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Taylor v. Middletown Fire Protection District

Court of Appeals of Kentucky

December 1, 2017

NATALIE TAYLOR APPELLANT
v.
MIDDLETOWN FIRE PROTECTION DISTRICT APPELLEE

         APPEAL FROM JEFFERSON CIRCUIT COURT HONORABLE JUDITH E. MCDONALD-BURKMAN, JUDGE ACTION NO. 15-CI-005716

          BRIEFS FOR APPELLANT: Oliver H. Barber, Jr., Thomas J. Banaszynski Louisville, Kentucky

          BRIEF FOR APPELLEE: Casey C. Stansbury Curt M. Graham Lexington, Kentucky

          BEFORE: J. LAMBERT, STUMBO, AND TAYLOR, JUDGES.

          OPINION REVERSING AND REMANDING

          LAMBERT, J., JUDGE

         Natalie Taylor has appealed from the order of the Jefferson Circuit Court dismissing her complaint seeking damages for discrimination against her by the Middletown Fire Protection District (MFPD). Because we hold that the circuit court improperly dismissed the complaint, we reverse the order of dismissal.

         Taylor began working for MFPD as a full-time, paid firefighter in October 1996. She had been serving as a junior firefighter and a volunteer firefighter with MFPD from 1991 until being employed. Taylor was promoted over the years and eventually was named Captain in February 2009. She became the President of the local professional firefighter union in January 2014. During her tenure with MFPD, she had only received one written warning prior to November 2014, and that was for failure to properly use the chain of command within MFPD. The circumstances giving rise to the claimed discrimination occurred on November 20, 2014, when Taylor attended an officer's training session that was conducted by Chief Michael Morgan.[1] The participants were asked to share their opinions about different matters, and Taylor did so. Believing that she was in a safe environment, she stated her opinions that the MFPD employees were not being used to the best of their abilities and that there was a disconnect between the command team and the firefighters. After the training, two members of the MFPD command, Assistant Chief Andy Longstreet and Major Bradford Michel, called her in for a meeting, after which Taylor agreed to work with Assistant Chief Longstreet to prepare a short presentation for the next officers' meeting. She believed the matter was resolved.

         But on December 3, 2014, the day before the officers' meeting, Taylor was suspended and charged with misconduct. She was charged with making "disparaging, disrespectful and inappropriate remarks about her subordinates, peers, and superior officers of the District" in the presence of the MFPD staff, a violation of MFPD Policies 306.01.III.B and 306.01.V.A.3.c. A second charge indicated that she made the inappropriate remarks after she had previously been instructed by Major Michel on the proper conduct for officers regarding professional communications and the chain of command, a violation of Policy 307.10.III.F. A third charge indicated that she publicly criticized instructions or orders she had received in violation of Policy 307.10.III.G. As a result of the charges, Taylor was immediately locked out of her work computer and e-mail. For her misconduct, Taylor was offered the options to self-demote from Captain to firefighter, to resign, or to proceed with a hearing. Taylor chose to proceed with a hearing.

         Taylor remained suspended from her duties as Captain from December 3, 2014, through March 21, 2015, and without pay from February 5 through March 18, 2015. A disciplinary hearing was held on December 17, 2014, January 16, 2015, February 5, 2015, and March 18, 2015. The third charge had been dismissed previously by agreement, and the MFPD Board of Trustees found charges 1 and 2 to be unsubstantiated. The Board ultimately found in Taylor's favor, and she was awarded back pay.

         Taylor believed that MFPD Chief Jeff Riddle did not agree with the opinions she expressed in the training session and that he initiated the disciplinary proceedings against her. She named three other MFPD captains she claimed were not disciplined to the extent she was in support of her disparate treatment claim. After her return to work, Taylor claimed to have been subjected to random and unnecessary reassignments between three stations and instructed to do quality checks on twenty-nine fire runs when she had only been involved with three of those runs. In April 2015, Taylor received an evaluation with negative comments when she had always received favorable evaluation ratings in the past.

         As a result, Taylor filed a complaint seeking compensatory damages for gender discrimination and disparate treatment pursuant to Kentucky's Civil Rights Act, Kentucky Revised Statutes (KRS) Chapter 344.

         In lieu of an answer, MFPD filed a motion to dismiss Taylor's complaint, arguing that she had not suffered an adverse employment action and had failed to identify any similarly situated individuals and, therefore, failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. Taylor objected to the motion. She described the adverse employment actions she claimed she experienced as a result of having disciplinary charges brought against her and being suspended, including being locked out of her work e-mail and disconnected from her department, denied the opportunity to serve on the hiring committee, denied training opportunities, and denied the opportunity to take advantage of educational reimbursement through MFPD. Her eligibility to attain the rank of Major was also delayed. After her suspension, Taylor stated she was directed to quality check twenty-nine fire runs and was subjected to a negative performance review in April 2015, much of which she claimed was related to the November training meeting. She went on to address other similarly situated captains who were not subjected to the same level of discipline as she was. As a result, Taylor argued that she had established her claim for gender discrimination pursuant to KRS Chapter 344 and that MFPD's motion to dismiss should be denied. By separate filing, Taylor moved the court to schedule a hearing on the motion to dismiss.

         On December 21, 2015, Taylor moved the court for leave to amend her complaint to provide more adverse employment actions that were taken against her, as she discussed in her response to MFPD's motion to dismiss. The circuit court granted her motion in January 2016.

         On June 22, 2016, following a hearing that was not included in the certified record, the circuit court entered an order granting MFPD's motion to dismiss. The court found that Taylor had not been subjected to adverse employment actions, recognizing that she had not been demoted, given different job responsibilities, or a reduction in pay or benefits when she returned from her suspension. In addition, the performance review included areas of improvement that predated her suspension and could thus not be considered an adverse employment action. The court went on to hold that the three individuals Taylor identified ...


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