Federal Appeals Court upholds ruling favoring Vance County over fired sheriff’s deputy

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  • The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed a lower court ruling against a fired Vance County sheriff's deputy.
  • The fired deputy had claimed retaliation, disparate treatment, and a hostile work environment based on race and sexual orientation.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed a lower court’s ruling against a fired Vance County sheriff’s deputy. The deputy had made claims against the county and sheriff including retaliation, disparate treatment, and a hostile work environment based on race and sexual orientation.

“Justin White’s tenure as a sheriff’s deputy was short and troubled,” according to the unanimous unsigned seven-page opinion.

White’s problems started in 2018, when he told a supervisor “won’t nobody going to tell him what to do” about his job performance. That incident led to an official reprimand and five-day suspension.

White later made false statements about activating his blue lights during a traffic stop in which he backed into another car, according to the 4th Circuit opinion. He then broke a woman’s arm during an arrest on an “old arrest warrant for suspected shoplifting.”

Two days after the last incident, the sheriff accepted a senior officer’s recommendation to fire White.

While still working in the sheriff’s department, White had filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint against the sheriff, “claiming retaliation and disparate treatment based on his race and sex,” according to the 4th Circuit.

“After being fired, White filed an amended EEOC charge containing two new allegations,” according to the opinion. “First, White alleged a higher-ranking officer called him gay and made a lewd joke about White’s sexual orientation, for which the officer soon apologized. Second, White alleged finding a purple unicorn hat in his mailbox.”

White sued the county, sheriff’s office, sheriff, and two other employees. “Black employees at the sheriff’s office were subject to critical and hostile comments,” according to the fired deputy’s updated complaint.

U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle ruled in favor of all defendants in the case.

“The district court correctly dismissed White’s claims against the county on the ground it was not White’s employer,” according to the opinion. “Although White emphasizes the county hosted an employee orientation, gave White a personnel manual, and paid White’s salary, his argument faces an insurmountable problem. North Carolina vests sheriffs (not counties) with ‘the exclusive right to hire, discharge, and supervise the employees in [their] office[s],” and ‘North Carolina courts interpret this statute to preclude county liability for personnel decisions made by sheriffs.’”

“We also conclude the district court properly granted summary judgment for the remaining defendants.”

The court rejected White’s claims of a hostile work environment, including his description of co-workers using the n-word on a handful of occasions. “White does not show the words here were received as racial epithets, nor does he demonstrate any of the statements were made or blessed by anyone with supervisory authority over him,” the 4th Circuit judges wrote. “Similarly, White’s sex-based hostile work environment claim fails because two isolated instances of teasing (one of which was followed by an apology) are not severe or pervasive enough to alter White’s conditions of employment.”

The judges also panned the fired deputy’s claim of disparate treatment. “White’s performance was not satisfactory, and the circumstances of his termination do not give rise to a discriminatory inference.”

Nor can White succeed in claiming retaliation, according to the opinion. “There is a four-month gap between White’s protected activity (complaining to the sheriff about perceived Title VII violations) and his adverse employment action (being fired), which is too long to support an inference of causation.”

“[T]he sheriff has consistently (and plausibly) maintained White was fired because he broke a woman’s arm — the culmination of an otherwise unsuccessful stint at the sheriff’s office,” according to the opinion.

Judges Toby Heytens, Paul Niemeyer, and Allison Jones Rushing decided the case.