Puckett v. City of Portsmouth, Civil Action No. 2:03cv747.

Decision Date30 September 2005
Docket NumberCivil Action No. 2:03cv747.
Citation391 F.Supp.2d 423
CourtU.S. District Court — Eastern District of Virginia
PartiesRhonda PUCKETT, Plaintiff, v. CITY OF PORTSMOUTH, Defendant.

John Michael Loeschen, The Krasnow Law Firm, Roanoke, VA, for Plaintiff.

Heather Ann Mullen, Kaufman & Canoles PC, Norfolk, VA, for Defendant.


KELLEY, District Judge.

Plaintiff Rhonda Puckett voluntarily resigned as a trainee with the Police Department of defendant City of Portsmouth, Virginia (the "City"). She subsequently filed this action against the City alleging, among other things, that she suffered employment discrimination and was subjected to a hostile work environment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e et seq., and in violation of 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981 and 1983. The matter is now before the Court on the City's Motion for Summary Judgment. (Docket No. 8.) For the reasons stated below, the Motion is GRANTED.

I. Factual and Procedural History

Puckett is an African-American female and former employee of the City's Police Department. Puckett was employed by the City as a police officer trainee in July 2002. As part of her training, Puckett attended an orientation program in which she received a copy of the City's anti-harassment policy. The City's anti-harassment policy prohibits, among other things, racial harassment, including "epithets, slurs, negative stereotyping, or threatening, intimidating, or hostile acts that relate to race."

In October 2002, Puckett graduated from the Hampton Roads Criminal Justice Training Academy and was promoted to the position of police officer. At that time, Puckett received a "pay grade increase," resulting in an increase in her base salary. At no time during her employment with the City did Puckett experience a decrease in her salary and wages. Puckett's employment benefits remained the same throughout the entire term of her employment.

From October 2002 through December 2002, Puckett attended the Portsmouth Police Training Academy for additional specialized training. Following the completion of her training, Puckett entered into the Police Department's "field training program." As part of this program, police recruits are assigned on a rotating basis by the Training Department to work in the field with experienced "field training officers." Although field training officers evaluate the work performance of the trainees assigned to them, they do not make decisions concerning the trainees' employment or compensation. Field training officers cannot hire, fire, promote, demote, or discipline any of their trainees.

From February 15, 2003 through March 14, 2003, Puckett was assigned to work with Field Training Officer Steve Walker. At the time, Puckett was the only African-American female trainee participating in the field training program. It was during this time period that three incidents occurred which form the basis of Puckett's claims.

On February 20, 2003, Puckett was driving a police vehicle with Officer Walker seated next to her in the front passenger seat. As Puckett drove through the City, Officer Walker asked her various questions concerning their current geographic location, nearby landmarks, and directions. After Puckett answered several of his questions incorrectly, Officer Walker rolled up a newspaper and used it to strike Puckett three times on the top of her head. (Puckett Dep. 36-39.) Officer Walker struck Puckett with the newspaper in a "[v]ery hard" manner, bringing tears to her eyes. (Puckett Dep. 38-39.)

Some time after February 20, 2003, Puckett and Officer Walker were dispatched to the scene of a house burglary. While at the scene, Puckett "had a lot of fingerprint dust on [her] face" after she had dusted several items for fingerprints. (Puckett Dep. 40-41.) After Puckett and Officer Walker returned to their police vehicle, Officer Walker told Puckett, "You look like a black man slapped you in the face. You need to clean that off." (Puckett Dep. 41.)

March 14, 2003, was Puckett's last day of field training with Officer Walker. Puckett was again driving a police vehicle with Officer Walker seated next to her in the front passenger seat. As Puckett was driving, Officer Walker asked her the address of a certain house. When Puckett gave an incorrect answer, Officer Walker "punched" her in her right arm. (Puckett Dep. 50.) Although Officer Walker had punched Puckett "[v]ery hard," resulting in Puckett being "[p]ushed ... over," Puckett's arm was not bruised. (Puckett Dep. 50-51.) When Puckett objected to Officer Walker's conduct, he replied that Puckett "deserved it."1 (Puckett Dep. 51.)

On March 15, 2003, Puckett was assigned to a different field training officer as part of the normal rotation in the field training program. On March 16, 2003, Puckett "called in sick" and did not report to work.

On March 17, 2003, Puckett reported to work and met with two of her supervisors, Lieutenant Althea Floriano, the Director of Training, and Sergeant Sean Dunn, the Assistant Director of Training. Puckett informed Lieutenant Floriano and Sergeant Dunn of the three incidents involving Officer Walker. After Puckett informed them of her complaint, Lieutenant Floriano and Sergeant Dunn suggested that Puckett could go home for the rest of the day, which she did. Lieutenant Floriano and Sergeant Dunn "immediately decided" that no further trainees would be assigned to Officer Walker until an investigation was completed. (Floriano Affidavit ¶ 6.)

On March 18, 2003, Puckett used another "sick day" and did not report to work. On March 19, 2003, Puckett submitted a letter of resignation to the interim chief of police, Lieutenant Floriano, and Sergeant Dunn. (Puckett Dep. Ex. 10.) In her letter, Puckett stated that her resignation was "effective immediately." (Puckett Dep. Ex. 10.) Lieutenant Floriano told Puckett that Puckett would "regret" her decision. (Puckett Dep. 75.)

Puckett never asked to return to her employment with the Police Department. In July 2003, Puckett filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging, among other things, that she had been discriminated against on the basis of her race.

In October 2003, following completion of the investigation into Puckett's allegations, the Police Department determined that "Officer Walker had acted in an inappropriate and discourteous manner towards Officer Puckett, and that he had failed to comply with applicable City and Police Department policies." (Kitzerow Affidavit ¶ 6.) The Police Department formally relieved Officer Walker from his field training officer position, resulting in a reduction in Officer Walker's pay and the loss of certain privileges. Officer Walker was also suspended from work for three days without pay. These disciplinary actions will have an impact on Officer Walker's potential to qualify for future promotions.

In November 2003, Chief Kitzerow sent Puckett a letter informing her that a "thorough investigation" had been conducted in response to her allegations. (Puckett Dep. Ex. 11.) Chief Kitzerow further informed Puckett of the Police Department's conclusion that Officer Walker had "acted in an inappropriate and discourteous manner" toward her. Although Chief Kitzerow assured Puckett that "appropriate remedial and corrective action" had been taken against Officer Walker, he did not specify the disciplinary action that was taken. (Puckett Dep. Ex. 11.)

In October 2003, prior to receiving Chief Kitzerow's letter, Puckett filed the instant action, alleging, among other things, that the City violated her rights under Title VII and under sections 1981 and 1983. The gravamen of Puckett's claims is that she suffered an "adverse employment action" when the City failed to inform her promptly of the action it would take against Officer Walker to remedy the alleged discrimination. Puckett contends that "[i]t is an adverse employment action for an employer to sit idly by and do nothing." (Pl. Memo. in Resp. 11 — Docket No. 13.)

Puckett testified in deposition that when she informed Lieutenant Floriano and Sergeant Dunn of her allegations against Officer Walker, Sergeant Dunn stated to her, "I don't believe Steve Walker is a racist." (Puckett Dep. 69-71.) According to Puckett, she replied to Sergeant Dunn, "I never said he was." (Puckett Dep. 69-70.)

Puckett further testified that Lieutenant Floriano told her that when she was a recruit, she "used to get hit all the time, but [she] just sucked it up." (Puckett Dep. 71-72.) Puckett also stated that when she explained to Renae Galimore of the City's Human Resources Department the reasons for her resignation, Galimore told Puckett, "Steve Walker is a racist and ... you need to take this all the way to the chief." (Puckett Dep. 85-86.)

Puckett testified that neither Lieutenant Floriano nor Sergeant Dunn informed her of what action, if any, they proposed to take in response to her allegations. (Puckett Dep. 72.) However, Puckett did not ask them about "any specific actions" they might pursue. (Puckett Dep. 72, 144-45.) Puckett claimed that she felt "forced to resign" because of "field intimidation" due to the fact that she was still in field training and that Officer Walker was an eight-year veteran with the Police Department. (Puckett Dep. 78.)

Puckett further testified that she thought that Officer Walker's conduct toward her was based on race because of his reference to a "black man" during the fingerprint incident and because she did not hear any other recruits complain about similar conduct from either Officer Walker or the other field training officers. (Puckett Dep. 41, 53.) However, Puckett conceded that she did not know if any other recruits, whether African-American or Caucasian, had been exposed to similar conduct, and she had not even asked any of them whether they endured...

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