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Webb v. City of Chester

decided*fn*: March 6, 1987.

DEBRA WEBB, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,
v.
CITY OF CHESTER, ILLINOIS, THE BOARD OF FIRE AND POLICE COMMISSIONERS OF CHESTER, ILLINOIS, AND CITY OF CHESTER POLICE DEPARTMENT, DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS



Bauer, Chief Judge, Wood, Jr., Circuit Judge, and Campbell, Senior District Judge.*fn**

Author: Wood

WOOD, Jr., Circuit Judge.

Plaintiff Debra Webb was hired as a police officer in Chester, Illinois, and shortly thereafter she was fired. She subsequently brought a sex discrimination suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (1982) against defendants City of Chester, Illinois, and the Chester Police Department.*fn1 At the conclusion of a jury trial, the jury returned a verdict for plaintiff in the amount of $30,000. The district judge entered judgment on the jury's verdict. We affirm.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiff's brief career in law enforcement began in Mattoon, Illinois. She attended Lakeland College there and completed a two-year law enforcement program. As she finished the program in the spring of 1981, plaintiff applied for the position of police officer in Chester, Illinois. Plaintiff was notified that she must take a written examination and appear before the Board of Fire and Police Commissioners (the "Board") for an oral interview. In addition, she would be required to complete a physical examination at the time she was hired. Plaintiff subsequently took the written examination and appeared before the Board for an oral interview. She was scored on the examination and the interview and then ranked with the other applicants for the position. Her combined score placed her fifth on the list of applicants. All four of the applicants ranked ahead of plaintiff, however, either moved away from Chester or accepted other positions. That left plaintiff at the top of the list.

Plaintiff was hired by the Board on February 1, 1982. She then enrolled in a six-week training program at the Police Training Academy in Belleville, Illinois. During the training program, which included physical conditioning, plaintiff completed six written examinations and a firearms test. She received no grade below an 82 and several in the 90s. Plaintiff graduated from the Police Training Academy at the end of the six-week program on March 19th.

The day following her graduation, plaintiff began working as a police officer in Chester. Over the next two weeks, plaintiff worked twelve shifts. On April 7th, however, two and one-half weeks after graduating from the Police Training Academy, Chief Jack Houglan, the Chester Chief of Police, recommended in writing to the Board that plaintiff be fired. As the basis for this recommendation, Chief Houglan asserted that plaintiff had been "observed of being incapable and physiologically remissed to perform police functions in the City of Chester."

Two days after Chief Houglan wrote the recommendation to fire plaintiff, the Board held a meeting. On the basis of the written recommendation, and Chief Houglan's oral description at the meeting of six specific incidents he alleged demonstrated plaintiff's incompetence as a police officer, the Board voted to fire plaintiff. After the meeting, Chief Houglan contacted plaintiff and told her of the Board's decision. Plaintiff then telephoned one of the three Board members, Commissioner Lampkin, and was told by him that the Board did not need to give any reason for firing her because she was a probationary police officer.

The Board eventually hired a male to fill plaintiff's position as a police officer. Plaintiff subsequently filed this lawsuit alleging sex discrimination.

II. LEGAL STANDARDS

Defendants raise four issues on this appeal. Defendants first argue the district judge should have granted their motion for a directed verdict or for a judgment notwithstanding the jury's verdict. Second, defendants contend the district judge improperly admitted the testimony of some witnesses and improperly excluded the testimony of others. Third, defendants challenge the district judge's decision to allow plaintiff to amend her complaint in the middle of the trial. And finally, defendants assert the jury's verdict was excessive and thus warrants a new trial or at least a remittitur.

In reviewing a district judge's treatment of motions for directed verdicts, or of motions for judgments notwithstanding jury verdicts, our review is de novo. Although we give due deference to the district judge, our review of these motions is a legal determination, not a determination of whether the district judge ruled within some acceptable range of possible rulings. We discuss this standard of review more fully in our analysis of defendants' contentions to follow.

We review challenges to amendments of pleadings, on the other hand, under the abuse of discretion standard. Zenith Radio Corp. v. Hazeltine Research, Inc., 401 U.S. 321, 330, 28 L. Ed. 2d 77, 91 S. Ct. 795 (1971); Foman v. Davis, 371 U.S. 178, 182, 9 L. Ed. 2d 222, 83 S. Ct. 227 (1962); Bohen v. City of East Chicago, 799 F.2d 1180, 1184-85 (7th Cir. 1986).

We also use the abuse of discretion standard in reviewing a district judge's admissions and exclusions of evidence. United States v. Buishas, 791 F.2d 1310, 1313 (7th Cir. 1986); Kelsay v. Consolidated Rail Corp., 749 F.2d 437, 443 (7th Cir. 1984); Ellis v. City of Chicago, 667 F.2d 606, 611 (7th Cir. 1981).

And in reviewing attacks on jury verdicts for a new trial or for a remittitur, our review is again governed by the abuse of discretion standard. In re Innovative Construction Systems, Inc., 793 F.2d 875, 888 (7th Cir. 1986) ("It is only appropriate that we demand a particularly persuasive showing of excessiveness when the initial factfinder -- the jury -- and the judge -- who monitored the proceedings -- agree that the award is appropriate."); Joan W. v. City of Chicago, 771 F.2d 1020, 1023 (7th Cir. 1985).

"Under the 'abuse of discretion' standard of review, the relevant inquiry is not how the reviewing judges would have ruled if they had been considering the case in the first place, but rather, whether any reasonable person could agree with the district court." Deitchman v. E.R. Squibb & Sons, Inc., 740 F.2d 556, 563 (7th Cir. 1984) (emphasis in original). In other words, "if reasonable men could differ as to the propriety of the [district] court's action, no abuse of discretion has been shown." Smith v. Widman Trucking & Excavating, Inc., 627 F.2d 792, 796 (7th Cir. 1980).

III. DISCUSSION

A. Defendants' Dispositive Motion

Defendants contend the district judge improperly denied their motion for a directed verdict or for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict of the jury. We disagree.

"In reviewing a district court's grant of a motion for directed verdict [or for judgment notwithstanding the verdict], the standard to be applied by the court of appeals is the same as that applied by the trial court." Panter v. Marshall Field & Co., 646 F.2d 271, 281 (7th Cir.), cert. denied, 454 U.S. 1092, 70 L. Ed. 2d 631, 102 S. Ct. 658 (1981). That standard applied by the district judge, and by us on appeal, is "whether the evidence presented, combined with all the reasonable inferences permissibly drawn therefrom is sufficient to support the verdict when viewed in a light most favorable to the party against whom the motion is directed." Tice v. Lampert Yards, Inc., 761 F.2d 1210, 1213 (7th Cir. 1985); Benson v. Allphin, 786 F.2d 268, 279 (7th Cir.) ("The standard for granting a directed verdict is very generous to the nonmovant."), cert. denied, 479 U.S. 848, 107 S. Ct. 172, 93 L. Ed. 2d 109 (1986). The district judge does not resolve conflicts in testimony or weigh and evaluate the evidence. Those functions are reserved to the factfinder. See, e.g., Continental Casualty Co. v. Howard, 775 F.2d 876, 879 (7th Cir. 1985), cert. denied, 475 U.S. 1122, 106 S. Ct. 1641, 90 L. Ed. 2d 186 (1986).

Nevertheless, the district judge is charged with determining whether "the evidence, taken as a whole, provides a sufficient probative basis upon which a jury could reasonably reach a verdict, without 'speculation over legally unfounded claims.'" Panter v. Marshall Field & Co., 646 F.2d 271, 281 (7th Cir.) (quoting Brady v. Southern Railway, 320 U.S. 476, 480, 88 L. Ed. 239, 64 S. Ct. 232 (1943)), cert. denied, 454 U.S. 1092, 102 S. Ct. 658, 70 L. Ed. 2d 631 (1981).

These legal standards are applied here in the context of a sex discrimination claim brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (1982). A successful section 1983 claim requires plaintiff to prove (1) defendants acted under color of state law, (2) defendants' actions deprived plaintiff of her rights, privileges, or immunities guaranteed by the Constitution, and (3) defendants' conduct proximately caused plaintiff's deprivation. Coleman v. Frantz, 754 F.2d 719, 722, 725 (7th Cir. 1985); Crowder v. Lash, 687 F.2d 996, 1002 (7th Cir. 1982). Moreover, plaintiff must demonstrate that defendants acted with discriminatory intent. Parker v. Board of School Commissioners, 729 F.2d 524, 528 (7th Cir. 1984). Once plaintiff demonstrates these elements, and thereby makes out a prima facie case of sex discrimination, the burden then shifts to defendants to articulate a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for taking the action alleged by plaintiff to be discriminatory. If defendants do articulate such a reason, the burden shifts back to plaintiff to demonstrate that the proffered reason is merely a pretext for discrimination. See Texas Department of Community Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 250, 67 L. Ed. 2d 207, 101 S. Ct. 1089 (1981); McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802-04, 36 L. Ed. 2d 668, 93 S. Ct. 1817 (1973); Griffin v. Board of Regents, 795 F.2d 1281, 1285 (7th Cir. 1986).

Plaintiff here established the elements necessary to making out a prima facie case of sex discrimination under section 1983.

First, plaintiff implicitly assumes, and defendants do not contest, that defendants acted under color of state law. We treat both defendants, the City of Chester and the Board of Fire and Police Commissioners, as municipal bodies. For purposes of section 1983, municipalities are liable for deprivations, under color of state law, of constitutionally protected rights only when municipal officials act "pursuant to official municipal policy of some nature." Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658, 691, 56 L. Ed. 2d 611, 98 S. Ct. 2018 (1978); Oklahoma City v. Tuttle, 471 U.S. 808, 817-18, 85 L. Ed. 2d 791, 105 S. Ct. 2427 (1985); Reed v. Village of Shorewood, 704 F.2d 943, 953 (7th Cir. 1983) ("The official acts of municipal policymakers are acts of the municipality for purposes of section 1983 liability."). This requirement ensures that municipalities will not be liable under the doctrine of respondeat superior, or other doctrines of vicarious liability, for individual tortious acts of their employees. But although the doctrine of respondeat superior does not apply to section 1983 claims, "it is plain that municipal liability may be imposed for a single decision by municipal policymakers under appropriate circumstances." Pembaur v. City of Cincinnati, 475 U.S. 469, 106 S. Ct. 1292, 1298, 89 L. Ed. 2d 452 (1986);*fn2 Malak v. Associated Physicians, Inc., 784 F.2d 277, 283-84 (7th Cir. 1986).

Thus, the City of Chester's official municipal policy potentially can be gleaned from the single decision, made by the commissioners on the recommendation of Chief Houglan, to fire plaintiff almost immediately after she was hired. We hold this view because of three factors. First, plaintiff was the first female ever hired as a police officer and the first female fired by defendants. Second, the Board believed it was required by state law to hire plaintiff as the top-ranking applicant for the position. And finally, the employment decisions in Chester for police and fire positions are made by the members of the Board, policy-making officials. As a result, we believe that in the circumstances of this ...


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