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Seventh Circuit Upholds Summary Dismissal of Fired Wisconsin Guard’s Sex-Discrimination Claims

On June 26, 2020, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit upheld a district court’s summary dismissal of a lawsuit brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and Title VII claiming gender discrimination in the firing of a female Wisconsin Department of Corrections (DOC) guard for lying and falsifying records related to a disciplinary action she initiated against a prisoner.
Lisa Purtue initiated disciplinary action against Dodge Correctional Institution prisoner Joseph Reddick alleging Reddick threw an empty snack-cake box at her, striking her in the midsection. Reddick was segregated, and the allegations were referred for criminal prosecution.
At his prison disciplinary hearing, Reddick asked that the surveillance camera video recording of the incident be played. It showed him throwing the box through the open food slot of his cell door, but not in Purtue’s direction. He was found not guilty of assault or disobeying orders but guilty of disrespect and disruptive conduct.
An internal investigation concluded Purtue had lied and falsified documents relating to the disciplinary action. The warden—with the agreement of the assistant warden, the prison’s director of human resources, two division administrators, the director of personnel and human resources, the DOC’s deputy secretary, and representatives from the DOC’s employee relations office, Office of Legal Counsel, and Office of Diversity Equity Services—decided to skip progressive discipline and terminate Purtue. She was fired.
Purtue filed a federal lawsuit asserting sex discrimination claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and Title VII. She presented evidence that the DOC had fired only 3% of male employees but 6% of female employees and that more women than men had been fired for lying or falsifying documents. A former DOC secretary testified that he would not have fired her. The court granted defendants summary judgment, and Purtue appealed.
The Seventh Circuit agreed with the district court that Purtue’s statistics did not provide details so it could be determined if the other disciplinary actions were “directly comparable” to Purtue’s. It also agreed that the former DOC secretary’s testimony was merely speculation. Noting that the false disciplinary action taken against Reddick was serious and could have resulted in his being criminally prosecuted and/or sent to a maximum-security prison, the court upheld the summary judgment. See: Purtue v. Wisconsin Department of Corrections, 7th Cir., No. 19-2706

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Related legal case

Purtue v. Wisconsin Department of Corrections