Part of a federal lawsuit by a former Darien Police Department officer brought against his supervisors at the DPD regarding racial discrimination can continue, but other sections got tossed Tuesday by U.S. District Judge Lisa Godbey Wood.
Korone Robinson filed his complaint in August 2017, and in it — among other claims — he states that he was unfairly disciplined by his supervisors because he, a black man, began a relationship with Stacy Miller, a white female and colleague at the department. Miller has her own ongoing federal lawsuit regarding these matters.
A significant portion of the argument is whether DPD Chief Donnie Howard, along with Ryan Alexander and Joseph Creswell, were covered by qualified immunity in their individual capacities. The immunity question deals with their liability under the Equal Protection Clause and Robinson’s 1st Amendment right to intimate association.
Wood cites a 2002 case from the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in defining qualified immunity, which is “complete protection for government officials sued in their individual capacities if their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person should have known.”
The 11th Circuit states there’s a two-pronged approach, in which the defense has to show the alleged misconduct occurred while acting in scope of their discretionary authority. If they do, then the plaintiff has to prove the defendant violated clearly established law.
Wood wrote that Alexander and Howard were operating within their discretionary authority for a initial reprimand and suspension, and the later termination. The reprimand and three-day suspension came in February 2016, after Howard ordered Robinson and Miller to stop riding in the same DPD vehicle. Alexander, as Robinson’s immediate supervisor, had the authority to ensure the order was carried out, and later imposing disciplinary measures.
“What the record shows is that even if other discriminatory reasons motivated plaintiff’s reprimand and suspension, that punishment was motivated, at least in part, by the fact that he rode in the car with Miller without notifying Alexander against Alexander’s order,” Wood wrote.
She also cited a 1997 11th Circuit opinion that held even allowing for racial discrimination being part of the motivation for the February discipline, because it was also motivated in part by lawful considerations that “a reasonable official” would use to enact the same discipline, the discrimination claim doesn’t hold up.
However, Wood ruled Alexander and Howard are not covered as it pertains to a May 2016 demotion of Robinson to patrol.
“Turning to the two-week suspension in May 2016, the court reaches the opposite conclusion because the record does not indisputably show that Alexander’s suspension was motivated at least in part by lawful considerations,” Wood wrote. “Alexander’s justification for suspending plaintiff for two weeks was plaintiff’s alleged participation in a drug raid with the Mclntosh County Sheriff’s Office against Alexander’s order to not work with the sheriff’s office.
“However, plaintiff asserts that he did not participate in the raid; instead, he only met up with officers to socialize at the staging area. Two witnesses corroborated plaintiff’s assertion. Thus, under plaintiff’s version of events, he was suspended for something that he did not do.”
The next issue is Robinson’s constitutional right to intimate association. There are many problems with conflicting dates about Robinson’s relationship with Miller, when it began, and the status of her previous marriage. Wood stated the 11th Circuit had yet to rule at the time of this case whether extramarital affairs come under the intimate association right, so she doesn’t grant that coverage here.
But using the date of Miller’s divorce in the timeline of DPD disciplinary actions taken against Robinson, the February actions and the May suspension came while Miller was still married, so Wood granted qualified immunity to Alexander and Howard regarding that allegation. The demotion to patrol and termination came after the divorce, when Robinson and Howard were in a constitutionally protected relationship.
“In other words, even if defendants committed the adverse actions in this case to interfere with plaintiff’s relationship with Miller, so long as the record indisputably shows that they were motivated, at least in part, by lawful considerations, they are entitled to qualified immunity,” Wood wrote.
“Since the defendants are already entitled to qualified immunity for the intimate association claims with respect to the February reprimand and suspension and the May two-week suspension, the court will focus on the demotion to patrol and the termination.”
It’s the termination, Wood ruled, that Robinson essentially brought on himself. On June 26, 2016, Robinson was called to respond to an incident at a local restaurant, and he said over the public channel, “I’m not allowed inside that establishment.” Wood stated even if the restaurant owner didn’t want Robinson working there off-duty, for discriminatory reasons — “and even if that decision somehow involved Alexander or Howard” — for on-duty work purposes he was still entitled to be on the property, and not banned from the restaurant.
“This untrue statement reflected poorly on the police department because others who heard it would wonder why a police officer was banned from a popular restaurant in Darien,” Wood wrote. “Thus, a supervising officer could decide that such an action that reflects poorly on the department warrants termination, and that is what Howard did in this case.”
As for Creswell, Wood stated he’s covered by qualified immunity regarding both equal protection and intimate association.
Wood wrote, “Like Howard, Creswell is entitled to qualified immunity because, despite disputed facts about what he knew about plaintiff’s conduct on patrol when he was told that plaintiff was being terminated and him being told to gather justifications for terminating plaintiff, the record indisputably shows that he terminated plaintiff, pursuant to Howard’s direction, at least in part, because of plaintiff’s statement on the radio.
“Thus, even if Creswell terminated plaintiff for discriminatory reasons, his decision was still motivated, at least in part, by a lawful consideration. As such, he is entitled to qualified immunity.”
That all leaves the demotion, which Wood ruled can continue as an allegation of discriminatory behavior by Alexander and Howard, both under the arguments of violations of the Equal Protection Clause and right to intimate association. Complaints against both men can also continue for equal protection violations regarding the May suspension.