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Huff v. Birmingham City Schools

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

February 8, 2019

SHERRI HUFF, Plaintiff,



         Plaintiff Sherri Huff alleges she was discriminated against when she was not hired as the athletic director for the Birmingham City Schools. The court[1] has before it the November 30, 2018 motion for summary judgment filed by Defendant Birmingham City Schools. (Doc. 24).[2] The motion has been fully briefed (Docs. 25, 29, 32) and is now under submission. For the reasons set forth below, the motion is due to be granted in full.


         On November 30, 2017, Plaintiff Sherri Huff filed a complaint against the Birmingham City Schools stating four causes of action. (Doc. 1). Count one alleges unlawful age discrimination in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”), 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq. (Id. ¶¶ 18-28). Counts two and three allege sex and race discrimination, respectively, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq. (Id. ¶¶ 29-52). Count four alleges race discrimination in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981. (Id. ¶¶ 53-64). Defendant moved for summary judgment on all four claims. (Doc. 24). In response to the motion, Plaintiff abandoned her claims under the ADEA and section 1981. (Doc. 29 at n.1). As such, only two claims remain: one for sex discrimination and one for race discrimination, both brought pursuant to Title VII.

         Defendant contends summary judgment is due to be granted in its favor because (1) Plaintiff cannot establish a prima facie case of sex and/or race discrimination in the failure to hire her as athletic director; and, even if she could, (2) Defendant acted for legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons and Plaintiff cannot show the reasons are a pretext for intentional sex and/or race discrimination. (Doc. 25). Plaintiff filed a brief in opposition to the motion (doc. 29) and Defendant filed a reply brief (doc. 32).


         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c), summary judgment is proper “if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). The party asking for summary judgment always bears the initial responsibility of informing the court of the basis for its motion and identifying those portions of the pleadings or filings which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Id. at 323. Once the moving party has met its burden, Rule 56(e) requires the non-moving party to go beyond the pleadings and by his own affidavits, or by the depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, designate specific facts showing there is a genuine issue for trial. See Id. at 324.

         The substantive law identifies which facts are material and which are irrelevant. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). All reasonable doubts about the facts and all justifiable inferences are resolved in favor of the non-movant. See Fitzpatrick v. City of Atlanta, 2 F.3d 1112, 1115 (11th Cir. 1993). A dispute is genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. If the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted. See id. at 249.


         Dr. Sherri Huff, a Caucasian female, earned a master's degree in physical education and athletic administration, as well as an Ed.S[4] in physical education and in administration. (Doc. 26-1 (“Huff Dep.”) at 6-7; Doc. 26-2 (“Contri Dep.”) at 57). She earned a doctorate in educational administration and leadership. (Huff Dep. at 7). Plaintiff has a long history of employment in public education in Alabama. She began her employment in 1990 as a teacher's aide and coach at Trussville Middle School. (Id. at 9). She then got a full-time teaching job in the Birmingham City Schools in 1991 at Washington K-8 teaching physical education and coaching basketball. (Id.). She resigned her position there and moved to Tarrant Elementary in 1992 as a physical education teacher and coach, [5] where she remained until 1996. (Id. at 10-11).

         Plaintiff returned to Birmingham City Schools in 1996 as the program specialist for athletics and physical education. (Id. at 14). In that position, Plaintiff worked with all the athletic programs and “did scheduling, budgets, everything an athletic director does.” (Id. at 14). In 2012, there was a reduction in force at the Birmingham City Schools and a restructuring in the administration. (Id. at 19-20). The athletic department and physical education department were split and the athletic department was dissolved. (Id.). The athletic director at the time was moved to the program specialist position and Plaintiff was moved to a teacher position, but would leave the school to perform “athletic responsibilities” for half the day at the Board of Education.[6] (Id. at 19-21). That arrangement continued until 2014. (Id. at 24).

         In 2014, Alfonso “Buck” Johnson was hired as athletic director, and Plaintiff was the athletic liaison under him. (Id. at 24). She was then hired as the assistant athletic director in 2015. (Id. at 26). “All athletic director responsibilities were included in that position, ” including developing schedules, working on the budget, transportation, travel, and player eligibility. (Id. at 27). After working in that position for a year, Plaintiff returned to her position as program specialist in 2016.[7](Id. at 31). As program specialist, Plaintiff did professional development for physical education teachers, worked with principals and teachers and coordinated the after school “Let's Move” program for elementary schools. (Id. at 33-34). Plaintiff reported to Dr. Mark Sullivan, then-chief academic officer, because the position was on the curriculum or physical education side, not athletics. (Id. at 32, 34).

         In late August or early September 2016, the Birmingham City Schools posted a vacancy for the position of athletic director. (Huff Dep. at 34-35). The posting and application process was all online. (Id. at 35-36). The posting included a job description, as well as the requirements for the job. The requirements included a bachelor's degree, with a master's degree preferred. (Doc. 26-1 at 63). It also stated “[a] minimum of five (5) years of direct experience as a middle/high public school Athletic Director required.” (Id.). The posting was developed by the then-Operations Officer for the school system, Dr. Matthew Alexander, who was also in charge of the hiring process. (Contri Dep. at 22, 30, 48). Plaintiff applied for the position. (Huff Dep. at 36).

         After the online application process, three applicants were selected to be interviewed by a panel of public school administrators, including Dr. Alexander, Dr. Sullivan, Mr. Steve Zimmerman, then-Chief of Staff, Kimberly Washington who was in Human Resources, and Dorann Tanner who was from Alabaster City Schools. (Id. at 32, 36-37; Contri Dep. at 22, 24). During the interview, the applicants were evaluated and scored on a collective scoring system, or tally sheet. (Contri Dep. at 22-23). Henry Pope, an African-American male, received the highest overall score and Plaintiff had the second highest score. (Id. at 25; Doc.26-1 at 39). Only six points separated the two candidates, with Pope receiving 235 points and Plaintiff receiving 229 points. (Id.). The third candidate scored well below the top two candidates with 169 points. (Id.).

         After the interviews, the tally sheet was shared with Interim Superintendent of Schools, Larry Contri. (Contri Dep. at 23-24). Contri spoke with Alexander three or four days after the interviews were held and after he reviewed the tally sheet. (Id. at 25). Anderson told Contri the candidates were very articulate, answered their questions, that it was a tough decision, and that the tally sheet accurately reflected the scores of the individual interviewees. (Id. at 26). Notwithstanding the tally sheet, however, Contri initially recommended Plaintiff for the position. (Id. at 27). Contri recommended her based on the recommendation of Anderson and because he knew the most about her work ethic. (Id. at 28, 30).

         Plaintiff's name was placed on the agenda for the upcoming Board meeting as the recommendation for the new athletic director. (Id. at 30-31). As was customary, the preliminary agenda was circulated to the Board members before the meeting. (Id. at 61). Sometime after the agenda was circulated, Africa Parchman, General Counsel for the Board of Education, began receiving phone calls from members of the Board stating that Plaintiff did not meet the minimum requirements for the position. (Id. at 62; Doc. 26-4 (“Parchman Dep.”) at 12-14). After receiving those calls, Parchman informed Contri of the minimum qualification issue regarding Plaintiff. (Contri Dep. at 31). Specifically, Parchman told Contri that Plaintiff did not meet the requirement that she be an athletic director for a period of five years in a middle and/or high school. (Id. at 32). If he did not change the recommendation, Contri testified he would have been in violation of board policy which states “[a]pplicants must meet the minimum qualifications of the position as provided in . . . the job description for ...

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