United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Eastern Division
G. CORNELIUS U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
matter is before the court on the motions for summary
judgment filed by Defendants, Alabama Institute for the Deaf
and Blind (“AIDB”), John Mascia, and Christy
Atkinson. (Docs. 44, 46). These motions are fully briefed and
ripe for adjudication. (Docs. 45, 47-52, 54F-55). Also
pending is Mascia and Atkinson's motion to strike certain
evidence on which Plaintiff, Stephanie Gaddis, relies;
Plaintiff has not responded to this motion. (Doc. 53). As
explained below, the motion to strike is due to be granted in
part, and the motions for summary judgement are due to be
granted in their entirety.
operative complaint is the third amended complaint. (Doc.
37). Plaintiff asserts three claims against Defendants. Count
I alleges disparate treatment under Title VII and 42 U.S.C.
§ 1983. (Id. at 13-15). Count II alleges
retaliation and also invokes Title VII and § 1983.
(Id. at 15-18). Count III is entitled
“Retaliation and Hostile Work Environment.”
(Id. at 18-21).
claims are asserted against AIDB, as well as Mascia and
Atkinson in their individual and official capacities.
Accordingly, one group of attorneys represents AIDB and
Mascia in his official capacity. (See Doc. 46).
Separate counsel represents Mascia and Atkinson with regard
to the remaining claims. (See Doc.
Plaintiff responded separately to each motion for summary
judgment (Docs. 48, 49) but also filed amended responses
(Docs. 50, 51). The amended responses attach fewer exhibits,
but the substance of the briefs appear to be the same, save
the amended response to Mascia and Atkinson's motion;
Plaintiff's amended response omits the final page of her
brief. (Compare Doc. 48 with Doc. 50). In
any event, the undersigned assumes Plaintiff intended the
amended responses to supplant her original responses, and
this opinion analyzes the arguments and evidence presented in
Plaintiff's amended responses.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
Rule 56(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure,
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.
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.
the official state agency designated to conduct educational
and training programs for deaf, hearing impaired, blind, and
visually handicapped Alabamians. Ala. Code § 21-1-23;
see Tuck v. Alabama Inst. for Deaf & Blind, No.
17-0394-ACA, 2019 WL 398702, at *1 (N.D. Ala. Jan. 31, 2019).
AIDB runs the Helen Keller School (“HKS”), which
teaches deaf, blind, and multi-handicapped students.
(See Doc. 47 at 2). AIDB has employed Plaintiff, an
African American female, as a teacher for over thirty years.
(Doc. 51 at 2; Doc. 37 at 5). For almost all of that time,
Plaintiff taught at HKS, where she continues to teach. (Doc.
51 at 2; Doc. 43-1 at 4).
has been employed by AIDB since January 2005, and has served
as AIDB's President since January 2013. (Doc. 43-3 at 2).
Prior to becoming President, Mascia had no supervisory
authority over Plaintiff and was not involved in any
decisions affecting her employment. (Id.). As
President of AIDB, Mascia does not have authority to hire,
suspend without pay, or terminate any employee. (Id.
at 3). Rather, under Alabama law, Mascia's authority is
limited to making recommendations to AIDB's Board of
Trustees; the Board of Trustees is not bound by those
recommendations. (Id.). Atkinson was employed by
AIDB from July 1, 2011, through August 26, 2015; during this
time she served as the Principal of HKS. (Doc. 43-4 at 2). As
Principal, Atkinson did not have authority to hire, transfer,
promote, or suspend any employee. (Id.). Instead,
Atkinson's authority was limited to making
recommendations on these matters. (Id. at 2-3).
August 19, 2014, Plaintiff was teaching a class in which K.C.
was a student. K.C., a white, visually impaired student who
suffers from multiple disabilities, was rude and disruptive,
and Plaintiff eventually sent her to stand outside the
classroom. (See Doc. 51 at 8-9; Doc. 47 at 3). When
K.C. subsequently disobeyed Plaintiff's instruction to
return to the classroom, Plaintiff walked to K.C. and began
escorting her toward the classroom. (Doc. 51 at 8-9; Doc. 47
at 3). Plaintiff testified that as she and K.C. were walking
side-by-side, K.C. fell to the ground and began to throw a
temper tantrum. (Doc. 43-1 at 11). Plaintiff had her arm
around K.C. before she fell; Plaintiff testified she tried to
catch K.C. to help her back to her feet. (Id. at
11-12). When K.C. refused to cooperate, Plaintiff testified
she left her alone. (Id. at 12). For purposes of
summary judgment, this is how the events with K.C. unfolded.
interaction was witnessed by at least five other AIDB
employees. One teacher, Brenda Lee, stated she saw K.C. fall
but did not see Plaintiff pull her across the floor. (Doc.
43-2 at 37). The rest of the witnesses had different
impressions. One teacher, Carolyn Stamps, saw Plaintiff
escorting K.C. to the classroom and witnessed K.C. fall to
the floor; Stamps could not say whether K.C. fell or was
pushed to the ground. (Doc. 43-3 at 25). Stamps stated
Plaintiff pulled K.C. toward the classroom but did not
observe the entire interaction because her view of the area
was obstructed. (Id.; Doc. 43-2 at 35). Katie
Trotter, a job coach, observed K.C. sit down on the floor as
Plaintiff was escorting her. (Doc. 43-3 at 22). Trotter
stated Plaintiff pulled K.C. by her arm back to the
classroom, with K.C. “sliding on her bottom across the
floor.” (Id.). Trotter estimated Plaintiff
dragged K.C. across the floor for approximately twenty or
thirty feet. (Doc. 43-2 at 32-33). Another teacher, Christine
Smith, opined K.C. lost her balance and fell; after the fall,
Smith saw Plaintiff pull K.C. back to the classroom by the
arm, dragging her across the floor for a distance between
twelve and twenty feet. (Id. at 28-31; Doc. 43-3 at
24). Holly Hartsfield, a teacher's aide, also stated
Plaintiff pulled K.C. across the floor for approximately five
to seven feet and into the classroom; Hartsfield heard a loud
bang after Plaintiff and K.C. were back in the classroom.
(Doc. 43-3 at 23; see Doc. 43-2 at 21).
that day, Hartsfield spoke with K.C. and observed a red mark
on her arm near the elbow. (Doc. 43-3 at 23). K.C. told
Hartsfield that Plaintiff had kicked her in the head during
the incident. (See id.; see also Doc. 43-1
at 21; Doc. 43-2 at 17). Hartsfield then took K.C. to the
nurse's station and was directed to make a report to the
Alabama Department of Human Resources (“DHR”).
(Doc. 47 at 4). Multiple agencies responded, and Plaintiff
was placed on administrative leave the following day pending
an investigation. (Id.; Doc. 51 at 11; see
Doc. 43-3 at 10). During the investigation, Plaintiff refused
to meet with AIDB personnel without her attorney. (Doc. 47 at
5-6; Doc. 51 at 12). Throughout the investigation, Plaintiff
denied dragging K.C. across the floor.
policies prohibit corporal punishment, which is defined as
physically punishing a student “by shaking, slapping,
grabbing body parts with excessive force, etc.” (Doc.
43-1 at 93-94). On October 24, 2014, Mascia wrote Plaintiff a
letter memorializing the conclusions of AIDB's
investigation. (Doc. 43-3 at 12-13). The letter acknowledged
Plaintiff denied pulling K.C. across the floor but concluded
her version of events was outweighed by the four witness
statements to the contrary. (Id. at 12). As a
result, Mascia recommended Plaintiff be suspended without pay
for ten days. (Id. at 13). Plaintiff rejected
Mascia's proposed discipline and requested an evidentiary
hearing with AIDB's Board of Trustees. (Doc. 43-6 at 3;
see Doc. 43-1 at 92).
hearing board was comprised of four members of the Executive
Committee of AIDB's Board of Trustees (the “Hearing
Board”). The Hearing Board conducted an evidentiary
hearing on November 7, 2014. (Doc. 43-2).Plaintiff was
represented by counsel at the hearing, presented evidence,
and testified she never pulled K.C. across the floor.
(Id.; see Doc. 47 at 7). Plaintiff also
called Brenda Lee, who testified she witnessed K.C. fall but
did not see Plaintiff pull her across the floor. (Doc. 43-2
at 37). The Hearing Board also heard the other
witnesses-Stamps, Smith, Trotter, and Hartsfield-testify they
saw Plaintiff pull K.C. across the floor after she fell.
(Id. at 20-36). The Hearing Board unanimously voted
to approve Mascia's recommended discipline of a ten-day
suspension without pay. (See Doc. 43-1 at 77).
Mascia informed Plaintiff of the Hearing Board's decision
later on November 7, 2014. (Id.). Plaintiff returned
to work at HKS on December 1, 2014. On January 6, 2015,
Plaintiff filed an EEOC charge, alleging her suspension
without pay was racially motivated and retaliatory. (Doc.
contends her suspension was racially discriminatory because
white AIDB employees were accused of misconduct but received
lesser discipline. (Doc. 51 at 14). Susan McCrary was a white
female teacher at HKS who in 2011 was involved in a physical
altercation with an African American student in which she
pulled the student's hair. (Id.; see
Doc. 43-3 at 5). As a result of this incident, McCrary was
arrested and tried for third-degree assault. (Doc. 51 at 14).
However, McCrary was not suspended without pay. (Id.
at 14-15). AIDB's investigation revealed the student
attacked and attempted to bite McCrary and that McCrary's
actions were taken in self-defense. (Doc. 43-3 at 5-6; Doc.
43-4 at 4- 5). The student's parents filed the criminal
charges, but McCrary was acquitted after a trial in Talladega
Municipal Court. (Doc. 43-3 at 6; Doc. 43-4 at 5). AIDB
placed McCrary on paid administrative leave while it
conducted the investigation and during the pendency of the
criminal charges. (Doc. 43-4 at 4-5). Under the circumstances
of that case, AIDB determined McCrary had not violated any of
its policies, and she returned to work after her acquittal.
(See Id. at 5).
Marshall, another white teacher at HKS, was accused by a
teacher's aide of “abusing” three students in
2013. (Doc. 51 at 16-18; see Doc. 43-4 at 6). AIDB
placed Marshall on paid administrative leave and reported the
allegations to DHR and law enforcement. (Doc. 43-4 at 6). Law
enforcement conducted an investigation and found no evidence
to support the accusation. (Id.). Marshall returned
to work without discipline after AIDB concluded she had not
violated any applicable policies. (Id.).
2017, Hope Marshall was again accused of improper treatment
of students. (Doc. 47 at 11). AIDB placed Marshall on
administrative leave and conducted an investigation, which
revealed she applied ankle weights to two students during nap
time to control their leg movements. (Doc. 43-3 at 6).
Because this violated AIDB's restraint policy, Mascia
recommended Marshall be suspended for ten days without pay.
(Doc. 55-1 at 2). Marshall rejected Mascia's proposed
discipline and requested a hearing before the Hearing Board.
(Id.). Prior to the hearing, Marshall negotiated a
resolution, agreeing to a two-day suspension without pay.
(Id. at 3).
also contends she experienced retaliation for filing the
January 6, 2015 EEOC charge. (Doc. 51 at 19). These
allegations concern Defendants' response to
Plaintiff's complaints concerning a disruptive student,
the lack of a classroom paraprofessional, failure to purchase
a book Plaintiff requested, and Atkinson's response when
Plaintiff held a birthday party for a student. (Id.
at 19-22). Each circumstance is described in turn.
she filed the EEOC complaint, Plaintiff began experiencing
problems with a disruptive student, Z.L. (Doc. 51 at 19-21;
see Doc. 47 at 11-12). Z.L. directed racial epithets
and insults at Plaintiff and other students and threatened to
harm and/or kill Plaintiff, other students, HKS staff,
Atkinson, and Mascia. (Doc. 51 at 19-21). Plaintiff testified
Z.L had been in her class for two or three years. (Doc. 43-1
at 43). Plaintiff reported Z.L.'s behavior to Atkinson
and repeatedly requested assistance. (Doc. 51 at 19-21).
However, Plaintiff contends: (1) Z.L. was not disciplined,
expelled, or moved to another class; and (2) Atkinson failed
to provide an AIDB behavioral specialist to assist Plaintiff.
(Id.). Compounding this problem was the February
6, 2015 retirement of Plaintiff's paraprofessional aide.
(Id.). Plaintiff contends a new paraprofessional
aide was not hired until April 2015. (Id.).
Plaintiff testified Z.L. was not in her class the following
academic year because Atkinson removed him from
Plaintiff's roster. (Doc. 43-1 at 43).
response, Defendants have submitted unrebutted evidence that
Z.L. was an intellectually disabled student who had an I.Q.
below 50 and suffered from multiple disabilities, including
Tourette's Syndrome. (Doc. 43-4 at 7-8). Atkinson
concluded Z.L.'s behavioral problems and outbursts were
attributable to his disabilities. (Id. at 8).
Additionally, previous suspensions had not affected
Z.L.'s disruptive behavior, AIDB did not have an
alternative placement for Z.L., and Z.L.'s mother would
not approve of additional recommended behavior interventions.
(Id.). Accordingly, Defendants' disciplinary
options for Z.L. were limited under the Disabilities
Education Act. (Id.). Moreover, Defendants have
offered unrebutted evidence that: (1) Wendy Glass, an AIDB
Behavior Specialist, was available as a resource to assist
Plaintiff with Z.L.'s behavior; and (2) a part-time aide
was approved during the absence of a dedicated
paraprofessional. (Id. at 9). Plaintiff has not
cited any evidence to contest the foregoing averments
regarding Wendy Glass or the availability of a part-time
the paraprofessional, Defendants have submitted unrebutted
evidence that the process of hiring a new
paraprofessional-posting an available job, verifying
credentials, interviewing applicants, and selecting an
applicant- took an average of eight to twelve weeks. (Doc.
43-4 at 8). The approximately ten weeks it took to replace
Plaintiff's paraprofessional fell within this time frame.
Additionally, Plaintiff testified Z.L.'s behavior did not
improve even after a new full-time paraprofessional was
assigned. (Doc. 43-1 at 47).
Plaintiff contends she requested Atkinson to purchase a book
for her classroom and that Atkinson agreed to do so prior to
the incident with K.C. (Doc. 47 at 13). The book cost $165,
which would constitute the majority of Plaintiff's yearly
classroom supply funds. (Id.). At some point
Atkinson refused to purchase the book. Defendants have
offered unrebutted evidence that Atkinson placed purchase
orders for copies of the book for Plaintiff and a white
teacher who had also requested it. (Doc. 43-4 at 10). After
HKS's bookkeeper told Atkinson school funds should not be
used for individual teachers due to auditing issues, Atkinson
informed Plaintiff and the other teacher she would not
purchase copies of the book for their respective classrooms.
(Id. at 10-11). Instead, Atkinson told both teachers
there were two copies of the book in the HKS library, which
they could check out and keep in their classrooms.
(Id. at 11).
the party, Plaintiff threw a birthday celebration for one of
her students on April 2, 2015, inside an HKS academic
building. (Doc. 51 at 21). It appears Plaintiff did not get
prior permission to have the party. (See id.; Doc.
43-1 at 79). Plaintiff brought two deep fryers she owned to
prepare food for the party. (See Doc. 51 at 21; Doc.
47 at 14). After the party, a staff member asked if she could
use the deep fryers; Plaintiff agreed. (Doc. 47 at 14). Later
that day another staff member found the deep fryers
unattended and confiscated them. (Id.). Plaintiff
estimates her fryers were not returned for twenty days.
after the party, Atkinson sent Plaintiff an email reminding
her that supervisor approval was required for parties on
school grounds. (Doc. 43-1 at 79). The email also directed
Plaintiff to review AIDB guidelines regarding snacks.
(Id.). Finally, the email advised Plaintiff she
could not throw parties in the future without prior approval.
(Id.). On the same day, Atkinson sent an email to
other staff members including similar reminders that: (1)
parties required pre-approval; (2) using deep fryers in the
building was unacceptable because they presented a safety
hazard-particularly when left unattended-and emitted odors.
(Id. at 78). Plaintiff did not receive any formal
discipline as a result of the birthday party but felt the
email and detention of her deep fryers were retaliatory.
(Doc. 47 at 14). Plaintiff also testified a white teacher
threw a May 19, 2015 party without prior approval.
(Id. at 15; Doc. 51 at 21-22). Plaintiff further
testified Atkinson did not send any emails regarding the May
19, 2015 party; nor did the white teacher receive any warning
or discipline. (Doc. 51 at 22; Doc. 47 at 15). Defendants
have submitted unrebutted evidence that Atkinson was unaware
of the May 19, 2015 party. (Doc. 43-4 at 9).
October 5, 2015, Plaintiff filed a second EEOC charge, again
alleging racial discrimination and retaliation. (Doc. 51 at
22; see Doc. 43-8).
MOTION TO STRIKE
for Mascia and Atkinson have filed a motion to strike three
exhibits and portions of Plaintiff's responsive brief.
(Doc. 53). Plaintiff has not responded to the motion, and the
time to do so has expired. (See Doc. 17 at 5). The
exhibits subject to the motion to strike are: (1) a letter
from K.C.'s mother to Atkinson dated August 19, 2014
(Doc. 50-20); (2) the declaration of Corrie Henderson (Doc.
50-11); and (3) the declaration of Karen Raine (Doc. 50-12).
Defendants also move to strike portions of Plaintiff's
brief, including: (1) seven paragraphs relying on the
foregoing exhibits; (2) one paragraph relying on the
foregoing exhibits and Plaintiff's testimony not based on
Plaintiff's personal knowledge; and (3) thirty paragraphs
which do not cite to any evidence, include hearsay, and/or
are not based on personal knowledge. (Doc. 53). As explained
below, the motion will be granted in part and denied in part.
Lack of Citation to the Record
56(c)(3) provides that a court presented with a motion for
summary judgment “need consider only the cited
materials, but it may consider other materials in the
record.” Likewise, the Initial Order governing this
case provides: “Citations to the record must refer to
the document number and paragraph or line number, where
available. If the parties are unable to cite to a specific
paragraph or line number, they shall cite the document number
and page number.” (Doc. 17 at 4). While the court will
not strike the portions of Plaintiff's brief that purport
to provide factual support without citing to any evidence,
any unsupported statements cannot create a genuine issue of
material fact where Defendants' have presented evidence
to the contrary. See White v. Alabama Inst. for Deaf
& Blind, No. 16-0190-VEH, 2018 WL 1089879, at *3
(N.D. Ala. Feb. 28, 2018) (“Getting past summary
judgment is very different from getting past the pleading
stage. Accordingly, the Court does not give weight to naked
allegations of fact that do not have a citation to the
evidentiary record.”). The factual assertions in the
Plaintiff's brief which are not supported by the record
do not appear in the facts set out above. The same standard
applies to Defendants' briefs.
K.C.'s Mother's Letter to Atkinson
unsworn letter from K.C.'s mother to Atkinson is dated
August 19, 2014, the day of the incident giving rise to
Plaintiff's ten-day suspension without pay. (Doc. 50-20).
In the letter, K.C.'s mother expresses her support for,
and faith in, Plaintiff as a teacher. K.C.'s mother also
expresses her belief that K.C. lied about the incident;
although not entirely clear, it appears K.C. may have
asserted she fell because Plaintiff pushed her to the ground.
(See Id. at 1) (“[K.C.] admitted that she lied
about what happened-[Plaintiff] did NOT push her down, she
fell after [Plaintiff] grabbed her arm . . . .”). The
letter also states that, after K.C. fell to the ground,
Plaintiff “took [K.C.] by the arm and dragged her back
into the class.” (Id.).
inadmissible at trial cannot be used to avoid summary
judgment. Even on summary judgment, a court is not obligated
to take as true testimony that is not based upon personal
knowledge." Corwin v. Walt Disney Co., 475 F.3d
1239, 1249 (11th Cir. 2007) (citations omitted) (affirming
grant of summary judgment for defendant and finding no error
in district court's striking testimony not based on
personal knowledge). Hearsay is a statement other than one
made by the declarant while testifying at the trial or
hearing, offered in evidence to prove the truth of the matter
asserted. Fed.R.Evid. 801(c). Hearsay which cannot be reduced
to admissible form at trial may not be considered at summary
judgment. Macuba v. Deboer, 193 F.3d 1316, 1322-23
(11th Cir. 1999).
K.C.'s mother was not present during the incident, her
letter is not based on personal knowledge and constitutes
hearsay which cannot be reduced to admissible form. Moreover,
even if the letter were admissible, it would not help
Plaintiff. To the extent Plaintiff might rely on the letter
to show K.C. lied about the incident, the lies the letter
describes are limited to K.C.'s apparent earlier
assertion Plaintiff pushed her to the ground. Whether
Plaintiff pushed K.C. down is not at issue; for purposes of
summary judgment, K.C. either lost her balance or simply sat
down. Similarly, the Hearing Board did not hear any
contention that Plaintiff pushed K.C. down; its decision was
based on testimony from four witnesses who stated they saw
Plaintiff dragging K.C. across the floor after she fell.
Curiously, the letter supports the Hearing Board's
conclusion on this point.
foregoing reasons, the motion to strike the letter will be
granted because it is inadmissible hearsay. The letter is
also irrelevant to the material facts in this case.
Accordingly, the court will not consider the letter or the
portions of Plaintiff's brief which rely on the letter.