HANNERS v. TRENT (March 19, 2012)

Flynn Hanners was a Master Sergeant with the Illinois State Police in early 2008 when he sent out on his State Police computer an e-mail account describing, in a supposedly humorous way, sixteen Barbie dolls. Each doll was a caricature of a woman from a distinct Springfield, Illinois neighborhood. The department began an investigation. Hanners admitted sending the e-mail and acknowledged that it was an improper use of his State Police account. All of the recipients were interviewed. No one was willing to file a complaint attesting to the fact that he had been offended. The investigation concluded that the e-mail contained derogatory references to several categories of people, presented demeaning stereotypes, and violated several State Police policies. Hanners turned down an offer that would have reduced his disciplinary suspension to 10 to 15 days and instead appeared before the Disciplinary Review Board. The Board recommended and the Director imposed a 30-day suspension. The State Police also considered the e-mail incident during Hanner's 2008 promotional rating exercise. His immediate supervisor, even considering the incident, scored him at 68. After pressure from several other officers in the chain of command, however, she lowered it to a 54. The evaluation was upheld through a chain-of-command challenge. Hannerss filed suit alleging that he was both suspended and graded unfairly on account of his race. Chief Judge McCuskey (C.D. Ill.) granted summary judgment to the defendants. Hanners appeals.

In their opinion, Seventh Circuit Judges Ripple and Rovner and District Judge Feinerman affirmed. The Court first addressed Hanners’ claims under the direct method of proof. In order to prevail with only circumstantial evidence under the direct method, a plaintiff must present the familiar "convincing mosaic" of circumstantial evidence that points to a discriminatory reason for the employer's challenged conduct. In other words, evidence from which a rational juror could infer that the employer's conduct was on account of the plaintiff's membership in a protected class. The Court concluded that Hanners' evidence did not accomplish that. Although he submitted a list of other State Police employees who had been disciplined, he failed to show that they were non-Caucasian or that they had engaged in similar misconduct. The record contains no evidence of even a single instance of discriminatory behavior on the part of the defendants. The fact that some defendants were upset by the e-mail's content does not amount to evidence of discriminatory animus. Hanners is correct that significant, unexplained deviations from human resources practices can be probative circumstantial evidence of discrimination. Although there were some deviations from standard practices here, they were minor and irrelevant to the charges against Hanners.