Kuttner v. Zaruba
Susan Kuttner, a former deputy sheriff in DuPage County, Illinois, filed suit in federal court against Sheriff John Zaruba. The single claim alleges that she was fired because of her sex, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination because of sex in employment.
Kuttner began working as a DuPage County deputy sheriff in 1998. In February 2010, she was fired by Zaruba, on recommendation of the Merit Commission, a unit of the sheriff's department that handles hiring, promotions, and disciplinary matters. The Commission was acting on an October 2009 complaint by Zaruba regarding an incident that occurred several months earlier. Kuttner, while in uniform, visited the home of a person who owed money to her boyfriend. More specifically, Kuttner's boyfriend Steve Cooper had loaned a sum of money to one Reginald Benjamin. Benjamin did not repay the loan. One afternoon in April or May 2009, Kuttner—wearing her official sheriff's uniform and badge—visited Benjamin's home in Hinsdale, Illinois, where he lived with his parents. Benjamin's father came to the door and told Kuttner that his son was not home. Kuttner then left a business card listing her name as Susan A. McKinley (the name she uses in her off-duty business) and a company called “Team in Focus, DC International.” Kuttner never spoke with Benjamin.
Sheriff Zaruba alleged in his disciplinary complaint before the Commission that Kuttner's conduct—attempting to collect on a personal loan for a friend while in uniform—violated multiple departmental regulations. In what amounted to a plea deal, Kuttner stipulated to the facts just recounted and admitted to violating two rules: one prohibiting “conduct unbecoming” an officer and another prohibiting the improper wearing of the uniform in a way that conveyed the message that she was acting on authority of the Sheriff’s Department and that improperly projected coercive police authority for personal ends. In exchange, the other disciplinary charges were dropped. The Merit Commission determined that Kuttner's conduct was serious enough to warrant discharge. Zaruba fired her, based on that determination, on February 24, 2010.
This lawsuit followed.
Zaruba moves for summary judgment on the Title VII claim, arguing that Kuttner has not produced sufficient evidence of intentional discrimination because of her sex. A plaintiff can prove a Title VII claim two ways. First is through direct evidence of intentional discrimination, which Kuttner has not presented. The second is through the burden-shifting approach of McDonnell Douglas. In a case of alleged discriminatory firing, a plaintiff must make a prima facie showing that (1) she is a member of a protected class; (2) she met her employer's legitimate job expectations; (3) she suffered an adverse employment action; and (4) similarly situated employees outside of the protected class received more favorable treatment. If the plaintiff makes that showing, it is presumed that the defendant engaged in intentional discrimination. The defendant then must produce sufficient evidence that the adverse action was done for a legitimate, non-discriminatory purpose. If the defendant does so, the plaintiff must produce sufficient evidence that the defendant’s proferred reasons are false or are a pretext for discrimination based on the challenged characteristic.
In briefing motion for summary judgment, the parties identify the following facts as undisputed:
• Kuttner is a woman.
• Kuttner was fired from her position as deputy sheriff.
• Prior to her termination, Kuttner was one of 32 female deputy sheriffs in that office, out of a staff of more than 200 deputies.
• The facts described in ¶¶ 2-3 are true and correct.
Kuttner offers the following additional evidence:
• Deposition of Zaruba: Zaruba testified that, prior to this incident, he had no complaints about Kuttner’s job performance and that she had never been the subject of charges or disciplinary proceedings.
• Annual Performance Evaluations: Covering every year of employment for which she was evaluated (1998-2009). In every report, she is rated “Satisfactory” or “Superior.” Her marks on individual performance measures were almost all “Meets Expectations” or “Exceeds Expectations.”
Kuttner offers evidence of three male officers who committed alleged misconduct, as follows:
• Deputy Morgan: Made two personal visits, while in uniform, to a female inmate in the county jail; he was referred to the Commission and received a written reprimand. Allowed his girlfriend to dress in his uniform for Halloween and paraded her around a crowded bar; he was referred to the Commission, but not reprimanded or otherwise sanctioned.
• Sergeant Moore: Held night employment as a bouncer at a bar; he was referred to the Commission and was issued a written reprimand and instructed to quit the second job. There is no evidence that he wore his uniform while working as a bouncer, although it was known to his employers that he was an off-duty police officer. Moore also entered a romantic relationship with a domestic-violence victim, who he met while arresting her husband. The relationship began less than one week after the arrest; Moore was in uniform when he affected the arrest. Moore was not referred to the Commission or otherwise reprimanded over this matter.
• Deputy Zbilski: Distributed expired jail commissary food to an indigent female inmate. He also hired an ineligible inmate to run the commissary. He was not referred to the Commission.
In support of the motion for summary judgment, Zaruba states in an Affidavit:
• I fired Deputy Kuttner on the recommendation of the Merit Commission.
• I agreed with the Merit Commission’s recommendation that firing was warranted.
• Deputy Kuttner’s misconduct involved confronting a citizen, while in uniform, and demanding money owed to her boyfriend. Doing this in uniform improperly projected to that citizen coercive police authority in pursuit of personal or private goals. That is a flagrant abuse of the uniform and police authority. It is a flagrant violation of department regulations and of appropriate law-enforcement conduct that warranted dismissal.
The applicable substantive law is described in ¶ 5.
Section A: Argue for the defendant that summary judgment should be granted.
Section C: Argue for the plaintiff that summary judgment should be denied.