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Bragg v. Huntsville City Board of Education

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

September 26, 2018

RICHARD BRAGG, Plaintiff,
v.
HUNTSVILLE CITY BOARD OF EDUCATION, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          MADELINE HUGHES HAIKALA UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Richard Bragg alleges that defendant Huntsville City Board of Education forced him to retire because of his age in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). Pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the Board asks the Court to enter summary judgment in in its favor. (Doc. 45). The Board also asks the Court to strike portions of Mr. Bragg's responsive brief and affidavit. (Doc. 59). For the following reasons, the Court denies the Board's motion to strike and enters summary judgment for the Board.

         I. SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD

         “The 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). To demonstrate that there is a genuine dispute as to a material fact that precludes summary judgment, a party opposing a motion for summary judgment must cite “to particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations (including those made for purposes of the motion only), admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1)(A). “‘Genuine disputes [of material fact] are those in which the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-movant. For factual issues to be considered genuine, they must have a real basis in the record.'” Evans v. Books-A-Million, 762 F.3d 1288, 1294 (11th Cir. 2014) (quoting Mize v. Jefferson City Bd. of Educ., 93 F.3d 739, 742 (11th Cir. 1996)).

         When considering a motion for summary judgment, the Court must view the evidence in the record in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party. White v. Beltram Edge Tool Supply, Inc., 789 F.3d 1188, 1191 (11th Cir. 2015). Even if the Court doubts the veracity of the evidence, the Court cannot make credibility determinations of the evidence. Feliciano v. City of Miami Beach, 707 F.3d 1244, 1252 (11th Cir. 2013) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986)).

         II. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Mr. Bragg worked for the Board as a physical education aide at Montview Elementary School from September 1996 until he retired in February 2015. (Doc. 55-1, p. 2, ¶¶ 3-4). Mr. Bragg assisted in P.E., monitored students before and during breakfast, restrained children when necessary to prevent fights, and participated in safety patrol. (Doc. 47-1, p. 9).

         Mr. Bragg was 60 years old and eligible for benefits when he retired after the Board's then-superintendent, Dr. Casey Wardynski, proposed that the Board terminate Mr. Bragg's employment. (Doc. 55-1, p. 3, ¶ 7). Three events in 2014 formed the basis for the proposed termination. Consistent with the summary judgment standard, the Court will present the facts of these and subsequent events in the light most favorable to Mr. Bragg and draw reasonable inferences in his favor.

         A. The February 18, 2014 Accusations

         On February 18, 2014, Towana Davis, the principal of Montview Elementary, received notice that a group of fifth grade students had accused Mr. Bragg of inappropriate conduct. (Doc. 47-1, pp. 10, 66). The students accused Mr. Bragg of taunting students; standing in the doorway of the girls' restroom and making snide remarks; threatening students; insulting students; invading students' personal space; bullying students; yelling at students; inappropriately touching students; and inappropriately grabbing students. (Doc. 47-1, p. 66). Mr. Bragg testified that one of the accusers, a fifth grade student, was a “ring leader[] going around and getting [her] friends to say things.” (Doc. 47-1, p. 10). An accusing student's parent told the student to not say things just because her friends were saying them. (Doc. 47-1, p. 10).

         Ms. Davis “spent the day investigating the accusations.” (Doc. 47-1, p. 64). She first met with the students to hear their complaint. (Doc. 47-1, p. 65). Then she met with Mr. Bragg. (Doc. 47-1, p. 65). At the meeting, Mr. Bragg denied the accusations. (Doc. 47-1, pp. 10-11). Ms. Davis instructed Mr. Bragg to be careful and to keep his hands off students, and she asked him to prepare a written response to the students' accusations. (Doc. 47-1, p. 12, tr. p. 42; Doc. 47-1, p. 65). Mr. Bragg indicated that it would be difficult to never touch a student because he was “the restraint person at the school, ” meaning he was trained by the school to restrain students from fighting. (Doc. 47-1, p. 12, tr. p. 42). Even after the allegations of inappropriate touching, school officials still called Mr. Bragg to “handle children that were out of line in classes or in the hall.” (Doc. 47-1, p. 12, tr. p. 42).

         After Ms. Davis met with Mr. Bragg, she met with a physical education teacher, Mark Wilkins, and she again “met with the students collectively and gave them an opportunity to tell their side of the story” and “share any further information.” (Doc. 47-1, p. 65).

         Mr. Bragg submitted his written response to the allegations. He stated:

Taunting of students []has never happened. They talk back to other adults as well as myself. I correct them, but they talk back or make remarks. I have only stood outside the bathrooms[] when I have been told to because they are misbehaving. I have never in my 18 years threatened a student, other than saying I will call a parent or tell someone. Insulting students has never happened. I have told children that in [the] past kids did not talk back or disrespect any adults.
Invading personal space only has happened when I had to get in a child['s] face to get attention.
Bullying has not happened-yelling is my last thing I turn to. Yelling is when class is loud.
Touching has NEVER happened to any children [in 18 years, and these accusations have never happened].
I would be more than glad to talk []to any student and their parents.
[I am] a strong disciplinarian, but [everything] is false accusations.

(Doc. 47-1, p. 67).

         At his deposition, when asked about the February 2014 allegations, Mr. Bragg testified that he never taunted, threatened, insulted, bullied, inappropriately touched or grabbed, or invaded the personal space of students. (Doc. 47-1, pp. 10-11). Mr. Bragg testified that he stood outside the girls' bathroom only because some girls had been fighting in the bathroom, and Ms. Davis asked him and another teacher, Amy Clark, to stand outside the bathroom and make sure the students got to class without fighting. (Doc. 47-1, pp. 9-10). Mr. Bragg testified that he never yelled at a student unless he had to “get over the noise . . . in a gym” and acknowledged that his voice might come across as harsh because he is a coach. (Doc. 47-1, p. 11). Mr. Bragg testified that he grabbed students only when he had to restrain a student from a fight or “anything where a child had to be restrained.” (Doc. 47-1, p. 11).

         Mr. Bragg suspected that the students might have told “untruths” about him because Mr. Bragg previously had disciplined the students. (Doc. 47-1, p. 15). As an aide, Mr. Bragg sometimes had to monitor classes, during which he had to tell students to pay attention to the teacher. (Doc. 47-1, p. 15). He also had to supervise students in the morning before the cafeteria opened and make sure things ran smoothly during breakfast. (Doc. 47-1, p. 16). According to Mr. Bragg, the students who complained about him all had past behavior problems. (Doc. 47-1, p. 15, tr. p. 56). The same students had also accused Ms. Clark of being mean to them and calling them names. (Doc. 47-1, p. 16, tr. p. 57).

         At the end of the day, Ms. Davis sent a letter to Helen Scott, the Board's director of instruction. (Doc. 47-1, p. 64). In the letter, Ms. Davis questioned the credibility of the students' accusations:

I wanted to let you know that I have spent the day investigating the accusations made by my 5th grade students against Mr. Richard Bragg (PE instructional aide). Not only did I speak with the students, but I also held conversations with Mr. Mark Wilkins and Mr. Richard Bragg. I felt compelled to share with you my personal feelings regarding the entire situation. Although some of the minor accusations may contain an “ounce” of truth, it is accurate to say that the majority of the students making the accusations have previously voiced their strong dislike for Coach Bragg. Additionally, these students have a strong dislike for any authority figure who attempts to instill respectful behavior. Also, it should also be noted that these students [have] chronic behavior problems.

(Doc. 47-1, p. 64). Ms. Davis testified that she wrote this “because the students often complained about him for minor -- whatever. And so I just wanted [Ms. Scott] to make sure that when she received all of this information that she knew that there was a possibility that some things may have been said because they did not like him.” (Doc. 47-3, p. 9).

         Mr. Bragg feels that Ms. Davis's letter “stated basically that [he] didn't do anything.” (Doc. 47-1, p. 12, tr. p. 41). Dr. Wardynski testified that the letter shows Ms. Davis “discounted [the students'] opinions.” (Doc. 47-2, p. 13). No formal reprimand or disciplinary action came of the allegations.

         B. The April 1, 2014 Incident

         On April 1, 2014, while Mr. Bragg was walking through the lunchroom, he saw a female student about to start a fight with a young man. (Doc. 47-1, pp. 13, 68). Mr. Bragg “kind of tugged on her hood” and told her to turn around. (Doc. 47-1, p. 13). The student said, “get your damn hands off me.” (Doc. 47-1, p. 13, tr. p. 48). Mr. Bragg told her, “wait a minute. I'm an adult. All I'm trying to do is help you stay out of trouble.” (Doc. 47-1, p. 13, tr. p. 48). Mr. Bragg then told the student's teacher to watch her because she was about to get into a fight. (Doc. 47-1, p. 13, tr. p. 48).

         Soon afterwards, the student met with Ms. Davis and wrote a statement about the incident. (Doc. 47-1, pp. 14, 69). The student wrote that Mr. Bragg grabbed her hoodie, put his hand on her stomach, grabbed her arm tightly, pulled her to his pants, and would not let go of her when she tried to pull herself up. (Doc. 47-1, p. 69). Ms. Davis took notes of a conversation she had with the student later that day. (Doc. 47-3, p. 11, tr. p. 40). Ms. Davis wrote that the student said that she felt uncomfortable and that Mr. Bragg pulled her hoodie, grabbed her arm and stomach, and pulled her towards his “private area.” (Doc. 47-1, p. 69).

         Ms. Davis spoke with the student's mother about the incident. (Doc. 47-1, pp. 14, 69). Ms. Davis wrote that the student's mother said that the student complained about Mr. Bragg all year for screaming and yelling for no reason and that the student was scared of Mr. Bragg and afraid of repercussions for reporting him. (Doc. 47-1, p. 69).

         Mr. Bragg met with Ms. Davis and denied that he rubbed the student against his groin. (Doc. 47-1, p. 14, tr. p. 49). Mr. Bragg wrote a statement about the incident:

. . . I could tell she was mad, so I gently tugged on her jacket. She jerked and said “get your damn hands off of me.” At that time I reached and touched her arm and told her wait a minute you are acting up with the wrong person. I am just trying to keep you out of trouble. She continued at which I tried to tell her the wrong child will knock her out. She used to be a member of school safety patrol. She changed this year.
Ms. Donna Walker and I have tried to speak to her and she has said we don't know her, because she is bad.
I have never hurt her at any time and I was trying to keep her out of trouble.

(Doc. 47-1, p. 68).

         The student was one of Mr. Bragg's accusers in February 2014. (Doc. 47-1, p. 13, tr. p. 47). According to Mr. Bragg, the student previously made up a story about Ms. Walker. (Doc. 47-1, p. 15, tr. p. 55).

         At a meeting on April 3, 2014, Ms. Davis told Mr. Bragg to be careful about touching children and invading their private space. (Doc. 47-1, p. 14, tr. p. 52). Mr. Bragg told Ms. Davis that he would not touch children in a restraining manner, but after the meeting, he still was called on to discipline misbehaving students. (Doc. 47-1, p. 14, tr. p. 52).

         At the meeting, Ms. Davis gave Mr. Bragg a formal reprimand memo. (Doc. 47-1, pp. 14, 56). In the memo, Ms. Davis mentioned that she informed Mr. Bragg that the February 2014 allegations were serious claims that may warrant district level disciplinary actions. (Doc. 47-1, p. 56). Ms. Davis stated that she was “greatly concerned that these accusations have reoccurred since our last meeting. I was very direct when stating that you must maintain a ‘hands off approach' with respect to all children.” (Doc. 47-1, p. 56). Ms. Davis reprimanded Mr. Bragg for “fail[ing] to adhere to directives from this office.” (Doc. 47-1, p. 56).

         On April 15, 2014, Mr. Bragg sent to Ms. Davis and the Board's compliance director, Belinda Williams, a response to the reprimand because he felt “that some facts should be addressed.” (Doc. 47-1, p. 72). In the letter, Mr. Bragg stated:

. . . I have tried to help our students excel in class as well as in life. In return all I have asked for is children to have respect for ALL adults and to behave in an age appropriate manner.
As to the accusations on February 18th and April 1st, it has been proven that I did none of the things I was accused of. I am strict in my methods as I have been for 18 years but have always had the students' best interests at heart. These past two years we have seen, by far, the worst behavior out of our students. I am constantly cursed at, told to shut up, talked back to and the list could go on. I feel most of the children want some form of discipline because they lack it in the home. There is no accountability for the parents.
In my opinion having a reprimand put in my file is unjust because the accusations were not substantiated. I have always followed the directives and procedures. I will however maintain a “hands ...

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