545 F.3d 260 (4th Cir. 2008), 07-1442, Lightner v. City of Wilmington, North Carolina

Docket Nº:07-1442.
Citation:545 F.3d 260
Party Name:James J. LIGHTNER, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. CITY OF WILMINGTON, NORTH CAROLINA; Tandy Carter, Acting Chief of Police for the Wilmington Police Department; Bruce Hickman, Interim Chief of Police for the Wilmington Police Department; Sterling Cheatham, City Manager for the City of Wilmington, Defendants-Appellees.
Case Date:November 03, 2008
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

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545 F.3d 260 (4th Cir. 2008)

James J. LIGHTNER, Plaintiff-Appellant,

v.

CITY OF WILMINGTON, NORTH CAROLINA; Tandy Carter, Acting Chief of Police for the Wilmington Police Department; Bruce Hickman, Interim Chief of Police for the Wilmington Police Department; Sterling Cheatham, City Manager for the City of Wilmington, Defendants-Appellees.

No. 07-1442.

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit.

November 3, 2008

Argued: Sept. 24, 2008.

Page 261

ARGUED:

Stephen Edward Culbreth, Culbreth Law Firm, Wilmington, North Carolina, for Appellant.

Page 262

Bruce Danforth Morton, Hedrick & Morton, L.L.P., Wilmington, North Carolina, for Appellees.

ON BRIEF:

Ashley C. Council, Culbreth Law Firm, Wilmington, North Carolina, for Appellant.

Before WILKINSON, Circuit Judge, HAMILTON, Senior Circuit Judge, and JAMES C. CACHERIS, Senior United States District Judge for the Eastern District of Virginia, sitting by designation.

Affirmed by published opinion. Judge WILKINSON wrote the opinion, in which Senior Judge HAMILTON and Senior Judge CACHERIS joined.

OPINION

WILKINSON, Circuit Judge:

The plaintiff in this case claims he faced discrimination on account of race and gender, and he appeals the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of his employer. At the same time, he charges that his employer's action was actually an attempt to cover up the employer's own wrongdoing. In so doing, plaintiff has pleaded himself right out of court. Title VII was enacted to prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, gender, and other legislatively enumerated grounds. It is not a statute intended to police standards of general fairness in the workplace, or even to protect against the firing of an employee in order to cover up wrongdoing by an employer. If it were interpreted in such an omnibus fashion, it would dilute the noble purposes for which Congress enacted it. We thus affirm the district court's grant of summary judgment.

I.

James J. Lightner claims that he was suspended from the Wilmington Police Department in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq. , and 42 U.S.C. § § 1981 and 1983. He is a white male who, at the time of the incident, was 53 years old and serving as a lieutenant in the Wilmington Police Department (“ WPD" ), where he had worked for over 25 years.

In 2003, he was promoted to Acting Division Commander of the Professional Standards Division where he was responsible for department ethics including the investigation of misconduct by WPD officers. As Acting Division Commander of the Professional Standards Division, he began an internal investigation into whether WPD officers were failing to report automobile accidents in an effort to make the city look better. Shortly after Lightner started the ethics investigation, three of the officers who were being investigated claimed that Lightner himself had committed an ethics violation-specifically, that he had pressured them into dismissing individuals' traffic tickets. Lightner concedes that on occasion he asked ticketing officers to help certain people whom they had ticketed, but maintains that he did not inappropriately pressure them.

On February 5, 2004, Acting Police Chief Tandy Carter and Acting Deputy Policy Chief Bruce Hickman informed Lightner of the ticket fixing allegations against him and placed him on paid administrative leave for three weeks so that the Human Resources Department could investigate his conduct. After the investigation, Hickman informed Lightner by letters on February 17 and 19, 2004 that he had violated various Department Rules by asking subordinate officers to fix tickets. The February 19th letter also recognized that ticket fixing was widespread in the WPD, but noted that Lightner had approached the ticketing officers as both a superior officer and as the Acting Division Commander of the Professional Standards Division. The letter went on to say that

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given his role in the Professional Standards Division, Lightner's conduct “ should be beyond reproach for professional and ethical behavior." Accordingly, he was suspended without pay for one week until his previously announced retirement date on March 1, 2004. Lightner appealed the suspension to City Manager Sterling Cheatham who upheld it.

Lightner then filed suit in North Carolina state court against the City of Wilmington, Acting Police Chief Carter, Acting Deputy Police Chief Hickman, and City Manager Cheatham alleging that they had discriminated against him in violation of Title VII, § 1981, and § 1983. Specifically, he alleged that by disciplining him for ticket fixing more harshly than a younger, female African American officer, they had discriminated against him on the basis of race, gender, and age. Defendants removed the case to United States District Court in the Eastern District of North Carolina.

After discovery, the defendants moved for summary judgment. The district court granted the defendants' motion over a contrary recommendation from the magistrate judge. The court concluded that plaintiff had not presented evidence from which a jury could find that any disparate treatment was the result of race or gender discrimination. Plaintiff had established only a weak prima facie case of discrimination and, moreover, had admitted that the real reason for his suspension was to...

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