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April 2016 Court Report

14-Apr-2016

Read the April 2016 issue of Court Report, which includes such topics as immunity - confidentiality and mixed motives. Click the case names to read the complete opinions. This newsletter is an ACSBA member benefit.

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APRIL 2016 COURT REPORT

Alabama Supreme Court 

Ex parte Trimble, -- So.3d --, 2016 WL 761034 (Ala. Feb. 26, 2016)

In this case, a high school teacher who also had responsibilities related to Section 504, prepared a report to advise her fellow teachers of necessary accommodations for various students, including the 12th grade plaintiff. The principal asked the teacher to distribute the information to the appropriate teachers. In response, the teacher sealed the report in an envelope and asked a student aide to deliver it to the teachers who needed the information. The student aide unsealed the envelope and read the confidential reports which contained information regarding the plaintiff. The student aide and others bullied the plaintiff as a result of the information they learned from the confidential report. The plaintiff sued the teacher and principal for various state law claims. Following discovery, they moved for summary judgment based on claims of state-agent immunity. The trial court denied their motions for summary judgment and the teacher and principal filed a mandamus petition with the Alabama Supreme Court.

The Court noted that summary judgment denials are not reviewable in a mandamus petition unless they are based on a denial of immunity. The Court described the burden shifting process to be used to consider state-agent immunity. First, the defendant must establish that the plaintiff has sued them for a function that would entitle them to immunity. If they do so, the plaintiff must then show that the defendant acted willfully, maliciously, fraudulently, in bad faith or beyond their authority. In this case, there is no dispute that the defendants were performing a function for which they enjoy immunity. The issue was whether they acted beyond their authority by giving the 504 records to a student aide in violation of the board’s policy on confidentiality of records. The Court determined that the teacher violated no board policy when she gave the sealed documents to the student. Therefore, the Court held that plaintiff failed to establish the burden needed to defeat immunity. The Court reversed the trial court and remanded the case for entry of summary judgment.

Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals

Quigg v. Thomas County School District, -- F.3d --, 2016 WL 692177 (11th Cir. Feb. 22, 2016)

This case involved the nonrenewal of the superintendent. During the superintendent’s tenure, she received generally satisfactory evaluations, but had a difficult relationship with several board members. The board also filed a professional standards complaint against her related to her handling of certain school programs. Near the end of her contract, the board scheduled a meeting to consider renewing the contract. Before the vote, some board members told the superintendent she needed to reorganize her administration. Some board members made clear through their comments that they wanted this position to be filled by a man. The superintendent declined to reorganize the administration as the board members wanted and proposed an alternative plan. The board then voted against renewing her contract. The superintendent filed an EEOC complaint alleging sex discrimination and retaliation. The board filed another complaint with the Professional Standards Commission which ultimately recommended suspension of the superintendent’s teaching license. The superintendent filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging Title VII and Section 1983 mixed-motive sex discrimination and retaliation claims related to her nonrenewal and a Title VII retaliation claim for the PSC complaint. She also sued the five members who voted against her renewal individually for Section 1983 mixed-motive sex discrimination. The defendants moved for summary judgment and the trial court granted their motions. The superintendent appealed to the Eleventh Circuit.

The Court first examined the Title VII and Section 1983 sex discrimination claims. Such claims are usually described as single-motive or mixed-motive. For single-motive claims (also known as pretext claims), the employee must show that bias was the real reason for the adverse action. For mixed-motive claims, the employee must show that bias was a motivating factor for the action, even if other factors contributed to the decision. Both can be established using either direct or circumstantial evidence. The superintendent in this case used circumstantial evidence of discrimination.

The superintendent argued that the McDonnell Douglas framework commonly used to evaluate claims relying on circumstantial evidence could not properly be applied to mixed-motive claims. The Court noted that this question had not been previously addressed in this circuit and was ripe for consideration. The Court held that the McDonnell Douglas framework is improper because McDonnell Douglas relies upon proffer of a single “true reason” for an employer’s decision. The Court reasoned that no employee asserting mixed-motive discrimination could survive the McDonnell Douglas standard as the employer could likely always proffer an alternate reason for the action, even if they also had discriminatory motives. The Court also noted that every other circuit had rejected the McDonnell Douglas framework with the exception of the Eighth Circuit.

The Court determined that the appropriate framework can be found in White v. Baxter Healthcare Corp., 533 F.3d 381 (6th Cir. 2008). In order to survive summary judgment under White, the employee would need to only present evidence that he suffered an adverse employment action and that discrimination was “a motivating factor” for the action; not the sole motivating factor for the action.

Using this standard, the Court determined that the superintendent established that sex discrimination was a motivating factor in the board’s decision to dismiss her in light of the various statements made by board members who indicated preference for a man to hold a high ranking position in the administration. The Court reversed the trial court and remanded for further proceedings.

Matter of Interest

The Alabama Supreme Court recently entered an extensive order in Alabama State University v. Danley which involved the termination of the athletic director. While not directly related to K-12 matters, the discussions of proper individual and official capacity claims and immunity may be useful.

 

-Jayne Harrell Williams

Jayne is General Counsel &

Director of Legal Advocacy for the

Alabama Association of School Boards