Nicholas Malfitano Mar. 17, 2016, 12:26pm


PHILADELPHIA – The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit recently upheld a trial court judgment dismissing an African-American trooper’s claims of racial discrimination against the Pennsylvania State Police.

William C. Peake alleged the state police violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in terminating him at the conclusion of his probationary period, but the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania disagreed and granted summary judgment to the state police.

After his education at the state police academy finished in November 2009, Peake was assigned to the Uniontown barracks of Troop B, along with seven Caucasian officers from his cadet class. One year later, Peake was terminated at the end of his probationary period – with the state police citing “lack of solid job knowledge and basic police skills, along with officer/public safety concerns” for Peake’s dismissal.

Specifically, the Pennsylvania State Police’s Administrative Review Panel pointed to “mishandled accident investigations, reports with errors and incorrect information, written and oral communication problems, and competency concerns voiced by supervisors, colleagues, and outside agency personnel” as rationale for Peake not being retained by the agency.

Peake argued the only other individual from his cadet class to be terminated at the conclusion of the probationary period was a Caucasian trooper, Trooper #9. However, Peake asserted Trooper #9 was provided with a written action plan and extensions for over seven months prior to his termination, and other Caucasian troopers were likewise given similar measures to improve their performance and not terminated. Peake alleged his race accounted for this dissimilar treatment.

The District Court did not concur, believing the reasons provided for Peake’s termination by the state police were not a pretext for racial discrimination, and thus granted the agency summary judgment. Peake timely appealed to the Third Circuit.

Judge Thomas L. Ambro of the Third Circuit said the first task faced by the appeals court was to determine if Peake introduced any valid comparator to “establish his termination as inferring discrimination.”

“An unlawful inference of discrimination can be shown by identifying a similarly situated individual, outside of the protected class, who engaged in the same conduct and was treated more favorably,” Ambro said.

“Peake argues that at least 3 or 4 probationary troopers in Troop B, all of whom were white, were similarly situated comparators that were treated more favorably than he was,” Ambro continued. “Specifically, he claims that these individuals had a combination of at-fault automobile accidents, inferior productivity to his own, and instances involving bodily harm to the public.”

However, Ambro said Peake’s dismissal was “not attributable to any of the areas of misconduct by the other 3 or 4 probationary officers in Troop B” and “cannot offset his [own] deficiencies by noting areas in which he outperformed some of his colleagues in Troop B.”

Additionally, Ambro explained Peake’s self-comparison to Trooper #9 was invalid because the two troopers were assigned to different barracks with different supervisors evaluating them, along with having different performance deficiencies.

“We conclude that Trooper #9 is not similarly situated to Peake,” Ambro said.

As to providing a pretext for discrimination, Ambro felt Peake did not meet the qualifying criteria.

“Peake’s reasons demonstrating pretext in no way concern the negative evaluations of his performance as a probationary trooper. Peake does not contend the state police previously discriminated against him. Further, he does not claim that it discriminated against any other member of his class or any other member of a protected class,” Ambro stated.

Ambro concluded by affirming the trial court verdict of summary judgment for the state police.

“Based on the discussion above, we conclude that Peake did not present any valid comparator. Therefore, he does not satisfy the second prong of the Fuentes pretext analysis,” Ambro said.

The appellant is represented by James H. Logan of Logan & Logan, in Pittsburgh.

The appellee is represented by Robert A. Willig of the Office of the Attorney General, also in Pittsburgh.

U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit case 15-2669

U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania case 2:12-cv-01761

From the Pennsylvania Record: Reach Courts Reporter Nicholas Malfitano at nickpennrecord@gmail.com

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