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Langford v. Wilkins

United States District Court, E.D. Arkansas, Jonesboro Division

April 21, 2015

PHYLLIS LANGFORD, et al., PLAINTIFFS
v.
JIMMY WILKINS, in his official capacity as Superintendent, and HUGHES SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 27, DEFENDANTS

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For Jimmy Wilkins, Individually & in Official Capacity as Superintendent, Hughes School District No. 27, Defendants: J. F. Valley, LEAD ATTORNEY, J. F. Valley, Esq., Helena, AR; Vandell Bland, Sr., LEAD ATTORNEY, Bland Law Office, Forrest City, AR; David L. Jones, Regina Ann Young, William Stuart Jackson, Wright, Lindsey & Jennings, Little Rock, AR.

For Jimmy Wilkins, Individually & in Official Capacity as Superintendent, Counter Claimant: J. F. Valley, LEAD ATTORNEY, J. F. Valley, Esq., P.A., 423 Rightor Street, Helena, AR; Vandell Bland, Sr., LEAD ATTORNEY, Bland Law Office, Forrest City, AR; David L. Jones, Regina Ann Young, William Stuart Jackson, Wright, Lindsey & Jennings, Little Rock, AR.

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OPINION AND ORDER

Kristine G. Baker, United States District Judge.

Before the Court are several motions for summary judgment filed by defendants Jimmy Wilkins, in his official capacity as Superintendent, and Hughes School District No. 27 (collectively " HSD" ). The HSD has filed motions for summary judgment against the claims of plaintiffs Phyllis Langford (Dkt. No. 88), Michael Manning (Dkt. No. 97), and Dovie Wolf (Dkt. No. 91). All of these plaintiffs have responded in opposition to the respective motions for summary judgment (Dkt. Nos. 111, 115, 113), and the HSD has replied to each of these responses (Dkt. Nos. 126, 125, 127).

The Court addresses separately the facts surrounding each plaintiff's claims below. Thereafter, the Court addresses each motion for summary judgment in turn. For the following reasons, the Court grants the HSD's motion for summary judgment against Ms. Langford (Dkt. No. 88); grants the HSD's motion for summary judgment against Mr. Manning (Dkt. No. 97); and grants the HSD's motion for summary judgment against Ms. Wolf (Dkt. No. 91).

I. Background

A. Phyllis Langford

Ms. Langford has not filed a statement of disputed facts or otherwise responded to the HSD's statement of undisputed material facts related to her claims. Pursuant to Local Rule 56.1, the factual allegations in the moving party's statement of material facts are treated as undisputed " unless controverted by" the nonmoving party's " separate, short and concise statement of the material facts as to which it contends a genuine dispute exists to be tired." U.S. Dist. Ct. Rules Ark., LR 56.1(b)-(c). The Court deems admitted all factual allegations in HSD's statement of undisputed material facts not controverted by Ms. Langford. See Robinson v. American Red Cross, 753 F.3d 749, 754-55 (8th Cir. 2014).

HSD hired Ms. Langford, a Caucasian woman, to the position of school counselor in July 2010. In this position, Ms. Langford provided direct counseling services to students from kindergarten through 12th grade and completed various administrative duties. Ms. Langford's 2010-2011 employment contract was set to expire on June 30, 2011. On April 11, 2011, Ms. Langford received a letter from HSD Superintendent Mr. Wilkins. This letter stated Ms. Langford's contract would not be renewed because the amount of $1,000.00 for Grade Quick would be deleted from her contract (Dkt. No. 88-2, at 1). Instead, Mr. Wilkins recommended to the school board that HSD extend to Ms. Langford a proposed new contract for employment as school counselor in the 2011-2012 school year ( Id. ). The letter also informed Ms. Langford that, because of the non-renewal of her 2010-2011 contract, she had the right to file a written request for a hearing with the school board within 30 days after receipt of the notice, citing Ark. Code Ann. § 6-17-1509 ( Id. )

Ms. Langford received a copy of the proposed new contract from the HSD for the 2011-2012 school year on May 17, 2011; the proposed new contract purports to be between Ms. Langford and the HSD. Mr. Wilkins instructed Ms. Langford that she needed to return the proposed contract within 30 days (Dkt. No 90, ¶ 15; Dkt. No. 88-4, at 16). Ms. Langford neither signed nor returned the proposed contract for the 2011-2012 school year.

In early June 2011, Ms. Langford met with Mr. Wilkins and Julie Coveney, who was the former Federal Programs Coordinator for the HSD, to discuss plans for the

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following school year and what Mr. Wilkins expected from Ms. Langford. Ms. Langford and Mr. Wilkins discussed the amount of time she should be spending on guiding students, as compared to conducting administrative duties. During that meeting, Ms. Langford requested from Mr. Wilkins a classroom and secretarial support (Dkt. No. 90, ¶ 20). Mr. Wilkins replied that was not possible because the HSD did not have enough money for additional support (Dkt. No. 90, ¶ 22). Ms. Langford maintains that they also discussed her proposed contract and that she indicated to Mr. Wilkins at the early June 2011 meeting that she had not " turned in [her] contract because [she] didn't know if [she] was going to come back" (Dkt. No. 88-1, at 27).

Ms. Langford found the administrative side of her job " overwhelming" and " very stressful," spending approximately 90% of her time preparing academic transcripts, report cards, and other administrative tasks as opposed to guidance sessions with students (Dkt. No. 90, ¶ 9). Ms. Langford testified that she was " burned out" and not sure if she wanted to return to the HSD for another school year (Dkt. No. 90, ¶ 17). Despite being employed by the HSD for only one year, Ms. Langford was already looking for positions at other school districts (Dkt. No. 90, ¶ 18). According to Ms. Langford, during the early June 2011 meeting, Mr. Wilkins stated: " if you want to come back, we welcome you back, if you don't want to come back, we understand and that will be fine" (Dkt. No. 88-1, at 32).

On June 30, 2011, Mr. Wilkins called another meeting with Ms. Langford to discuss the upcoming year. At this meeting, Ms. Langford indicated once again that she did not have enough time to complete all of her responsibilities without additional resources (Dkt. No. 90, ¶ 28). She testified in her deposition about her comments at this meeting:

I just said there is no way possible for me to do all that I'm doing right now and to add two hours for that, I never take lunch, I have got resources to use, I have to have time to find it. And he said you just plan your day out. That was his -- you just make it work, you can get it done.

( Id. ).

In an affidavit she submits in response to defendants' motion for summary judgment, Ms. Langford claims that, at this June 30, 2011, meeting, Mr. Wilkins instructed Ms. Langford to inform him or Gheric Bruce by the close of business on July 5, 2011, whether Ms. Langford intended to return to the HSD for the 2011-2012 school year (Dkt. No. 112, at 7). Ms. Langford states that she informed Mr. Bruce on the morning of July 5, 2011, that she intended to return for the new school year but that Mr. Wilkins informed her later that afternoon that the school had already hired someone else to serve as school counselor for the 2011-2012 school year. Ms. Langford contends that the HSD hired an African American male to replace her, whom she contends did not have the qualifications to perform the job ( Id. at 8).

At some point on July 5, 2011, Ms. Langford received a letter from Mr. Wilkins. This letter stated: " Since your contract was not passed in within the specified time limit, the position of Counselor was considered vacant. A replacement has already been signed" (Dkt. No. 88-4, at 35). Ms. Langford neither appealed the school's decision to hire another person for the school counselor position nor requested a hearing on the matter before the school board. Ms. Langford maintains that she did not request a hearing because she

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believed such a hearing would be futile ( Id. at 7-8).

HSD's proposed contract between Ms. Langford and the HSD incorporated the Certified Personnel Policies of the HSD. As HSD points out, these Certified Personnel Policies state:

If a teacher who has been offered a contract fails to sign and return such contract to the superintendent within thirty (30) days after the contract is issued, then the contract shall be null and void and the position shall be declared vacant. The superintendent may at his/her discretion extend this time period by a specified number of days through written agreement with the employee.

(Dkt. No. 97-2, at 2).

In her deposition, Ms. Langford testified that, in her 25 years as a teacher, she signed a contract every year except one. She indicated that the only time she did not sign a contract was when she began working as a junior high counselor for the South Mississippi County School District. She did not sign a contract for this position because the contract mislabeled her position as " Rivercrest High School counseling position" (Dkt. No. 88-1, at 11).

Ms. Langford currently works as a school counselor for the Osceola School District, where she was hired in June 2012. In her application for employment with the Osceola School District, Ms. Langford stated that she left the HSD because she had " too many grades to do" (Dkt. No. 88-1, at 52).

On November 15, 2011, Ms. Langford filed a discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (" EEOC" ) claiming that the HSD discharged her because of her race. The EEOC dismissed Ms. Langford's charge and mailed a notice of rights to her on January 31, 2012. Ms. Langford maintains that, although she cannot remember the exact date she received this letter, it was no sooner than February 5, 2012. Ms. Langford filed this action on May 4, 2012, alleging a " violation of [her] civil rights (racial discrimination), violations of federal due process and equal protection, the Arkansas Teacher Fair Dismissal Act, and breach of contract" (Dkt. No. 1, at 2).

B. Michael Manning

Mr. Manning has not filed a statement of disputed facts or otherwise responded to HSD's statement of undisputed material facts related to his claims. The Court deems admitted all factual allegations in the HSD's statement of undisputed material facts not controverted by Mr. Manning. See Robinson, 753 F.3d at 754-55.

In 2008, the HSD hired Mr. Manning for the position of " curriculum coordinator." This position required Mr. Manning to have knowledge of the curriculum at HSD and to work with teachers and improve the performance of the school. Prior to Mr. Manning's employment at HSD, the district did not employ anyone with the title of curriculum coordinator, a position that the Arkansas Department of Education does not require school districts to maintain.

In early 2011, the HSD released Superintendent Ray Nassar from his position, and the school board hired Mr. Wilkins as the new superintendent. On April 16, 2011, Mr. Manning received a letter that formally notified him of Mr. Wilkins's recommendation that the school board, pursuant to a district-wide reduction in force, or " RIF," eliminate the position of curriculum coordinator. This letter also notified Mr. Manning of his right to request a hearing with the school board. Mr. Manning requested such a hearing, which was held on May 10, 2011. The school board followed Mr. Wilkins's recommendation and eliminated the curriculum coordinator position.

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Pursuant to the district's policy regarding reduction in force action, the HSD offered to Mr. Manning a teaching position as a fifth and sixth grade social studies and science teacher. Mr. Manning received this offer by letter on July 7, 2011. According to the HSD policy, Mr. Manning, like other employees, had 10 days to accept or reject the offer of employment. On July 25, then-principal Gheric Bruce emailed Mr. Manning about the outstanding offer and requested that Mr. Manning sign and return the offer on July 26, 2011, to accept the position. Mr. Manning replied that he was out of town and would not be back until July 27, 2011. Mr. Bruce then allowed Mr. Manning until July 27, 2011, to return an executed contract. Although Mr. Manning claims that he verbally accepted the position, he never returned a signed contract to the HSD.

In October 2011, Mr. Bruce resigned from his position as principal at the HSD. The HSD appointed Sheryl Owens as the interim principal and formally opened and publicized the position the following school year. The HSD formed a hiring committee consisting of both Caucasian and African American members to search for a replacement principal. Along with 15 other individuals, Mr. Manning applied for the position of principal. The committee interviewed several applicants, including Mr. Manning, but ultimately selected Clarence Saulsberry to fill the position. In February 2012, Mr. Manning filed a claim with the EEOC alleging that the HSD racially discriminated against him by eliminating his position of curriculum coordinator, not offering him the position of superintendent or principal, and requiring him to return the contract for the teaching position by the specified date. The EEOC dismissed Mr. Manning's claims.

On September 3, 2013, Mr. Manning joined this suit as a plaintiff. For his individual complaint, Mr. Manning alleges violations of his civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, Title VII, and the ACRA.

C. Dovie Wolf

Ms. Wolf has not filed a statement of disputed facts or otherwise responded to the HSD's statement of undisputed material facts related to her claims. The Court deems admitted all factual allegations in the HSD's statement of undisputed material facts not controverted by Ms. Wolf. See Robinson, 753 F.3d at 754-55.

Ms. Wolf worked as a registered nurse (" RN" ) for the HSD from 2001 to 2011. In 2001, Ms. Wolf served the HSD as a part-time RN on an as-needed basis whenever the school's full-time nurse, Carolyn Williams, who is a licensed practical nurse (" LPN" ), was absent from work. The HSD has not employed any other nurses since Ms. Wolf began working there in 2001. For the 2010-2011 school year, Ms. Williams, as an LPN, received an annual salary of $26,433, and Ms. Wolf, an RN, received an annual salary of $39,744.

In May 2011, Jimmy Wilkins recommended to the school board that the district remove the RN position. The HSD states that Mr. Wilkins made this recommendation pursuant to the district-wide reduction in force. Upon making this recommendation, Mr. Wilkins gave notice to Ms. Wolf of the decision to eliminate her position. Ms. Wolf then requested a hearing before the school board, which was held May 5, 2011.

At the hearing, Ms. Wolf had the opportunity to present evidence of why the HSD should not eliminate her position. Ms. Wolf told the school board that the HSD was required by Arkansas law to employ a full-time RN and, therefore, that the HSD could not eliminate her nursing position. Ms. Wolf did not mention discrimination at

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this hearing. After Ms. Wolf spoke to the school board, Mr. Wilkins stated that he had spoken with the Arkansas Department of Education, which informed him that the HSD was not required to employ a full-time RN. The school board, comprised of both Caucasian and African-American members, unanimously approved the decision to eliminate the RN position. The HSD states that this approval was a cost-saving measure for the district.

On May 4, 2011, Ms. Wolf wrote a letter to the EEOC alleging reverse race discrimination. In the letter, Ms. Wolf stated that she thought the HSD's decision to eliminate her position was contrary to Arkansas law and that the decision was discriminatory. On April 9, 2012, the Department of Justice sent a letter notifying Ms. Wolf of her right to sue under Title VII. Ms. Wolf joined this suit on July 5, 2012. Ms. Wolf alleges that the HSD racially discriminated against her in violation of her civil rights and the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Ms. Wolf also claims that the HSD's removal of her position violated the Arkansas Public School Employee Fair Dismissal Act and constituted a breach of her contract with the HSD.

II. Standard For Analyzing A Motion For Summary Judgment

Summary judgment is proper if the evidence, when viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, shows that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the defendant is entitled to entry of judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56; Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). A factual dispute is genuine if the evidence could cause a reasonable jury to return a verdict for either party. Miner v. Local 373, 513 F.3d 854, 860 (8th Cir. 2008). " The mere existence of a factual dispute is insufficient alone to bar summary judgment; rather, the dispute must be outcome determinative under the prevailing law." Holloway v. Pigman, 884 F.2d 365, 366 (8th Cir. 1989). However, parties opposing a summary judgment motion may not rest merely upon the allegations in their pleadings. Buford v. Tremayne, 747 F.2d 445, 447 (8th Cir. 1984). The initial burden is on the moving party to demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 323. The burden then shifts to the nonmoving party to establish that there is a genuine issue to be determined at trial. ...


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