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Seventh Circuit Affirms Dismissal of Indiana Prison Counselor's Retaliation, Sex and Age Discrimination Lawsuit

by Lonnie Burton

On December 10, 2014, the United States Circuit Court for the Seventh Circuit upheld a district court order dismissing a lawsuit brought by a former Indiana prison substance abuse counselor who claimed she was let go due to age and gender discrimination, and retaliation for her participation in another high-profile lawsuit. The circuit court said the record in the case revealed little evidence supporting the plaintiff's claims.

Diana Ripberger began working for the Indiana Department of Corrections (IDOC) as a substance abuse counselor in 1991. Ripberger is a licensed social worker in the State of Indiana with a bachelor's degree in sociology. She worked with the Level 4 prisoners (those serving lengthy sentences) at the Pendleton Correctional facility near her home in Anderson, Indiana.

Ripberger lost her job in 2010 when the IDOC contracted out its substance abuse counseling program to a private company, Corizon, Incorporated. Ripberger sued Corizon alleging she lost her job because of her support for Connie Orton-Bell, a fellow counselor who lost her job after it was discovered she was caught having an affair with the Major in charge of custody, and after she (Orton-Bell) had filed a complaint that other employees were having sex on her desk after hours. Orton-Bell sued after the major got his job back and she didn't. Ripberger was a visible supporter of Orton-Bell, attending her hearings and helping her file grievances and complaints.

When IDOC shifted to Corizon in 2010, the substance abuse counselor staff statewide would be reduced from 93 to 88 employees. For continuity of service, Corizon decided it would retain as many IDOC counselors as possible, but that position at Pendleton was being eliminated altogether. At least five counselors, though, would lose their job. Ripberger was eventually offered a job at another prison, but she was unwilling to relocate and declined. She acknowledged telling the recruiter never to call again and hanging up the phone, but denied the allegation that she slammed the phone down. Shortly thereafter, Ripberger was informed she would not be one of the counselors retained by Corizon.

Ripberger then filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, alleging sex discrimination, retaliation, and age discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the ADEA, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967. The district court granted Corizon's motion for summary judgment, holding that while Ripberger was a "qualified and capable" counselor, the evidence in the record showed that "she lost her job because she was the 'unfortunate victim' of a reduced work force." Ripberger appealed, and the Seventh Circuit affirmed.

The appellate court first found that Ripberger's sex discrimination claim failed because she "provided no information to support her conclusion that there was a 'pattern' of sex discrimination or that anyone discriminated against her on the basis of sex," and that nothing in the record undercut Corizon's contention that it filled openings with employees already working in those positions.

Similarly, the court found that Ripberger presented no evidence "that her age motivated Corizon's decision no to hire her." The court said this allegation was undercut by the fact that she was offered employment at other locations, which she declined.

Finally, the Seventh Circuit dismissed Ripberger's retaliation claim, despite the "laundry list" of evidence Ripberger "believes demonstrates the required causal connection." However, the court found that none of that evidence, whether considered together or in isolation, established a link between her support of Orton-Bell and Corizon's decision not to hire her.

In the end, the Seventh Circuit agreed with the district court that while Ripberger was a qualified substance abuse counselor, she simply failed to demonstrate any unlawful motivation behind Corizon's failure to hire her, and affirmed the judgment of the district court. See: Ripberger v. Corizon, No. 13-2070 (7th Cir. 2014).


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Related legal case

Ripberger v. Corizon