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Brown v. Shelby County Board of Education

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

September 21, 2018

RODNEY G. BROWN, Plaintiff,
v.
SHELBY COUNTY BOARD OF EDUCATION, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          R. D AVID PROCTOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This case is before the court on Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. # 20). The parties have fully briefed the Motion (Docs. # 21, 23, 26), and it is under submission. After careful review, and for the reasons explained below, the court concludes that Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment is due to be granted in part and denied in part.

         I. Factual Background[1]

         This employment discrimination and retaliation action concerns four hiring decisions[2]made by Defendant Shelby County Board of Education.[3] Plaintiff Rodney Brown applied for all four positions and interviewed for one of them, but he was not selected for any of the positions. He claims the Board's failure to hire him was because of his race and age, and in retaliation for his prior complaints of discrimination. The court begins its review of the facts by discussing the Rule 56 record regarding Plaintiff's work history and qualifications. The court then reviews the Board's hiring procedures and describes each of the Board's four hiring decisions in turn.

         A. Plaintiff's Work History and Qualifications

         Plaintiff is an African American male, aged 53, who is a lifetime resident of Shelby County, Alabama. (Doc. # 24-4 at ¶ 2). He worked in the Shelby County Schools (“SCS”) for approximately 13 years, first as a paraprofessional and then as a special education teacher. (Id.). Prior to joining SCS, Plaintiff spent nine years working with at-risk children and adults as a case manager at the Chilton-Shelby Mental Health Center. (Id. at ¶ 3).

         SCS hired Plaintiff in 1999 as a substitute teacher at Thompson High School in Alabaster, Alabama. (Id.). At that time, he had a bachelor's degree in business administration. (Doc. # 22-1 at 68). In 2001, SCS hired Plaintiff into a special education position at Thompson High School to work one-on-one with emotionally disturbed children. (Doc. # 24-4 at ¶ 4). SCS initially hired Plaintiff under an emergency certificate, which Plaintiff has testified is required when a teacher has not yet been certified to teach special education by the Alabama State Department of Education. (Id. at ¶¶ 4, 11-13). In 2002, Plaintiff received an alternative certification which permitted him to serve as a collaborative special education teacher while he continued to pursue his special education certification with the State. (Id. at ¶ 4). During his time at Thompson, Plaintiff eventually became certified to teach special education in Alabama, earned his master's of education in special education, and earned a professional certification in education administration. (Id. at ¶ 4; Doc. # 22-1 at 68). But he did not hold any formal leadership or administrative positions while at Thompson (Doc. # 22-1 at 68-69), at least in part because leadership opportunities were available only by invitation of the principal, and Plaintiff was never invited to participate in any leadership or coaching opportunities. (Doc. # 24-4 at ¶ 5). Plaintiff's resume in 2015 did, however, list the following experiences under the heading “Leadership”: Mentor Teacher (2006-2008), ED Self-Contained Teacher Leader (2001-2005), Academic Tutoring (2008-2009), Homebound Instruction (2008-2013), and Student Recognition Team (2013-2014). (Doc. # 24-6 at 1). Plaintiff remained at Thompson High School as a special education teacher until August 2016.[4] (Doc. # 22-4 at ¶ 7).

         In August 2016, Plaintiff left Thompson High School and began working for the Midfield City Schools (schools not affiliated with SCS) as a special education teacher for middle school students grades five through eight. (Id. at ¶ 7). During his time with Midfield, Plaintiff pursued a number of leadership opportunities, such as committee service (including the calendar committee) and the teacher leader academy. (Id. at ¶ 7). During the 2016-17 school year, Plaintiff also served as acting principal and acting assistant principal at Rutledge Middle School on occasion when the principal or assistant principal were absent. (Brown Deposition at 19-20).[5]Plaintiff served as acting principal twice (one full day, one half day) and as acting assistant principal three or four times. (Id. at 20, 23-24). His duties as acting principal included monitoring the halls and disciplining students as needed. (Id. at 21). As acting assistant principal, Plaintiff was responsible for monitoring the halls and cafeteria, ensuring students were not tardy, disciplining students as needed, and ensuring students were on the correct afternoon bus. (Id. at 21-23).

         Plaintiff has complained about discriminatory treatment from SCS on multiple occasions prior to bringing this lawsuit. Those occasions include an EEOC charge and lawsuit in 2012 (Doc. # 1 at ¶ 19), an amended complaint adding additional charges of race discrimination and retaliation in June 2013 (Id. at ¶ 20), and an EEOC charge in November 2015 (Id. at ¶ 3) that served as the basis for the present lawsuit, which Plaintiff filed in August 2016.

         B. SCS's Hiring Procedures

         When SCS needs to hire a teacher or administrator, it typically posts a notice of vacancy inviting candidates to apply online. (Doc. # 22-3 at ¶ 4). A screening panel then reviews each online application. (Id. at ¶¶ 5, 7). Each screening panel agrees upon filters to narrow down the pool of applicants, and the filters vary from panel to panel, depending on the position, the location, the applicant pool, and the members of the panel.[6] (Id. at ¶ 6; Dixon Deposition at 20-21; Miller Deposition at 10-11).[7] Screening panels typically begin by looking at each candidate's experience and general employment history. (Doc. # 22-3 at ¶ 7). If an application is incomplete or not current, or the candidate lacks a desired filter or required certification, the panel typically skips over that candidate.[8] (Id.) Candidates that reflect the desired experiences are flagged for closer review. (Id.). After the panel reviews all the applications, it focuses on the flagged names to determine who to invite for an interview. (Id. at ¶ 8).

         An interview panel (which typically overlaps with but may not be identical to the screening panel) then interviews select candidates. (Id. at ¶ 10). After interviews, the interview panel comes to a consensus about who to recommend to the Superintendent. (Id. at ¶ 11). If interviews do not yield a consensus recommendation, a panel may review more applications, revise its filters, or simply agree not to make a recommendation, in which case SCS will not fill the position. (Id.). Once the panel has settled on a consensus candidate, the Superintendent makes a formal recommendation to the Board based on the panel's recommendation. (Id. at ¶ 12).

         In recent years, for each administrative position (but not for teaching positions), Human Resources typically provides Board members with general information regarding the selection process, including the number of applicants, the number of candidates invited to interview and actually interviewed, the name of the recommended candidate, and the names of the interview panelists. (Id. at ¶ 13). The Board receives only the name of the recommended candidate. (Id.) The Board does not receive the names of unsuccessful applicants or any demographic information regarding any of the candidates. (Id.).

         C. The 2015 Assistant Principal Positions at Oak Mountain Middle School and Helena Middle School

         In April 2015, SCS posted vacancies for assistant principal positions at Oak Mountain Middle School (“OMMS”) and Helena Middle School (“HMS”). (Doc. # 22-3 at ¶ 15). For each position, SCS received more than 190 applications, including Plaintiff's. (Id.; Doc. # 22-5 at ¶¶ 5, 7). SCS combined the hiring processes for these positions, and the same panel screened applications and conducted interviews for both positions. (Doc. # 22-3 at ¶ 15). The screening panel first reviewed the online applications and then invited candidates to interview for the positions. (Doc. # 22-7 at ¶ 4). For external candidates, the panel members looked for formal administrative experience (e.g., work as an assistant principal or other central office administrator), while for internal candidates they looked for teacher leadership (e.g., committee service, sponsoring clubs, coaching sports teams). (Docs. # 22-3 at ¶¶ 7, 17; 22-5 at ¶ 4; 22-7 at ¶ 3; 24-5 at 2). The panel members do not recall reviewing Plaintiff's application, but they acknowledge they did so because they reviewed all applications. (Docs. # 22-3 at ¶ 20; 22-5 at ¶ 7; 22-7 at ¶ 7). During the screening process, the panel did not discuss any candidate's race or age, and no one mentioned Plaintiff's prior litigation. (Doc. # 22-3 at ¶ 21).

         The panel invited nineteen (19) candidates to interview, eight (8) internal and eleven (11) external. (Doc. # 22-3 at ¶ 18). Plaintiff was not among the candidates selected to be interviewed. (Id.).

         Following the interviews, the panel unanimously recommended Caroline Gluck-Obert (white, DOB: 1983) for the OMMS position and Bakari Young (African American, DOB: 1982) for the HMS position. (Doc. # 22-3 at ¶ 22). The panel members were impressed by their prior experience, including prior middle school and assistant principal experience, as well as their performance in the interview process. (Id. at ¶¶ 22-23). Ms. Gluck-Obert had nine years of experience in public education, most of it at the middle school level, and had served as an assistant principal in the Jefferson County Schools for two years. (Id. at ¶ 22). Mr. Young had ten years of experience in public education, at both the elementary and middle school level, and had served as an assistant principal in the Jefferson County Schools for four years. (Id.). At the time, Plaintiff had no middle school experience and had never served as an assistant principal. (Id. at ¶ 23; Doc. # 22-1 at 68-69).

         Based on the panel's recommendation, the Board hired Ms. Gluck-Obert and Mr. Young as the assistant principals for OMMS and HMS, respectively, on May 14, 2015. (Doc. # 22-3 at ¶ 25). When it considered the panel's recommendation, the Board members did not know the race or age of either Ms. Gluck-Obert or Mr. Young and did not know Plaintiff had applied for the position. (Docs. # 22-8 at ¶¶ 4-5; 22-9 at ¶¶ 4-5).

         D. The 2015 Assistant Principal Position at Oak Mountain High School

         In June 2015, SCS posted a vacancy for an assistant principal position at Oak Mountain High School (“OMHS”). Around that same time, SCS had also posted an assistant principal position for Calera High School (“CHS”), so SCS combined the selection processes, using the same panel for both positions. (Doc. # 22-10 at ¶¶ 3-4). The panel reviewed over 150 applications submitted for the two positions, including Plaintiff's. (Doc. # 22-3 at ¶¶ 29, 32). For external candidates, the panel members looked for formal administrative experience (e.g., work as an assistant principal or other central office administrator), while for internal candidates they looked for teacher leadership (e.g., committee service, sponsoring clubs, coaching sports teams). (Dixon Deposition at 13-14; Docs. # 22-3 at ¶ 28; 22-10 at ¶ 5; 22-11 at ¶ 4; 22-12 at ¶ 4; 24-5 at 2). The panel members do not recall reviewing Plaintiff's application, but they know they did so because they reviewed all applications. (Doc. # 22-3 at ¶ 32). During the screening process, the panel did not discuss any candidate's race or age, and no one mentioned Plaintiff's prior litigation. (Id. at ¶ 33).

         The panel invited sixteen (16) candidates to interview, three (3) internal and thirteen (13) external.[9] (Doc. # 24-5 at 4). Plaintiff was not among the candidates selected to interview. (Doc. # 22-3 at ¶ 30).

         Following the interviews, the panel recommended Chris Sims (African American, DOB: 1973) for the CHS position (Doc. # 22-3 at ¶ 34), and the Board ultimately hired Mr. Sims for that position (Dixon Deposition at 17-18). The Board did not at that time formally fill the OMHS position. (Doc. # 22-10 at ¶ 11). But a short time later, a current teacher at OMHS, Kyle Dudley (white, DOB: 1984), was appointed as administrative assistant of OMHS on a one-year assignment. (Doc. # 24-5 at 4). Though the parties dispute this point, Plaintiff contends that Dudley's appointment as administrative assistant was the means of filling the OMHS assistant principal position. To support this contention, Plaintiff points to an internal SCS email stating, “Kyle Dudley has [been] placed as administrative assistant at Oak Mountain High School. This is in place of hiring an assistant principal.” (Doc. # 24-11 at 31). Plaintiff also points to the similar duties listed in the job descriptions for the administrative assistant and assistant principal positions. (Doc. # 24-11 at 88-91; Dudley Deposition at 57-58).[10]

         Prior to being appointed administrative assistant at OMHS, Mr. Dudley had been a fulltime teacher for six years at OMHS. (Dudley Deposition at 19-26). During his first three years teaching at OMHS, Mr. Dudley served as assistant coach of the OMHS baseball and crosscountry teams, and during his second three years he served as head coach of the OMHS track and cross-country teams. (Id. at 22-26). Dudley served as administrative assistant at OMHS from July 2015 until July 2017, when he was hired as an assistant principal at OMHS. (Id. at 38, 52-54).

         E. The 2017 Special Education Teacher Position at Oak Mountain Middle School

         In the summer of 2017, Larry Haynes, the principal at OMMS, sought to fill two special education teacher vacancies-a 6th grade inclusion position and a self-contained position. (Haynes Deposition at 6-7).[11] In approximately July 2017, Plaintiff applied for the self-contained position. (Brown Deposition at 96-97; Haynes Deposition at 27). Mr. Haynes reviewed applications and interviewed candidates for both positions simultaneously. (Doc. # 22-5 at ¶¶ 13, 16, 17). By the time Mr. Haynes called Mr. Brown for an interview, he had already interviewed twelve (12) candidates for these positions and offered the jobs to other candidates. (Id. at ¶ 15). By mid-July, however, Mr. Haynes still had not filled either position. (Id.).

         When Mr. Haynes invited Plaintiff to interview, Plaintiff explained that although he had applied for the self-contained special education position, he had withdrawn his application because he was interested in an inclusion position. (Haynes Deposition at 26-28, 51-52; Brown Deposition at 97, 229). Mr. Haynes encouraged Plaintiff to come interview as he was trying to fill both inclusion and self-contained positions, so Plaintiff agreed to be interviewed. (Haynes Deposition at 27-28, 51; Brown Deposition at 99, 229). Mr. Haynes later testified that he doesn't “invite anybody to interview unless [he] thinks they've got good qualifications and can do a good job.” (Haynes Deposition at 52).

         Mr. Haynes arranged interviews for July 19, 2017, with Plaintiff, Jill Hickman, and Jennifer Nicewonder. (Doc. # 22-5 at ¶¶ 16-17). Plaintiff arrived late for his interview, so the panel proceeded to interview the two other candidates (Hickman and Nicewonder) who had already arrived for their interviews. (Id. at ¶¶ 18-19). When he arrived, Plaintiff said he had mistakenly gone to Mountain Brook Junior High School instead of coming to OMMS. (Id. at ¶ 19). This concerned the interviewers, but they proceeded with the interview. (Id.; Haynes Deposition at 58-59; Doc. # 22-7 at ¶ 14). The interviewers gave Plaintiff mostly “average” and “above average” interview scores. (Doc. # 22-14 at 87-90). During the interview and screening process, no one mentioned anything about Plaintiff having filed a complaint against SCS. (Docs. # 22-5 at ¶ 27; 22-7 at ¶ 19).

         After interviewing all three candidates, the panel agreed that Ms. Nicewonder was the best candidate for the inclusion position and that Ms. Hickman was the best candidate for the self-contained position. (Doc. # 22-5 at ¶ 20). Mr. Haynes offered the positions to Ms. Nicewonder and Ms. Hickman, but both declined. (Id. at 20-21).

         A few days later, on July 24, 2017, Mr. Haynes and other panel members interviewed Haley Gunnels (white, DOB: 1988) and were favorably impressed by her. (Id. at ¶¶ 22-24). The interviewers rated Ms. Gunnels mostly “exceptional, ” with a few “above average” ratings. (Doc. # 22-14 at 50-54). Based on the panel's recommendation, the Board hired Ms. Gunnels for the inclusion special education position at OMMS. (Doc. # 22-5 at ¶¶ 24, 28). The Board members did not discuss any candidate's race or age, and the Board members had no information suggesting that Plaintiff had applied for the position. (Docs. # 22-8 at ¶¶ 3, 7; 22-9 at ¶¶ 3, 7).

         At the time of her hiring, Ms. Gunnels had only two years of special education teaching experience, was not yet certified to teach special education by the Alabama State Department of Education, and had not yet completed her master's degree in special education. (Haynes Deposition at 12; Docs. # 22-14 at 42-44; 24-3 at 1-2). She did, however, have a K-6 teaching certification in all subject areas, coaching experience, and experience as a technology coordinator, all of which Plaintiff lacked. (Doc. # 22-5 at ¶ 23).

         Plaintiff has testified that in order to teach special education in Shelby County schools, a teacher must be certified in special education by the Alabama State Department of Education. (Doc. # 24-4 at ¶ 11). According to Plaintiff, if a teacher is not certified in special education, the teacher must have an emergency or alternative certification while the teacher is in the process of attaining the special education certification. (Id. at ¶ 12). Plaintiff claims he is well aware of Shelby County's policy on this issue because the policy was applied to him in the early 2000s, when Plaintiff was seeking his own special education certification. (Id. at ¶¶ 4, 13).

         The Board disputes Plaintiff's version of SCS's policy regarding teacher certification. It claims that SCS often provides temporary contracts to special education teachers who do not have a special education certification, but who are otherwise certified teachers. (Doc. # 25-1 at ¶¶ 8-9). The Board claims that SCS adhered to its standard policy in hiring Ms. Gunnels because she was a certified teacher at the time of her hire and SCS hired her on a temporary contract, pending her certification in special education. (Id. at ¶ 10). According to the Board, SCS expected Ms. Gunnels to become special education certified in December 2017, upon completion of her master's program in special education. (Id.).

         II. Summary ...


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