Daza v. Indiana, No. 18-3102 (7th Cir. 2019)

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Justia Opinion Summary

Daza worked for the Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) as a geologist for 23 years. In 2011, Daza expressed concerns that another employee was denied promotion because of his political affiliation. In 2013, Daza complained about a commissioner’s misuse of political office. About a month later Daza received his first reprimand, for refusing to answer calls after hours. In 2014, he again complained about the treatment of another employee. A supervisor complained about Daza’s “professionalism.” Daza had multiple disagreements with supervisors and was ultimately terminated “because his behavior consistently defied INDOT culture and expectations.” Daza filed suit, alleging that his firing was unlawful. The Seventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment for the defendants, rejecting claims under 42 U.S.C. 1983 that alleged violation of Daza’s First Amendment rights by discriminating and retaliating against him for his political activities and affiliation. Daza presented a long string of facts occurring over four years but presented no evidence that his alleged political activities or affiliation motivated his firing. The evidence actually shows that management had taken issue with Daza’s conduct for years, and the decision to fire him was made after his offensive comments during a training session.

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In the United States Court of Appeals For the Seventh Circuit ____________________ No. 18 3102 PETER DAZA, Plaintiff Appellant, v. STATE OF INDIANA, et al., Defendants Appellees. ____________________ Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division. No. 17 cv 0316 — Jane Magnus Stinson, Chief Judge. ____________________ ARGUED SEPTEMBER 10, 2019 — DECIDED OCTOBER 24, 2019 ____________________ Before WOOD, Chief Judge, and KANNE and BRENNAN, Cir cuit Judges. KANNE, Circuit Judge. After the Indiana Department of Transportation (“INDOT”) fired Peter Daza from his position as a geologist, Daza filed various claims against the State of Indiana and INDOT employees, alleging that his firing was unlawful. The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants on all Daza’s claims. Daza appeals only the grant of summary judgment on his claims under 42 2 No. 18 3102 U.S.C. § 1983. Those claims alleged that the defendants vio lated his First Amendment rights by discriminating and retal iating against him for his political activities and a liation. Be cause Daza has failed to show that any of his alleged pro tected activities or political a liation motivated his firing, we a rm. I. BACKGROUND Peter Daza began working for INDOT in 1993. During his twenty two year tenure, he worked in INDOT’s Vincennes District both as a geologist and as a supervisor. As a geologist, Daza tested construction materials to ensure they complied with INDOT standards. As a supervisor, Daza oversaw the work of other INDOT employees. Daza had not received any formal discipline until after a change in leadership that occurred in September 2009. At that time, a former Republican Indiana State Representative, Troy Woodru , was appointed District Deputy Commissioner of INDOT’s Vincennes District. Almost a year later, Woodru was promoted to Chief of Operations, and Woodru ’s friend, Russell Fowler, replaced Woodru as Vincennes’s Deputy Commissioner. Daza alleges the political discrimination began two years later, in 2011. INDOT employees learned that one of Daza’s supervisees, Terry Go , had posted political statements on his private Facebook page. One employee asked Daza to speak with Go about the posts, expressing concern that the posts might inhibit Go ’s ability to obtain a promotion. Later that year, in August 2011, Go interviewed for and was denied a promotion. Upset with this decision, Go told the Director of Technical Services, Valerie Cockrum, that he No. 18 3102 3 felt disrespected by an interviewer who had texted during the interview. But Daza had his own theory about why Go did not receive the promotion: politics. Daza voiced this concern to Cockrum five days after Go ’s complaint, claiming that Go was consistently passed over for promotions because of his connections to the Democratic party. Cockrum responded that she would keep Daza’s complaint to herself, and she commended Daza for his honesty and loyalty. Go ’s troubles continued throughout 2011. Daza, who completed a performance appraisal of Go every year, gave Go an initial overall rating of “outstanding.” But because Woodru and Fowler disagreed with this assessment, Go ’s final 2011 appraisal reflected an overall performance rating of “exceeds expectations,” one level below his original “out standing” rating. The next year and a half passed without incident. Around February 2013, Chief of Operations Woodru was involved in a public scandal. It was discovered that he had previously failed to disclose his financial interest in land purchased by INDOT. This scandal received public attention and was dis cussed by employees at INDOT’s Vincennes District. Daza complained to Cockrum about Woodru ’s misuse of political o ce. One month after his complaint, Daza received his first written reprimand. The Vincennes District had been unusu ally busy due to construction on I 69, so Fowler required em ployees with an INDOT issued cell phone to be available for calls after business hours. Daza did not take kindly to this re quirement. He complained and told other employees that it was not a part of his job to work overtime. Daza’s supervisor, Brent Schmitt, heard about these complaints and approached 4 No. 18 3102 Daza directly to ask him to answer calls after hours. Daza re peatedly told Schmitt he would not answer these calls, but ul timately agreed to comply with this request. Schmitt issued Daza a written reprimand for his insubordinate and defiant behavior. Still, 2013 was not all bad for Daza. Even with the written reprimand, Daza received praise in his annual performance appraisal. The report complimented Daza’s willingness to help others and his ability to arrive at data based solutions. But it also reflected Daza’s struggles to remain professional with his colleagues. Daza received an overall performance rating of “meets expectations” in 2013. The following year, Daza again defended Go from al leged political discrimination. In March 2014, Go declined to help snow plow because of a shingles flare up. Schmitt alerted Daza to this situation, noting that INDOT would both request a doctor’s note and issue Go a formal warning that could lead to disciplinary action. Daza took issue with this treat ment of Go , and he complained to Cockrum that Go is “ob viously a target and they are trying to come at him with a take no prisoners attitude.” The same day Daza made this complaint, Nina Daniel, a Human Resources Manager, emailed another employee about Daza. In that email, Daniel mentioned that Daza’s supervisor, Schmitt, had discussed Daza’s behavior with her: Schmitt told Daniel that Daza’s job knowledge is “one of the best in the state” but that Daza’s professionalism had been described as a “cancer on the department.” Daniel’s email also pointed out that there was “little on [Daza’s] file discipline wise,” but there was evidence of a pattern of behavior. No. 18 3102 5 Tensions between Daza and Schmitt continued to run high. Later that month, in March 2014, Daza emailed Cockrum expressing discontent with Schmitt. Daza implied that Schmitt never comes to work and even suggested that Schmitt should quit. Then Daza took issue directly with Cockrum, who had recently asked Daza to mentor another INDOT geologist in a di erent district. Daza alleged that Cockrum gave him this task to set him up for future bad eval uations. Daza expected that his days with INDOT were num bered. The following month, INDOT hired T.J. Brink, a Republi can City Council member, as Vincennes’s Safety Director. This hiring, Daza argues, stands in stark contrast to how INDOT treated Daza. Brink had no experience in safety, and his only professional experience was as a Director of Business Development. Yet, Fowler was “anxious” to o er Brink the position. (Appellant’s Br. at 9.) Fowler just needed to deter mine if there was an ethical problem with hiring a current City Council member. There was not, and Brink was hired. Over a year later, management again took issue with Daza’s behavior. On November 22, 2015, Daza’s mother pub lished a letter to the editor with a regional newspaper, criti cizing then Indiana Governor Pence’s position on immigra tion. Daza discussed this letter with Cockrum and other INDOT employees. A few days later, Brink went to Cockrum with concerns about Daza’s behavior. Brink complained that Daza checked out a respirator after being told during training not to use it. Cockrum pointed out the respirator was checked out before Daza was given this instruction. Still, Brink com plained about Daza’s responses to questions during the 6 No. 18 3102 training. Cockrum met with Daza and warned him not to fur ther antagonize Brink. About a week later, on December 1, 2015, Daza attended the first day of a training class scheduled for multiple days that month. Daza alleges the trainer did not like him. The trainer did take issue with Daza’s behavior during the ses sion. In her notes, the trainer stated that Daza refused to pay attention and closed his eyes several times, that he refused to participate in training activities, and that she heard Daza refer to part of the training as “f_ _ _ _ ing gay.” The trainer’s su pervisor emailed these notes to Human Resources and stated that she had concerns about Daza attending the second train ing class scheduled for December 9. After receiving this information, Human Resources em ployees discussed with Fowler how to move forward with Daza. Human Resources Manager Daniel noted that Daza’s past behavior could be considered arrogant and insubordi nate. She said that INDOT had previously terminated a dif ferent employee for a continued pattern of negative behavior. However, due to a lack of progressive discipline in Daza’s past, another employee recommended only a three to five day suspension. In the same discussion, Fowler—who was the ultimate authority on employment decisions—indicated that he was ready to proceed with termination. On December 7, 2015, Daza emailed employees he super vised, telling them they had been nominated for a bonus based on their recent work performance. Daza understood that these bonuses are meant to surprise employees and that the bonuses could still be denied. But Daza had sent these emails for years, and Human Resources never took issue with the practice. This time, Daniel expressed to another employee No. 18 3102 7 concerns about Daza’s December 7 emails. She questioned how it would make management look if the bonus was later denied. The next day, December 8, 2015, Cockrum notified Daza that he should not attend the second day of training on De cember 9. Daza asked for more information but was told to wait until a December 10 meeting with Fowler. At the December 10 meeting, Fowler informed Daza his employment was being terminated. Fowler made this deci sion without input from Daza’s supervisor and without al lowing Daza to respond to the allegations against him. Daza received a memo explaining that he was fired because his be havior consistently defied INDOT culture and expectations. The memo recalled his 2013 written reprimand, 2013 perfor mance appraisal, and behavior during the December 1, 2015 training session. Daza filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Indiana Civil Rights Commission. He claimed INDOT discriminated against him due to his race, color, age, and disability. One day later, he filed a similar Civil Service Employee Complaint with the Indiana State Personnel Department. Daza then initiated this lawsuit in the Southern District of Indiana, bringing various claims against the State of Indiana, Fowler, Daniel, and Cockrum. He alleged that he was discrim inated and retaliated against based on his race, color, age, po litical speech, and political a liation. Specifically, Daza brought claims under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981, 1983; the First and Fourteenth Amendments; the Age Discrimination and Em ployment Act, 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq.; and the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq. The defendants 8 No. 18 3102 moved for, and the court granted, summary judgment on all counts. Daza appealed the district court’s grant of summary judg ment to the defendants on his § 1983 political discrimination and political retaliation claims. II. ANALYSIS Summary judgment is appropriate when there is no dis pute of material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). We review grants of summary judgment de novo and construe all facts and reason able inferences in a light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Monroe v. Ind. Dep’t of Transp., 871 F.3d 495, 503 (7th Cir. 2017). But this “favor toward the nonmoving party does not extend to drawing ‘inferences that are supported by only speculation or conjecture.’” Argyropoulos v. City of Alton, 539 F.3d 724, 732 (7th Cir. 2008) (quoting Fischer v. Avanade, Inc., 519 F.3d 393, 401 (7th Cir. 2008)). Daza argues that INDOT’s series of acts, culminating in his firing, amounts to a violation of his First Amendment rights. The First Amendment prohibits public employers from firing an employee based on that employee’s constitutionally protected political conduct. See Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347, 357 (1976). Daza argues that his employer’s conduct amounts to both political discrimination and retaliation under the First Amendment. To establish a prima facie claim of First Amend ment political discrimination, a plainti must show: (1) that the plainti ’s conduct is constitutionally protected; and (2) that the protected conduct was a motivating factor in the em ployer’s actions. Bisluk v. Hamer, 800 F.3d 928, 933 (7th Cir. 2015). To state a prima facie claim of First Amendment political No. 18 3102 9 retaliation, the plainti must additionally show a deprivation likely to deter free speech. Yahnke v. Kane Cty., 823 F.3d 1066, 1070 (7th Cir. 2016). Here, Daza’s discrimination and retaliation claims each fail because he has not shown that his alleged protected con duct motivated his firing. We therefore need not decide whether his defenses of Go and discussions about his mother’s letter to the editor are constitutionally protected and—for his retaliation claim—whether he su ered a depri vation likely to deter free speech. To show that protected conduct was a motivating factor in the employer’s action, a plainti must demonstrate a causal connection between the conduct and the employer’s action. Graber v. Clarke, 763 F.3d 888, 899 (7th Cir. 2014). As a thresh old matter, the plainti must show that the defendant was aware of the protected conduct. See Hall v. Babb, 389 F.3d 758, 762 (7th Cir. 2004). If the defendant was aware of the conduct, a causal connection can then be demonstrated by suspicious timing alone only when the employer’s action follows on the close heels of protected expression. Lalvani v. Cook Cty., 269 F.3d 785, 790 (7th Cir. 2001) (“As the time separating the pro tected conduct and the adverse employment action grows, the causal inference weakens and eventually time becomes the plainti ’s enemy.”). For an employer’s actions to be on the close heels of an employee’s conduct, thus allowing an infer ence of causation based on timing alone, we “typically allow no more than a few days to elapse.” Kidwell v. Eisenhauer, 679 F.3d 957, 966 (7th Cir. 2012). But this is a context specific anal ysis with no formal legal rule. Id. When suspicious timing alone is insu cient to carry the plainti ’s burden, a plainti may “survive summary 10 No. 18 3102 judgment if there is other evidence that supports the inference of a causal link.” Culver v. Gorman & Co., 416 F.3d 540, 546 (7th Cir. 2005). In an attempt to satisfy this burden, Daza alleges political discrimination and retaliation spanning four years. Daza claims that his mistreatment began two years after Republi cans Woodru and Fowler became leaders in the Vincennes District. After years without any incidents, Daza believes three protected political acts motivated his firing: (1) his de fenses of Go , a Democrat he supervised, (2) his mother’s let ter to the editor criticizing a Republican Governor, and (3) his status as a Democrat. Daza claims that complaints about his behavior occurred after, and because of, his alleged political activities during this time. But for the reasons discussed be low, the evidence does not demonstrate that Daza’s alleged protected political activities were a motivating factor in his firing. Consequently, Daza has failed to satisfy his burden on an element of his claims. A. Defenses of Go First, Daza has failed to connect his defenses of Go to his firing. He argues that his two separate defenses of Go were a motivating factor in Fowler’s decision to terminate his em ployment. Daza defended Go from perceived political discrimina tion in August 2011 and again in March 2014 when Go re fused to snow plow because of shingles. Daza was fired De cember 10, 2015, more than a year after his most recent de fense of Go , and four years after his first defense of Go . Daza’s firing occurred well after both events, not on the close heels of them. Lalvani, 269 F.3d at 790. And Daza o ers no No. 18 3102 11 additional evidence showing these acts motivated his firing. The memo explaining Daza’s firing, as well as internal com munications, did not mention these occurrences. In fact, his defenses of Go never led to disciplinary action. Time is Daza’s enemy here, and he cannot show that defending Go motivated his firing. B. Letter to the Editor Daza also has not established that his mother’s letter to the editor contributed to his firing. Daza alleges that being fired weeks after discussing his mother’s letter to the editor with INDOT employees is evidence of a causal connection. He ad ditionally points out that Cockrum and Fowler did not re spond negatively to Daza’s practice of emailing bonus nomi nees until after his mother’s letter to the editor. But for this theory to have legs, Fowler would need to be aware of the letter and Daza’s connection to it. See Hall, 389 F.3d at 762. Fowler’s signed declaration states that he did not learn about Daza’s mother’s letter until after he fired Daza, and Daza fails to present any contrary evidence. So, as a threshold matter, Daza fails to show Fowler was aware of this alleged protected activity. Daza’s mother’s letter to the editor, and Daza’s discussion of the letter with INDOT employees, were therefore not a motivating factor in his firing. C. Political A liation Finally, Daza cannot show his status as a Democrat moti vated his firing. Political a liation is protected by the First Amendment. Hagan v. Quinn, 867 F.3d 816, 824 (7th Cir. 2017). But to prove discrimination based on political a liation, a plainti must present evidence relevant to the question of whether the plainti ’s political a liation was a motivating 12 No. 18 3102 factor in their employer’s action. See Brown v. Cty. of Cook, 661 F.3d 333, 336 (7th Cir. 2011). In Brown, we held that a sergeant in a sheri ’s o ce failed to show his political a liation was a motivating factor in the sheri ’s decision to not promote him. Id. at 338. We specifi cally noted that most of the evidence Brown tendered was ir relevant to whether the sheri considered political a liation in the decision to not promote Brown. Id. at 336. For example, Brown presented as evidence of discrimination his ability to accurately predict upcoming promotions before they were an nounced. Id. at 338. But this evidence had nothing to do with political a liation, and even suggested that the promotions were based on objective criteria rather than political party. Id. Here, Daza claims to have a significant amount of evi dence showing his status as a Democrat motivated his firing. He argues that his defenses of Go and his mother’s letter to the editor, in addition to a long list of other workplace occur rences, are all evidence that he was fired because of his polit ical a liation. The evidence Daza provides in support of this claim includes: Daza’s various written and verbal complaints to Cockrum; Fowler’s treatment of Daza compared to the hir ing of Brink; INDOT’s failure to progressively discipline Daza; Brink’s and Fowler’s complaints about Daza’s behavior following his mother’s letter to the editor; the trainer’s com ments on Daza’s behavior shortly after his mother’s letter to the editor; Daniel’s complaint about Daza’s emails, sent on December 7, 2015, to potential bonus recipients; and Fowler’s refusal to allow Daza to respond to the allegations against him before terminating his employment. But Daza fails to show how any of this evidence relates to his political a liation. For example, Daza believes that his No. 18 3102 13 various complaints to Cockrum, and her response thanking him for his honesty, are evidence that he was fired because of his political a liation. But Cockrum’s compliment did not reference Daza’s political a liation. In fact, none of her com munications with Daza or Fowler ever referenced Daza’s po litical a liation. Daza also alleges the trainer’s comments on his behavior at the December 1, 2015 training somehow show that Fowler terminated him based on his political a liation. But the trainer’s notes about Daza refer to specific instances from the training and do not mention his political party. Nor does the record show that the trainer was aware of Daza’s political af filiation. So, it does not follow that the trainer’s notes about Daza’s behavioral issues caused Fowler to fire Daza for his political a liation. The trainer’s notes instead suggest that Fowler’s decision to fire Daza was based on a series of inap propriate behavior that culminated in Daza’s o ensive com ments at the December 1 training. Daza similarly believes that Fowler’s refusal to allow Daza to respond to negative allegations, while a ording this oppor tunity to other INDOT employees, is evidence of political dis crimination. But Daza does not produce the names of any spe cific employees who were given an opportunity to respond to allegations before they were fired. And Daza provides no ev idence that Fowler decided who can and cannot respond to allegations based on their political a liation. Instead, the rec ord shows Fowler made the decision to proceed with termi nation based on his frustrations with how Daza, a supervisor, consistently failed to comply with INDOT’s behavioral expec tations. 14 No. 18 3102 Daza’s other alleged evidence of discrimination based on political a liation meets a similar fate. Daza provides a long list of occurrences and simply assumes that they happened because he is a Democrat. But Daza does not present a single piece of evidence relevant to his political a liation. Cf. Brown, 661 F.3d at 336. The evidence presented actually shows that management had taken issue with Daza’s conduct for years, and the decision to fire him was made after his o ensive com ments during the December 1 training. So, Daza has failed to show that his political a liation was a motivating factor in his firing. All the evidence presented by Daza, viewed as a whole and in a light most favorable to Daza, fails to satisfy his bur den of proving his alleged protected activities were a motivat ing factor in INDOT’s decision to fire him. And because Daza has failed to meet his burden on the motivating factor ele ment—a necessity for political discrimination and retaliation claims—we need not address whether he carried his burdens to show that his defenses of Go and discussion of his mother’s letter to the editor are protected by the First Amend ment and (for the retaliation claim) that he su ered a depri vation likely to deter free speech. III. CONCLUSION Daza presented a long string of facts occurring over four years but presented no evidence that his alleged political ac tivities or a liation motivated his firing. So, Daza has failed to prove an element of his political retaliation and discrimina tion claims. The district court correctly granted summary judgment to the defendants on those claims. We therefore AFFIRM the judgment of the district court.
Primary Holding
Plaintiff, a former Indiana Department of Transportation employee, presented a long string of facts occurring over four years but presented no evidence that his alleged political activities or affiliation motivated his firing.

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