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Moss v. Texarkana Arkansas School District

United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Texarkana Division

March 1, 2017

PETROLIA MOSS PLAINTIFF
v.
TEXARKANA ARKANSAS SCHOOL DISTRICT; and THERESA COWLING, BECKY KESLER, and ROBIN HICKERSON, in their official and individual capacities DEFENDANTS

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Susan O. Hickey United States District Judge

         Before the Court is Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment. (ECF No. 34). Plaintiff filed a response. (ECF No. 47). Defendants filed a reply. (ECF No. 56). The Court finds the matter ripe for consideration.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This case is an employment-discrimination action brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and the Arkansas Civil Rights Act (“ACRA”). Plaintiff is an African-American woman who previously worked for Separate Defendant Texarkana Arkansas School District (“TASD”) as a teacher. Plaintiff alleges that Defendants engaged in discriminatory practices against her on the basis of race by suspending her without pay, imposing burdensome working conditions, engaging in harassment, and making her working conditions intolerable.[1] (ECF No. 1).

         On October 16, 2013, Plaintiff stated to her seventh grade science class that soy products degenerate the male hormone and that soy milk would “make[] the male want to be female.” (ECF No. 54-2). The students began discussing amongst themselves whether boys who used soy products would grow up to be homosexual. On the same day, a parent of one of Plaintiff's students called Separate Defendant Theresa Cowling (“Cowling”), Plaintiff's junior-high principal, complaining that Plaintiff's statements upset the student. Cowling shared the parent's complaint with Separate Defendant Robin Hickerson (“Hickerson”), TASD's assistant superintendent for secondary education and human resources.

         On October 17, 2013, Plaintiff's students were asked to provide written statements regarding Plaintiff's October 16, 2016 science class. One student informed Cowling that she had recorded Plaintiff's statements with her cell phone. The student gave the recording to TASD. On October 18, 2013, Plaintiff met with Cowling, Hickerson, and Separate Defendant Becky Kesler (“Kesler”), TASD's superintendent. Plaintiff was informed that she would be suspended with pay for three days for allegedly making inappropriate comments to her class. Cowling and Hickerson conducted an investigation into Plaintiff's actions.

         On November 4, 2013, Plaintiff received written notice that as a result of the investigation, she would be suspended without pay for five days for making inappropriate comments to her class. Plaintiff was also informed in writing that she would be required to participate in a six-week improvement plan used by TASD to correct teachers' deficiencies. The notice stated that the plan was necessary for Plaintiff due to her: (1) failure to maintain a professional relationship with students in connection with the in-class soy discussion; (2) failure to follow the seventh grade science curriculum map; (3) failure to maintain a professional relationship with students regarding a September 23, 2013 incident where Plaintiff made physical contact with a student's rear for walking behind Plaintiff's desk; (4) failure to maintain an up-to-date teacher webpage; and (5) reported wrongful assignment of tardies to students.

         On February 18, 2014, Plaintiff filed a charge of racial discrimination against Defendants with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). On March 7, 2014, Plaintiff submitted a written letter of resignation to TASD, effective June 30, 2014. On August 10, 2014, the EEOC issued a Notice of Right to Sue to Plaintiff. On November 26, 2014, Plaintiff filed this lawsuit alleging employment discrimination. Defendants assert that they are entitled to summary judgment on all of Plaintiff's claims.[2]

         II. STANDARD

         The standard for summary judgment is well established. When a party moves for summary judgment, “[t]he 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); Krenik v. County of LeSueur, 47 F.3d 953, 957 (8th Cir. 1995). This is a “threshold inquiry of . . . whether there is a need for trial-whether, in other words, there are genuine factual issues that properly can be resolved only by a finder of fact because they reasonably may be resolved in favor of either party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986). A fact is material only when its resolution affects the outcome of the case. Id. at 248. A dispute is genuine if the evidence is such that it could cause a reasonable jury to return a verdict for either party. Id. at 252.

         In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the Court must consider all the evidence and all reasonable inferences that arise from the evidence in a light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Nitsche v. CEO of Osage Valley Elec. Co-Op, 446 F.3d 841, 845 (8th Cir. 2006). The moving party bears the burden of showing that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Enterprise Bank v. Magna Bank, 92 F.3d 743, 747 (8th Cir. 1996). The nonmoving party must then demonstrate the existence of specific facts in the record that create a genuine issue for trial. Krenik, 47 F.3d at 957. However, a party opposing a properly supported summary judgment motion “may not rest upon mere allegations or denials . . . but must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Id. at 256.

         “There is no ‘discrimination case exception' to the application of summary judgment, which is a useful pretrial tool to determine whether any case, including one alleging discrimination, merits a trial.” Torgerson v. City of Rochester, 643 F.3d 1031, 1043 (8th Cir. 2011). Accordingly, the Court applies the same summary judgment standard to discrimination cases as it does to all others.

         III. DISCUSSION

         Defendants assert that they are entitled to summary judgment on Plaintiff's Title VII, ACRA, and §1983 claims, as well as on the issue of whether compensatory damages related to emotional distress are available in this case.[3] The Court will now address each in turn.

         A. Title VII Race-Discrimination Claims

         Defendants assert that summary judgment is appropriate on Plaintiff's Title VII race- discrimination claims against TASD, and against Cowling, Hickerson, and Kesler in both their individual and official capacities. The Court will first address the individual-capacity claims, and then will address the remaining race-discrimination claims.

         1. Individual Capacity Title VII Race-Discrimination Claims

         Defendants argue that summary judgment is appropriate on Plaintiff's individual-capacity Title VII claims. The Court agrees.

         The Eighth Circuit has instructed that Title VII claims are applicable to employers, but not to individuals. See Van Horn v. Best Buy Stores, L.P., 526 F.3d 1144, 1147 (8th Cir. 2008) (noting that Title VII provides for actions against employers but not supervisors); Powell v. Yellow Book USA, 445 F.3d 1074, 1079 (8th Cir. 2006) (“Title VII addresses the conduct of employers only and does not impose liability on coworkers.”). Plaintiff has asserted Title VII claims against Cowling, Hickerson, and Kesler in their individual capacities. The Court finds that Plaintiff's individual-capacity Title VII race-discrimination claims must fail because there is no individual liability under Title VII.

         Accordingly, the Court finds that Defendants' summary judgment motion should be granted on Plaintiff's Title VII race-discrimination claims against Cowling, Hickerson, and Kesler in their individual capacities.

         2. Remaining Title VII Race-Discrimination Claims

         Defendants argue that summary judgment is appropriate on Plaintiff's Title VII race-discrimination claims against TASD. The Court agrees.

         Plaintiff has not presented any direct evidence of race discrimination, so the Court will analyze her claims under the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework. Gibson v. Am. Greetings Corp., 670 F.3d 844, 853 (8th Cir. 2012). Under this familiar framework, Plaintiff must first establish a prima facie case of discrimination. Id. If Plaintiff successfully establishes a prima facie case, Defendants may rebut the prima facie case by articulating a non-discriminatory reason for their actions. Id. If Defendants offer a non-discriminatory reason for their actions, the burden then shifts back to Plaintiff to show that Defendants' proffered reason was merely pretext for discrimination. Id.

         a. Prima Facie Case

         First, Plaintiff must establish a prima facie case of race discrimination. To do so, she must demonstrate that: (1) she is a member of a protected class; (2) she was meeting her employer's legitimate job expectations; (3) she suffered an adverse employment action; and (4) the circumstances give rise to an inference of discrimination. Id. “Circumstances giving rise to an inference of discrimination include treating similarly situated employees who are not members of the protected class in a different manner.” Id. at 853-54. A failure to establish even one element of a prima facie case defeats a Title VII discrimination claim. Tatum v. City of Berkeley, 408 F.3d 543, 550-51 (8th Cir. 2005). In this case, Defendants argue that Plaintiff cannot satisfy the third and fourth prima facie elements-that she suffered an adverse employment action and that a similarly situated employee outside her protected class was treated differently.

         Defendants argue that Plaintiff cannot satisfy the third prima facie element with respect to her placement on an improvement plan because, by its definition, an improvement plan is not punitive and does not constitute an adverse employment action. Plaintiff offers no argument in response as to whether the improvement plan satisfies this prima facie element.

         An adverse employment action must have a materially adverse impact on the terms or conditions of a plaintiff's employment. Sowell v. Alumina Ceramics, Inc., 251 F.3d 678, 684 (8th Cir. 2001). There must be a tangible change in working conditions that produces a material employment disadvantage. Cooney v. Union Pacific Railroad, Co., 258 F.3d 731, 734 (8th Cir. 2001). For example, termination, reduction in pay or benefits, and changes that affect an employee's future career prospects generally meet this standard. Spears v. Mo. Dep't of Corr. & Human Res., 210 F.3d 850, 853 (8th Cir. 2000). However, minor changes in working conditions that merely inconvenience an employee or alter an employee's work responsibilities do not suffice. Id. (citing Ledergerber v. Strangler, 122 F.3d 1142, 1144 (8th Cir. 1997)).

         The record shows-and Plaintiff concedes in her deposition testimony-that teacher improvement plans are mandated by the state of Arkansas and are used by schools to identify and correct deficiencies in a teacher's teaching method. Plaintiff's improvement plan required her to complete certain assignments over a six-week period.[4] Plaintiff does not argue or offer evidence that the improvement plan resulted in her termination, reduction in pay or benefits, or any changes which affected her future career prospects. Instead, the Court finds that the improvement plan resulted in minor changes to her work responsibilities, as it required her to complete certain assignments in addition to her regular work. Thus, the improvement plan alone cannot amount to an adverse employment action. See Givens v. Cingular Wireless, 396 F.3d 998, 998 (8th Cir. 2005) (holding that placing an employee on a performance improvement plan, without more, does not constitute an adverse employment action). Therefore, the Court finds that Plaintiff cannot satisfy the third prima facie element with respect to her placement on an improvement plan.

         Defendants also argue that Plaintiff cannot satisfy the fourth prima facie element with respect to her suspension because she cannot point to any similarly situated employees who received more favorable treatment. Plaintiff points the Court to five white TASD employees who ...


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