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Ridgell v. City of Pine Bluff

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

August 29, 2019

Albert Ridgell, Plaintiff- Appellee,
v.
City of Pine Bluff, A Public Body Corporate and Politic, Defendant-Appellant, Debe Hollingsworth, In Her Individual and Official Capacity as Mayor for the City of Pine Bluff, Arkansas, Defendant.

          Submitted: April 18, 2019

          Appeal from United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas - Pine Bluff

          Before COLLOTON, GRUENDER, and ERICKSON, Circuit Judges.

          COLLOTON, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         Albert Ridgell sued the City of Pine Bluff and City Mayor Debe Hollingsworth under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that they discriminated against him based on race in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981. A jury returned a verdict in favor of Mayor Hollingsworth but against the City. The City appeals on the ground that once Hollingsworth was adjudged not liable, there was no basis to find the City liable for discrimination. On the record in this case, we agree with the City, and therefore reverse the judgment.

         I.

         Ridgell, an African-American, was hired in June 2007 to be the City Collector for Pine Bluff. Debe Hollingsworth, a Caucasian woman, won the November 2012 mayoral election and took office in January 2013. Over the next few months, Ridgell failed to meet various deadlines related to the implementation of a new software system in the Collector's office. On July 31, Hollingsworth terminated Ridgell for "unsatisfactory work performance," based on his failure to meet these deadlines.

         Ridgell appealed his termination to the eight-member City Council. Six votes were required to override the mayor's action. See Ark. Code Ann. § 14-42-110(a)(1). Six members of the Council voted to reinstate Ridgell and two voted to uphold the mayor's decision. One councilman testified that he and the five others who voted to override the mayor's action did so because Ridgell did not have full authority to make the necessary changes to the new software system, and there was a lack of documentation as to what assigned tasks Ridgell had failed to complete.

         Ridgell returned to work on August 26. Over the next month, Hollingsworth twice disciplined Ridgell for "unsatisfactory work quality." On September 11, she gave him a written warning after he failed to produce a report that she had requested. Two weeks later, Hollingsworth suspended Ridgell for five days based on his continued inability to meet deadlines and his failure to make progress on collecting taxes from delinquent businesses.

         On October 15, Ridgell arrived at work at least thirty minutes late. Hollingsworth terminated Ridgell for "insubordination." At trial, Hollingsworth testified that her decision was about more than just Ridgell's tardiness that day; it was based on "the whole picture" of Ridgell's deficient work performance since he had returned to work in August.

         Ridgell once again appealed to the City Council, but this time only five members voted to override the mayor's action, and her decision was sustained. The only member to vote differently than the first time was Lloyd Holcomb, who voted to uphold Ridgell's second termination.

         Ridgell sued the City and Hollingsworth under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming that they had racially discriminated against him in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981. At trial, Ridgell presented evidence of alleged comparator employees. Steve Miller, the Caucasian head of the City's Finance Department, had been disciplined, but not terminated, for failing to comply with one of Hollingsworth's directives, for going to the gym while taking leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, and for tardiness. Ridgell testified that Robert Tucker, a Caucasian male, regularly arrived late to work but had never been disciplined.

         At the conclusion of Ridgell's case-in-chief, the City and Hollingsworth moved for judgment as a matter of law on the claims of race discrimination. The district court denied the motion. At the close of all evidence, the City and Hollingsworth again moved for judgment, and the court took the motion under advisement.

         The jury returned a verdict in favor of Hollingsworth but against the City on Ridgell's claims of race discrimination and awarded damages of $24, 080. The court dismissed the claim against Hollingsworth, denied the City's pending motion for judgment as a matter of ...


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