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Brown v. Huntsville City Board of Education

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Northeastern Division

February 9, 2018

LASHONDA BROWN, Plaintiff,
v.
HUNTSVILLE CITY BOARD OF EDUCATION, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND FINAL JUDGMENT

         Plaintiff, LaShonda Brown, commenced this action against her former employer, the Huntsville City Board of Education. She asserts claims of race discrimination and retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., and race discrimination under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981 and 1983.[1] The case presently is before the court on defendant's motion for summary judgment.[2]

         Plaintiff, who appears pro se, did not submit either a responsive brief or an evidentiary submission in opposition to defendant's motion. Even so, the court “cannot base the entry of summary judgment on the mere fact that the motion was unopposed, but, rather, must consider the merits of the motion.” United States v. One Piece of Real Property, 363 F.3d 1099, 1101 (11th Cir. 2004). Accordingly, upon consideration of the pleadings, defendant's brief, and the evidentiary submission, this court concludes for the following reasons that summary judgment is due to be entered in favor of defendant.

         I. SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARDS

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 provides that a court “shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). In other words, summary judgment is proper “after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). “In making this determination, the court must review all evidence and make all reasonable inferences in favor of the party opposing summary judgment.” Chapman v. AI Transport, 229 F.3d 1012, 1023 (11th Cir. 2000) (en banc) (quoting Haves v. City of Miami, 52 F.3d 918, 921 (11th Cir. 1995)). Inferences in favor of the non-moving party are not unqualified, however. “[A]n inference is not reasonable if it is only a guess or a possibility, for such an inference is not based on the evidence, but is pure conjecture and speculation.” Daniels v. Twin Oaks Nursing Home, 692 F.2d 1321, 1324 (11th Cir. 1983) (alteration supplied). Moreover,

[t]he mere existence of some factual dispute will not defeat summary judgment unless that factual dispute is material to an issue affecting the outcome of the case. The relevant rules of substantive law dictate the materiality of a disputed fact. A genuine issue of material fact does not exist unless there is sufficient evidence favoring the nonmoving party for a reasonable jury to return a verdict in its favor.

Chapman, 229 F.3d at 1023 (quoting Haves, 52 F.3d at 921) (emphasis and alteration supplied). See also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 251-52 (1986) (asking “whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law”).

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff, LaShonda Brown, is an African-American female and a former employee of the Huntsville City Board of Education. She was hired in August of 1999, and assigned to Westlawn Middle School as a social studies teacher.[3] She was transferred to Huntsville Middle School during 2008, due to a reduction in force within the school system.[4] She served as a social studies teacher in that school from then through the end of the 2012-13 academic year. For reasons that are discussed below, plaintiff then transferred to Butler High School; and, at the end of the 2013-14 academic year, to Grissom High School. She resigned to accept employment in another school system during November of 2015.

         A. Plaintiff's Applications for Administrative Positions

         While teaching social studies at Huntsville Middle School, plaintiff applied for various administrative positions within the school system.[5] For example, she applied for positions as an elementary school Principal and Assistant Principal during July of 2009, and a middle school Assistant Principal position in July of 2011, but she was not selected for any of those positions.

         Plaintiff applied for positions as a middle school and high school Assistant Principal during July of 2012.[6] She was interviewed by Dr. Barbara Cooper, [7] Deputy Superintendent of the City School System, but Dr. Cooper did not recommend plaintiff for either of those positions, or any other administrative positions for which plaintiff later applied.[8] The Board did not fill the middle school Assistant Principal position for which plaintiff had applied.[9] The Board hired Susan Moon[10] for the only high school Assistant Principal vacancy that arose while the job posting was in force.[11] Ms. Moon had prior experience as an Assistant Principal.[12] Plaintiff applied for another Assistant Principal opening in October of 2012, [13] but Shannon Brown was selected on November 26th.[14] Although plaintiff noted her failure to be selected for any of the foregoing positions in her complaint, she testified in deposition that she did not contend that defendant's rejection of her applications was discriminatory or retaliatory.[15]

         B. First Parental Complaint

         In February of 2013, Huntsville Middle School Principal Aaron King received a complaint via an electronic mail (“email”) message transmitted by Ralph Douglas, the father of one of plaintiff's students.[16] Mr. Douglas complained that plaintiff had treated his son in a rude and unprofessional manner by: refusing to let him have a tissue; refusing to help him when he raised his hand for assistance; making off-color comments about the sexuality of other staff and her own bra size; and, threatening to send his son to “in-school suspension” for raising his hand in class.[17] After plaintiff learned of the complaint, she placed a telephone call to Mr. Douglas at his workplace (the “Olive Garden Restaurant”), and asked him, in what Mr. Douglas later described as a rude tone, to come to the school for a conference.[18] Principal Aaron King and plaintiff met with Mr. Douglas on February 22, 2013, to discuss the complaint.[19]During the meeting, plaintiff confirmed that at least some of the allegations were true.[20] As a result, Mr. King reprimanded her in writing on February 26, 2013, and also noted that her demeanor during the February 22nd conference with Mr. Douglas had been unprofessional.[21]

         That same day, plaintiff called Mr. Douglas's supervisor at the Olive Garden Restaurant, and suggested that Mr. Douglas was “stealing” from the restaurant by providing free food to the Huntsville Middle School football team and others (including herself).[22] The restaurant supervisor reiterated plaintiff's allegations to Mr. Douglas, who explained that he had lodged a complaint about plaintiff's treatment of his son with the Middle School Principal. Mr. Douglas's supervisor then returned plaintiff's telephone call, and explained to her that he had approved the donation of food to the football team, and that all of the other donations attributed to Mr. Douglas had been recorded on the restaurant's “donation log.”[23]

         Mr. Douglas disclosed the foregoing series of events in another email to Principal King, who in turn asked plaintiff to respond, in writing, to the following questions:

1) On February 26, 2013, why did you contact the Olive Garden restaurant and question their general manager, Mr. David Price, about the donations that Mr. Douglas has helped them make to Huntsville Middle School?
2) What led you to inquire about donations made to the Huntsville Middle School Football team three months after the season ended?
3) Under whose authority did you act in questioning a Huntsville Middle School donor about donations made to the school?
4) If you have reason to believe some wrongdoing has been done, why did you not bring this to my attention, since I am the Huntsville Middle School principal?

         Doc. no. 15-7 (Exhibit B to King Affidavit), at ECF 24. Plaintiff initially responded to Mr. King on February 27, 2013, saying:

The conversation I had with Mr. Price did not involve Huntsville Middle School and was made after school hours. The conversation I had with Mr. Price was privledged [sic]. I was not acting as an agent or on behalf of Huntsville Middle School.

         Doc. no. 15-7 (Exhibit B to King Affidavit), at ECF 25. Plaintiff transmitted a second email to Mr. King the following day, saying:

As stated in my email on yesterday my phone call to Mr. Price was privileged and I was inquiring about HSV Middle School donations and I was not acting on behalf of HMS during the call. Since it was not the case that I was not acting [sic] as an agent of HMS can I reply to your questions on Wednesday, March 6th after I speak with Mr. Cheathem [sic].

Id. at ECF 24. (The “Mr. Cheathem” to whom plaintiff referred was the local representative of the Alabama Education Association, a statewide professional organization that represents public school employees in the state.[24])

         Following plaintiff's responses, Principal King issued another written reprimand on March 21, 2013, stating:

Despite your statement to the contrary, I have documentation which shows that your conversation with Mr. Price did involve Huntsville Middle School and the donations of one of our community partners, Olive Garden. Even though you claim that you were not acting as an agent of the school, employees of the school district who call others concerning school matters are presumed to be acting in an official manner. If you had reason to believe that there was impropriety or wrongdoing in the donations that Mr. Douglas facilitated on behalf of the Olive Garden Restaurant to Huntsville Middle School then you should have brought that to my attention. Instead you took it upon yourself to call the restaurant manager, accuse one of his employees (who also happens to be one of our parents) of an ethics violation, and embarrass the school.
Your contact with Mr. Price was unprofessional and retaliatory against Mr. Douglas. Mr. Douglas and the company he represents are excellent advocates for the school and we appreciate their work in support of the Huntsville Middle School clubs and teams. Your actions show a pattern of unprofessional behavior. You are directed to cease contact with all Huntsville Middle School community sponsors and donors with regard to school business unless you have prior written approval from me to do so.

Doc. no. 15-7 (Exhibit C to King Affidavit), at ECF 29.

         Notably, plaintiff claimed during her deposition that Mr. Douglas's complaint had not been prompted by her treatment of his son, but that it actually had been motivated by her rejection of his request for a “date.”[25]

         Around the time of the events described above, a team from the School Board's Department of Instruction conducted a “walkthrough” to observe the performance of Huntsville Middle School teachers in the classroom.[26] Edith Pickens, Director of Secondary Education and a member of the team, sent an email to Principal King on February 27, 2013, discussing some of the team members' observations during the walkthrough.[27] She specifically singled out plaintiff's demeanor with students for criticism.[28] She wrote that plaintiff had been

observed by several people. All noted that her tone with students was not acceptable. “Tone was caustic.” She lectured the entire time she was observed. The students had their computers out and she would ask a question. Students were supposed to look for their answer on google to answer her questions. There was a pacing problem with this activity, although the activity itself sounds questionable. Also, the information on the board was wrong. A student commented on this and showed the teacher that it was wrong. Even though the student remained very respectful, the teacher was “very sarcastic to the student.” “Teacher tone was harsh.”

         Doc. no. 15-7 (Exhibit E to King Affidavit), at ECF 38. It does not appear that plaintiff was counseled about the foregoing observations;[29] but, as will be discussed below, a subsequent reprimand was based, at least in part, on Ms. Pickens's email.

         C. Plaintiff's First EEOC Charge

         Shortly after receiving Principal King's February 26, 2013 reprimand, plaintiff filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC, alleging that she had been subjected to race discrimination and harassment.[30] She alleged that Principal King had: questioned her failure to wear school colors on “dress down Friday”; telephoned her part-time employer to inquire whether a substitute could be engaged, in order to enable plaintiff to attend Huntsville Middle School's open house; failed to respond to her request for information about the Teachers on Special Assignment (“TOSA”) program;[31] and, did not approve her request to be late for work in order to attend a medical appointment.[32] Notably, plaintiff did not include the February 26th reprimand as a basis for her claims of race discrimination and harassment.

         The so-called “Teachers on Special Assignment (‘TOSA') program” is a means of selecting teachers who lack prior administrative experience to serve in such positions, in order to groom the participants for Assistant Principal and Principal positions.[33] There is no formal application process; instead, candidates normally are nominated by their Principal or another administrator.[34] Teachers who are nominated for the program must hold an earned bachelor's degree, have accumulated a minimum of five years teaching experience, and have demonstrated “a proven [record of] academic achievement in the classroom.”[35] An “administrative certificate” is not required for the position.[36] Even though plaintiff requested information prior to the implementation of the TOSA program, she did not request Principal King to nominate or recommend her for the program.[37] In contrast, another Huntsville Middle School teacher, Stephanie Wieseman, specifically asked Principal King to recommend her for the program. He did so, and she was selected.[38]

         Five white and four black teachers were selected for the TOSA program during the 2012-13 school year.[39] Nine white and six black teachers were selected during the 2013-14 school year.[40] Dr. Barbara Cooper, the School System's Deputy Superintendent and an African-American female, participated in the selection process during the 2013-14 school year. She testified that she selected candidates based upon their qualifications and interviews, [41] and that she did not believe that plaintiff, even if she had been nominated, would have been a strong candidate for a TOSA appointment, or any other administrative position.[42]

         D. Other Administrative Position Applications

         Plaintiff applied for the positions of Principal and Curriculum Specialist during April of 2013, [43] but was not selected for either. Paula Cox, an Assistant Principal at another school, was hired for the vacant Principal position on July 15, 2013.[44] There is no indication in the record whether a selection for the Curriculum Specialist position was made.

         E. Plaintiff's Second EEOC Charge

         Plaintiff filed a second EEOC charge on April 28, 2013, and alleged that her March 21, 2013 reprimand had been imposed in retaliation for filing a discrimination complaint with “the HEA”: i.e., the Huntsville Education Association, the local chapter of the Alabama Education Association.[45] Plaintiff did not allege that she had been discriminated against on the basis of race.[46] The EEOC dismissed both the present charge and the charge filed during March of 2013 (and discussed in Part II.C, supra) on July 30, 2013, and issued notices of plaintiff's right to sue.[47] However, plaintiff did not subsequently file actions based upon either EEOC charge within the time allowed by law.

         F. Additional Criticism of Plaintiff's Performance

         Assistant Principal Richard Jernigan conducted a routine “walk-through” on April 1, 2013, during which he observed plaintiff's class. He later noted that she: arrived to the classroom late, after the bell signaling the beginning of the instructional period; did not post the objectives for the day on the blackboard; sat at her desk while the students worked; did not respond to a student's request for clarification; and, did not engage the students.[48] Plaintiff was not then counseled about those shortcomings; but, as will be discussed below, they later were used as justification for a reprimand.[49]

         During the same month, Principal Aaron King also received complaints from a parent of one of plaintiff's students.[50] The concerns included assertions that plaintiff: made personal telephone calls during class; often was absent from the classroom; left medication in plain view on her desk; and, was rude to students.[51] Principal King met with plaintiff to discuss the complaint on April 25, 2013, and met jointly with the complaining parent, Assistant Principal Richard Jernigan, and plaintiff five days later. He also met with two of plaintiff's students, and asked them to write statements about their social studies class. One student wrote:

We are not allowed to talk before the bell rings. Mrs. Brown never presents anything on the board. When we have a substitute if one person gets in trouble we are all punished. We are not allowed to use the hall passes for anything. She takes medication during class. When we raise our hands she will say “why do you have your hand up.”

         Doc. no. 15-7 (Exhibit F to King Affidavit), at ECF 43-44. The second student said that:

Ms. Brown is not really fair. Like she has a bad attitude even when we respect her she still has a bad attitude [sic]. Like for example [name redacted in original] had to use the bathroom and she wouldn't let him use it so he walked out and she wrote him up. She punishes the whole 5th period class for one's mistakes. And she doesn't repeat direction if we don't hear her. So she doesn't really teach.

Id.

         Based upon Principal King's meeting with plaintiff and the complaining parent, the April 2013 “walkthrough” observations of Assistant Principal Jernigan, the foregoing student statements, and the February 2013 observations recorded by Edith Pickens, Director of Secondary Education and a member of the School Board's Department of Instruction “walkthrough” team (see Part II.B, supra), Mr. King issued a written reprimand to plaintiff on May 10, 2013. He stated, in part, that “it is apparent that [plaintiff's] conduct in the classroom toward the students is adversarial and inappropriate.”[52] He concluded that, “despite direction to the contrary, you have continued to treat the students with contempt and have acted unprofessionally.”[53]

         Later that same day, plaintiff lodged a grievance against Principal King with Belinda Williams, the School Board's Compliance Director.[54] She listed the reasons for her grievance as follows:

1) Attacks on my personal character and professional character
2) Three letters of reprimand without documentation
3) Excessive classroom observations
4) Hindrance to professional growth
5) Denying requests for me but allowing others to perform similar requests
6) Negative and condescending emails
7) Lack of professional courtesy and respect
8) Lack of conferences addressing “unprofessional” behavior, parents [sic] concerns and concerns submitted by Mrs. Edith Pickens

Doc. no. 15-10 (Exhibit A to Williams Affidavit), at ECF 5. Plaintiff also alleged:

Aaron King has performed discriminatory acts against me while serving as my supervisor. He has refused requests submitted by me while allowing others to perform similar requests. Currently, I have two EEOC complaints filed regarding the discrimination I have faced during the 2012-2013 academic school year. I have received three letters of reprimand from Mr. Aaron King. All letters are based on the emotions and statements of others. No factual data has been submitted to validate any of the concerns mentioned in the reprimand letters. There are no collaborating witnesses but month after month I am called into the conference room, given the reprimand letters and each letter has been placed in my file. I have filed a complaint with the Huntsville Education Association, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regarding the constant harassment disseminated by Aaron King, my immediate supervisor. As an employee, I have not been given an opportunity to conference with Aaron King regarding any of the concerns in the letter or concerns submitted by parents. No corrective action has been offered or administered. I have explained, repeatedly, to Aaron King that the statements in the letters are inaccurate and grossly overstated. His response each time is, “You have the opportunity to rebuttal.” Aaron King does not regard me as a professional and an expert in my field and this is clearly exhibited in the acts of harassment and discrimination I have endured during the school year.

Id. at ECF 5-6. Ms. Williams investigated the complaint by interviewing plaintiff, Principal King, and approximately ten other witnesses.[55] Her response to plaintiff's complaint concluded that there was “no harassment against you by Mr. King. No further action is required at this time.” Doc. no. 15-10 (Exhibit B to Williams Affidavit), at ECF 8.

         Plaintiff took approved leave for health reasons on May 13, 2013 - nine days before the end of the school year - and remained on leave until the conclusion of that academic year.[56] Plaintiff did not submit lesson plans for the remainder of the year before taking leave, however, and Principal King asked Assistant Principal Jernigan to audit plaintiff's lesson plans, to determine which of the required Alabama Course of Study standards needed to be met during the remaining nine days of the school term.[57] In doing so, Mr. Jernigan discovered that plaintiff had not taught four standards relating to the seventh-grade citizenship class, three standards relating to the seventh-grade geography class, and five standards relating to the eighth-grade world history class.[58] His review of plaintiff's lesson plans also revealed that she taught the same world history standard from September 24 through December 7, 2013, and that she continued to teach that standard, along with other standards, until April 5, 2013.[59] Apparently, lesson plans documenting the standards to be taught were to be submitted weekly by each teacher, [60] but it is not clear from the record to whom the plans were to be delivered. In any event, it is clear (and, to say the least, troubling) that plaintiff's lesson plans were not reviewed by anyone within the school's administration until an issue arose as a result of her approved medical leave.

         On June 24, 2013, following Assistant Principal Jernigan's review, Principal King issued another written reprimand to plaintiff, listing the deficiencies noted above, and stating that, “for the week of October 1, 2012 through October 5, 2012[, ] you submitted an 8th grade World History lesson plan with 8th grade World History standards as the lesson plan for 7th Grade Citizenship class that you teach.”[61] He also faulted plaintiff for failing to turn in a grade book for the year, [62] which she denied.[63]

         G. Plaintiff's Third EEOC Charge

         Plaintiff filed a third charge with the EEOC on June 20, 2013, alleging retaliation based upon the May 10, 2013 reprimand discussed in Part II.F, supra. She stated, in part, that she had not been accorded “an opportunity to respond, ” and that the disciplinary action was in retaliation for her act of filing “a charge of discrimination with EEOC.”[64] The charge was investigated by the EEOC, and a dismissal and notice of plaintiff's right to sue was issued on September 25, 2013.[65]Plaintiff did not file an action in district court within the statutory ninety-day period.

         H. Plaintiff's Fourth EEOC Charge

         Plaintiff filed a fourth charge of discrimination with the EEOC on July 22, 2013, alleging that the June 24, 2013 reprimand had been issued in retaliation for her previous EEOC charges.[66] The charge was investigated by the EEOC, and a dismissal and notice of rights was issued on February 24, 2014.[67] Again, plaintiff failed to file a lawsuit within the statutory ninety-day period.

         I. Plaintiff's Transfer to Butler High School

         Sometime during July of 2013, plaintiff met with the Superintendent of the City School System, Dr. Casey Wardynski, Huntsville Education Association President Shirley Wellington, AEA Uniserv Director Rex Cheatham, Principal Aaron King, and Assistant Principal Richard Jernigan to discuss her dissatisfaction with her treatment at Huntsville Middle School.[68] In the course of the meeting, she asked to be transferred to another school during the forthcoming academic year.[69] The day after that conference, plaintiff received a telephone call from Edith Pickens, Director of Secondary Education, who informed plaintiff that the only position available was located at Butler High School.[70] Plaintiff reluctantly accepted the transfer.[71]

         Butler High School was permanently closed at the conclusion of the 2014-15 academic year, and plaintiff then was reassigned to Grissom High School for the 2015-16 school year.[72] She taught there only briefly, until November of 2015, when she resigned in order to accept a position as a Principal in the Giles County, Tennessee, school system.[73]

         J. Plaintiff's Fifth EEOC Charge

         Plaintiff filed a fifth EEOC charge on August 26, 2013, alleging that she was not selected as a “TOSA” because of her race, and in retaliation for her previous EEOC charges.[74] A dismissal and notice of right to sue was issued on February 24, 2014, but - yet again - she did not file an action in federal court within the time allowed by law.[75]

         K. Plaintiff's Sixth (and Final) EEOC Charge

         Plaintiff's final EEOC charge was filed on November 6, 2015, and alleged that, during May of 2015, she had applied for the positions of Assistant Principal, Turnaround Specialist, and Dean of Students, but she had not been interviewed or selected for any of those positions because of her race, and in retaliation for her previous EEOC charges.[76] The EEOC issued a dismissal and notice of right to sue on April 26, 2016.[77] Plaintiff commenced this action exactly ninety days later, on July 25, 2016.[78]

         III. ...


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