Rioux v. City of Atlanta, Georgia, No. 07-11657 (11th Cir. Mar. 18, 2008) belies the common notion that Title VII disparate treatment and section 1983 race discrimination claims are just two sides of the same coin. At least where the employee sues individual defendants and the case involves mixed motives, the issue of qualified immunity can derail even a meritorious case. Writes the panel majority: "While we agree with Appellant, Plaintiff below, Gerard Rioux ('Rioux'), that he presented a prima facie case of discrimination and showed sufficient evidence of pretext, we find that he has not shown Defendants violated clearly established federal law, and we affirm."
Plaintiff Rioux, who was formerly the Deputy Fire Chief of the Field Operations Division of the Atlanta Fire Department ("AFD"), got into hot water when he allegedly assaulted a lieutenant named Austin at the scene of a fire. The incident drew an investigation by the city legal department and AFD Office of Professional Standards ("OPS"), both of which concluded that the plaintiff violated several AFD workrules. The result was a two-rank demotion to Battalion Chief.
Rioux had a different perspective on the events. In his retelling -- while not denying that he had laid hands on the lieutenant -- Rioux (a while man) was sacrificed because an African-American fire-fighter's union (Brothers Combined), collaborating with the city's Chief Operating Officer (defendant Young), Fire Chief (Rubin) and a black councilman (also named Young), wanted his job to go to a black officer. The union and city officials, according to Rioux, orchestrated the whole complaint and investigation to run him out of his post. (He was in fact replaced by an Asian woman; a black male originally turned the post down.)
Affirming summary judgment, the panel recognized that the plaintiff met the ordinary standards of proving pretext under McDonnell Douglas: "it is undisputed that he has shown he is a member of a protected class; he was qualified for the job; he was demoted; and following the demotion, he was replaced by someone outside his protected class, an Asian American woman. Moreover, in the absence of a similarly-situated employee, and as we further explain below, he has also come forward with 'other evidence of discrimination'" -- an "unwritten affirmative action plan and pressures exerted by Brothers Combined and Councilman Young, along with Rubin's offer of the position to an African American."
In spite of such proof, the panel majority cut loose the individual defendants because the mixed motives vitiated a "clearly established" violation of equal protection. "Viewing the facts in the light most favorable to Rioux, Appellees had adequate lawful reasons to support their decision to demote Rioux, and may have had improper race-based motives to take the challenged action as well." Because the case presented mixed-motives, "No jury could find that a reasonable fire chief and chief operating officer would never have demoted Rioux but for a discriminatory intent. The record here . . . undisputably establishes that Appellees were motivated at least in part by lawful justifications, supported by the independent investigations conducted by OPS and the Law Department, investigations which these two decision makers were not a part of and which there is no evidence they manipulated."
Chief Judge Edmondson concurred in the result only, stating only that "I would not reach the qualified immunity issue because I think the record established no violation of the Constitution. Plaintiff can point to no comparator. The decisions set out in today's court opinion to support a prima facie case are not being followed, but are being extended to the disciplinary-demotion situation. I also doubt that Plaintiff has presented sufficient evidence of pretext. If I believed this record did establish pretext, I would worry that qualified immunity could not apply: no mixed motive, just an unlawful discriminatory one."