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Marion County Coroner's Office v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

July 27, 2010


Petition for Review of an Order of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. No. 1120080001.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Evans, Circuit Judge.


Before MANION, EVANS, and SYKES, Circuit Judges.

The chief deputy coroner of Marion County, Indiana, John Linehan, a white male, was stripped of certain duties and ultimately fired by the coroner, Dr. Kenneth Ackles, an African-American male.

After hearing testimony from fourteen witnesses, an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) administrative law judge (ALJ) found that the coroner's office took action against Linehan based on his race and in retaliation for an internal complaint that Linehan filed against Ackles. Linehan was awarded front and back pay, attorney's fees, and $200,000 in compensatory damages. The EEOC affirmed in all material respects. The coroner's office now petitions for review, arguing that the findings of discrimination and retaliation were erroneous and that, even if they were not, the compensatory damages award was excessive under the circumstances.

The Marion County coroner is an elected, part-time position. By contrast, the chief deputy coroner,*fn1 who reports directly to the coroner, is a non-elected position charged with the day-to-day management of the coroner's office. Among other things, the chief deputy coroner is responsible for supervising and disciplining employees and preparing the office's budget. He also works with the coroner on hiring and firing decisions.

In November 2004, Ackles, a chiropractor by trade, was elected coroner. At that time, Linehan and Alfarena Ballew, an African-American deputy coroner, both sought the position of chief deputy coroner. Ackles chose Linehan for the job because he was currently serving as the interim chief deputy, and Ackles wanted to maintain continuity in the office. Ackles and Linehan were sworn in as coroner and chief deputy coroner, respectively, in January 2005.

Soon after, Ackles met with Linehan to discuss his (Ackles') agenda. During their conversation, Ackles said that he "really needed to find a way to get more African-Americans into the Coroner's Office," especially as deputies. Ackles asked Linehan to determine how to execute this plan. Linehan contacted the city's legal office and learned that deputy coroners could not be removed without cause. Nevertheless, a city/county council member who had been on Ackles' campaign committee regularly sent Linehan resumes and encouraged him to hire more African-American staff.

In February 2005, Ackles was informed about a salary increase for Linehan's position. Ackles later testified that he had not been told about the raise previously. Linehan testified, however, that Ackles had reviewed the budget and approved of the raise, which Linehan had proposed while serving as the interim chief deputy coroner.

In March 2005, Linehan recommended the termination of a white deputy coroner, Bill Morris. Morris had been disciplined by the previous chief deputy coroner and recently suspended for failing to properly handle and preserve key evidence from a crime scene in a case involving the FBI. Ackles agreed with the recommendation at the time but later testified that he could not clearly recall the specific incident prompting Morris' firing. When asked whether such conduct could warrant termination, however, Ackles agreed that it could.

In June or July 2005, Linehan recommended disciplining Ballew for multiple performance issues. On one occasion, it took Ballew over an hour to arrive at the scene of a homicide, although office policy required that she respond within thirty minutes. During her absence, the victim was left lying in the street, with her friends and family watching. On another occasion, Ballew took more than two hours to arrive at a hospital where a child was dying. The family wanted to donate the child's organs, but because Ballew arrived late, the organs were no longer usable. On that occasion, Linehan offered to send another deputy, but Ballew assured him that she would be "right there." Despite these incidents, Ackles told Linehan not to discipline Ballew.

Ballew's problems continued the next month when, despite arriving thirty minutes late for a mandatory staff meeting, she prepared a time sheet indicating that she had arrived on time. Linehan wanted to discipline Ballew, but Ackles once again stopped him from filing a written report. When Ballew continued to arrive late to meetings and crime scenes, however, Linehan prepared a written reprimand with the assistance of the human resources office (and without Ackles' knowledge). Linehan later testified that he normally did not submit proposed disciplinary actions to the coroner for approval. He did so initially in Ballew's case, however, to avoid the appearance of bias, as she had applied for the position of chief deputy coroner.

Shortly thereafter, an anonymous letter was sent to members of the city/county council accusing Linehan of "double dipping" or "ghost employment"-that is, billing the coroner's office for time spent working elsewhere. Indeed, Linehan was working as a paramedic on his days off. But outside employment was permitted, and Linehan had previously disclosed this information. In response to Ackles' questions about the letter, Linehan gave him written documentation demonstrating the validity of his hours. Ballew later admitted to authoring the anonymous letter.

Around the same time, Linehan discovered that $3,000 was missing from a property locker. When he contacted the city's legal office, Linehan was told to immediately file a police report. Although Ackles told him not to file the report, Linehan eventually did so at the urging of the legal office. Additional property was ...

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