 20, 2002. Def.'s Facts ¶ 5. That appeal was dismissed "for lack of jurisdiction," id.

¶ 6, prompting the plaintiff to "file[] a formal complaint of discrimination" with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in which he "alleged race and color discrimination because he was removed from employment," id. ¶ 7. The plaintiff filed his complaint in this Court on June 28, 2004.

After a protracted discovery period and failed attempt at mediation, the defendant filed his motion for summary judgment on July 6, 2007. The plaintiff filed an opposition to that motion on September 10, 2007, and a separate cross-motion for summary judgment on September 12, 2007. Briefing on the parties' cross-motions closed on October 23, 2007.

The defendant asserts that summary judgment in his favor is appropriate for two reasons. First, the defendant argues that "[the p]laintiff cannot establish a prima facie case of race discrimination because the circumstances under which he was terminated do not give rise to an inference of discrimination." Def.'s Mem. at 9. Second, the defendant contends that the plaintiff cannot sustain his "ultimate burden of persuasion that [the d]efendant discriminated against him because of his race or color" because the defendant's "concern regarding [the p]laintiff's suitability to perform in a highly sensitive law enforcement position requiring good judgment in an ...


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