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John v. Bridgeport Board of Education

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

April 4, 2018

BARBARA JOHN, Plaintiff,


          Robert N. Chatigny United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Barbara John, an African-American female, claims that the Bridgeport Board of Education (“BBOE” or “the Board”), the only remaining defendant in this action, failed to promote her to the position of Director of Athletics, Health and Physical Education (“the Director” or “the position”) because of her race and sex in violation of Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000 et seq. The Board has moved for summary judgment and an award of attorney's fees. Because plaintiff has presented sufficient evidence from which a reasonable factfinder could conclude that her race and gender were motivating factors in the Board's decision, the Board's motions are denied.

         I. Background

         The following facts are undisputed or, if disputed, are supported by the summary judgment record viewed in a light most favorable to the plaintiff.[1] In 2012, the Board posted a job opening for the position of Director. The advertisement listed the following “requirements”: master's degree in health, physical education or a “related field”; successful experience as an athletic coach; five years of experience teaching health and/or physical education; Connecticut certifications in immediate supervision, health, physical education, and coaching; and the ability to effectively implement and manage budgets and personnel. Plaintiff applied for the position as did James Denton and Neil Kavey, both white males. All three were interviewed for the position. Kavey was ultimately selected.

         At the time the candidates applied, all three were current BBOE employees. Denton was the acting Director. Plaintiff had worked for BBOE for forty-two years as a health and physical education teacher. She had a master's degree in physical education and many years of coaching experience beginning in the late 1970s and continuing through 2012. She had all the required certifications except for health, and also had certifications in first aid and swimming. Kavey had worked for BBOE for twenty-seven years. He was a physical education teacher from 1986 to 1994 and a school counselor from 1994 to 2012. He had a bachelor's degree in physical education and a master's degree in school counseling. He had the required certifications except for health and coaching.[2] Kavey's resume stated that he had coached high school and college sports teams from 1976 to 1986.[3]

         The candidates were interviewed by Chief Administrative Officer Dr. Sandra Kase and Deputy Chief Academic Officer Teresa Carroll.[4] According to the Board, the interviewers asked a series of pre-determined questions, including the following: “With district budgets becoming more and more constrained, how would you manage your resources to provide equity and access to sports for all students.” After the interviews, Kase recommended Kavey to Superintendent Paul Vallas.[5] Vallas met with Kavey and, based on Kase's recommendation, offered him the position. Vallas was not aware that plaintiff had applied for the position. The Board approved Vallas's decision.

         Because Vallas relied on Kase's recommendation of Kavey, and was unaware of plaintiff's application, Kase served as the de facto decisionmaker.[6] This case was filed in October 2014. Neither party obtained a statement from Kase until January 2018. At her deposition, Kase testified that Kavey impressed her with “his vision, and his ideas for conducting or for implementing District-wide Physical Education Program in the context of limited resources.” She said that plaintiff did not exhibit “the same level of -- of either vision or suggestions for implementing a District-wide Physical Education and Health Program.” She also testified that Denton had failed to demonstrate he was able to manage district resources during his tenure as acting Director. Prior to Kase's deposition, the Board cited only Carroll's deposition testimony in support of its decision to hire Kavey over plaintiff. Carroll testified that she gave a three out of five rating to plaintiff and Denton, and a four out of five rating to Kavey, citing his “leadership voice.”

         Plaintiff contends that Kase's decision to recommend Kavey was motivated by discrimination based on race and gender. Plaintiff testified at her deposition that she was not aware of any racially or sexually derogatory comments made by BBOE administrators or board members, including Kase. However, she had more seniority than Kavey and, in her view, was objectively better qualified for the position of Director, and therefore should have gotten the promotion under the contract between BBOE and the teachers' union. At the time, the contract stated: “[V]acanc[ies] shall be filled on the basis of fitness for the vacant post, provided, however that where two or more applicants are substantially equal in fitness, the applicant with the greatest amount of seniority in the Bridgeport School System shall be given preference.”[7] Responding to Kase's deposition testimony, plaintiff states that the interviewers never asked her about managing resources and, had they asked, she would have explained that she had several relevant experiences managing budgets.[8]

         Plaintiff has also testified that she began applying for administrative positions in 2006 and was rejected each time in favor of a white male. In 2009, plaintiff brought suit against BBOE for failing to promote her to the position of Director claiming discrimination on the basis of age, race, and sex. See John v. Bridgeport, 09-cv-378(VLB), 2011 WL 1106708 (D. Conn. Mar. 22, 2011). The case was dismissed on summary judgment. The present suit arises from BBOE's failure to promote her to the position in 2012.[9]

         II. Legal Standard

         Summary judgment may be granted when there is no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). To avoid summary judgment, the non-moving party must point to evidence that would permit a jury to return a verdict in his or her favor. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 252 (1986). In determining whether the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law, a court must review all the evidence in the record. In doing so, however, the court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the opposing party. Id. at 255. Under this standard, all evidence supporting the position of the opposing party must be credited, with any ambiguities resolved and all reasonable inferences drawn in favor of that party. Importantly, although it is necessary to review the record as a whole, evidence supporting the position of the moving party must be disregarded unless a jury would have to credit the evidence because it comes from a disinterested source and is uncontradicted and unimpeached. See Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Products, Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150-51 (2000) (quoting 9A C. Wright & A. Miller, Federal Practice & Procedure § 2529, at 300 (2d ed. 1995)). It is essential that care be taken in applying this standard in order to preserve and protect the Seventh Amendment right to trial by jury, which is undermined by excessive use of summary judgment. See A. Miller, The Pretrial Rush To Judgment: Are The Litigation Explosion, ” “Liability Crisis, ” And Efficiency Cliches Eroding Our Day In Court And Jury Trial Commitments?, 78 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 982 (2003).

         III. Discussion

         Title VII discrimination claims are analyzed under the burden-shifting framework set forth in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973). First, the plaintiff must meet the “minimal” burden of establishing a prima facie case by showing: “(1) that [she] falls within the protected group, (2) that [she] applied for a position for which [s]he was qualified, (3) that [she] was subject to an adverse employment decision and (4) that the adverse employment decision was made under circumstances giving rise to an inference of unlawful discrimination.” Byrnie v. Town of Cromwell, Bd. Of Educ., 243 F.3d 93, 101 (2d Cir. 2001) (citing McDonnell Douglas, 411 U.S. at 802). If the plaintiff establishes a prima facie case, the burden shifts to the defendant to articulate a “legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the employment decision.” Id. at 102. If the defendant meets this burden, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to “show that the proffered reason was pretextual and that, more likely than not, the true reason was the illegal discrimination that the plaintiff alleged.” Scaria v. Rubin, 117 F.3d 652, 654 (2d Cir. 1997). “At summary judgment in an employment discrimination case, a court should examine the record as a whole, just as a jury would, to determine whether a jury could reasonably find an invidious discriminatory purpose on the part of an employer.” Byrnie, 243 F.3d at 102. To meet her ultimate burden, plaintiff need only show that “an improper consideration was ‘a motivating factor' for [the] adverse employment decision.” Gross v. FBL Fin. Servs., Inc., 557 U.S. 167, 174 (2009) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(m)).

         BBOE contends that plaintiff has failed to meet her initial burden of presenting a prima facie case.[10] It is well-established, however, that when the position in question is given to someone outside the protected class, that fact alone is sufficient to give rise to an inference of discrimination at the prima facie stage. See Zimmermann v. ...

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