Teresa Cooper is a former police officer with the Dallas, Texas Police Department. When Cooper worked for the Department, she was a member of the Dallas Police Association, an organization that represents officers in various aspects of their employment. One of the benefits of membership in the Association is legal assistance in administrative and criminal matters.
The Association has “guidelines for legal assistance” which spell out the circumstances under which the Association provides legal representation. The Guidelines specify that “the Association does not provide legal assistance automatically for civil matters, but the Association’s board, in its discretion, may choose to grant funding for a member’s civil case.”
In April 2004, Cooper provided testimony to the Texas Commission on Civil Rights regarding a fellow officer’s complaint against the Association. The officer claimed that the Association had denied him legal assistance because of his race. Cooper testified that although she had no first-hand knowledge of any discrimination toward the officer, the Association had previously provided her with financial assistance for legal representation for an unlawful wage garnishment case.
The Association learned of Cooper’s testimony on August 3, 2004. Seven days later, the Association considered a new request from Cooper for “up to $5,000” in legal assistance for civil suits against the Department. The Board authorized only $1,800 for Cooper’s legal assistance, citing an increase in legal expenses and a budget deficit as the reasons for not approving the full amount. Cooper then filed suit, alleging that the Association unlawfully retaliated against her for her testimony before the Commission on Civil Rights. A federal Court of Appeals rejected Cooper’s lawsuit.
The Court began by citing a standard rule that if a defendant asserts a non-retaliatory explanation for its actions, a plaintiff must show that the given reason is merely a pretext for retaliation. It was this showing that the Court found that Cooper had failed to make.
The Court held that “the Association presented a non-retaliatory reason for its action, and Cooper failed to rebut that reason by showing that it is a pretext for denying her full request for legal assistance. The Association notes that its secretary-treasurer wrote a letter to Association members stating that ‘legal expenses had increased by nearly 50 percent’ and that continuing this trend will create a budget deficit of nearly $200,000. This evidence demonstrates that the Association presented a legitimate, non-retaliatory reason for denying Cooper’s full request: Reining in the Association’s spending. Cooper has provided no evidence whatsoever to suggest that that the Association’s proffered reason is a mere pretext for retaliation.”
Cooper v. Dallas Police Association, 2008 WL 2037265 (5th Cir. 2008).
This article appears in the August 2008 issue