Las Vegas POA

No ‘Error Too Obvious To Be Unintentional’ On The Money Train

Written on 04/02/2020
Will Aitchison

Tiffany Washington, an African American woman, served as a sergeant in the Metro Transit Police Department from 2008 to 2016. The Department is a unit of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), which operates trains and buses in and around the District of Columbia. Washington worked at WMATA’s Revenue Collection Facility in Alexandria, Virginia, where she supervised lower-ranking officers aboard the money train, which transports cash fares from Metro stations to the Facility.

On September 18, 2015, Washington left the facility before the end of her scheduled shift. After departing, Washington learned via text message that the money train had broken down. Although she was in sporadic contact with the officers aboard the train and an off-duty supervisor, Washington failed to inform an on-duty supervisor of the breakdown for the next several hours. As a result, nobody provided the stranded officers with food or water or attempted to relieve them, and they remained aboard the train late into the night.

WMATA demoted Washington to the rank of police officer, with the police chief stating that he had “lost confidence in Washington’s ability to perform in a leadership position.” Washington sued, contending she was the victim of race, color and gender discrimination. A federal appeals court turned away her lawsuit.

As WMATA asserted a legitimate and nondiscriminatory reason for Washington’s demotion – her conduct on September 18 – the Court began with Washington’s main argument, that there were deficiencies in the investigation and its conclusions. Such a theory, the Court mused, “is challenging to prove, because it is not enough to show that WMATA’s reasons were false. She must show that the officials who disciplined her did not actually believe those reasons. Alternatively, Washington might establish pretext with evidence that a factual determination underlying an adverse employment action is egregiously wrong, because if the Employer made an error too obvious to be unintentional, perhaps it had an unlawful motive for doing so.

“Washington did not present evidence from which a rational factfinder could conclude that WMATA made an error too obvious to be unintentional. Nor did she present evidence that those who disciplined her disbelieved their stated reasons for doing so. At most, Washington showed that WMATA could have credited her oral, undocumented request for leave and absolved her of responsibility for later events, notwithstanding the absence of another supervisor at the Facility.

“WMATA chose otherwise, and we do not serve as a super-personnel department that reexamines whether such a decision was wise, sound, or fair. We agree with the trial court that Washington’s attempts to poke holes in WMATA’s investigation do not impugn the honesty of the WMATA officials who demoted her, or even directly contradict the key conclusions they relied upon in doing so.”

“Washington also argues that the trial court erroneously rejected her comparator evidence. She identified three white male supervisors who received lighter discipline for their misconduct: one who took home a WMATA off-road vehicle for his personal use, damaged it, and received a ten-day suspension; one who was accused of sending inappropriate text messages and received a three-day suspension; and another who was involved in a traffic accident in a rental car and received no suspension.

“Washington’s principal responsibility was to supervise an assigned shift of subordinate police officers. Her offense involved the immediate control and supervision of her subordinates, bearing directly on her fitness as a sergeant. In contrast, none of the proposed comparators engaged in misconduct that concerned his ability to supervise, other than in the indirect sense that all misbehavior reflects, in one way or another, on a person’s character. Washington’s proffered comparators differed from hers in a key respect, and that difference fully explains why she alone was demoted.”

Washington v. Washington Metro. Area Transit Authority, 2019 WL 6907797 (D.C. Cir. 2019).

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