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The Sumter County Board of Education plausibly discriminated against an elementary school principal because of her age bias complaints when it terminated her employment before the end of her contract, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama decided Feb. 26 (Danner v. Sumter Cnty. Bd. of Educ., N.D. Ala., No. 12-cv-02391, 2/26/13).
The district court advanced Willie Mae Danner's Age Discrimination in Employment Act retaliation claim against the board because she presented evidence that she was fired after refusing to promote unfair practices in the district.
That the school district's former superintendent told interviewers for permanent placement as the K-8 principal to rank Danner lower than a younger candidate added to the court's conclusion that bias could have played into her nonselection and subsequent discharge.
Judge R. David Proctor wrote the court's opinion.
In spring 2010, former Superintendent Fred Primm III transferred the principal over grades five through eight and left Danner in charge of the entire school.
Primm explained that a single principal would thereafter manage the entire K-8 staff, and he told Danner that she “was going to be over the entire school.”
On June 24, Primm told Danner that he was going to advertise for the K-8 principal position because of board policy. Primm again told Danner that she would “be over the whole school.”
Danner applied for the K-8 principal position the following month, and she interviewed before a five-person panel.
Primm told Danner she had performed well during the interview, but he instructed the panel members to rate her lower than a younger candidate.
Following the interview, Primm told Danner that if she got the job, she would “owe [him] big time.”
On July 27, Primm told Danner that he planned to recommend someone else to fill the K-8 principal position. Primm handed Danner a letter stating that he would recommend to the board that her contract be canceled.
Danner's contract was valid through 2012, but the board voted to cancel it at a meeting that month.
On May 11, 2011, the county demoted Danner to serve as a special education classroom teacher.
After Danner's dismissal as principal, the new principal cut off Danner's access to her personal effects. Danner eventually was able to retrieve most of her personal furniture, but she still has not recovered other educational items and personal property.
She later retired because of health issues that she alleged resulted from the county's treatment of her.
Danner, representing herself, filed a complaint against the board and individual defendants Aug. 21, 2012, alleging that the defendants retaliated against her in violation of the ADEA.
The board defendants moved to dismiss.
To establish a prima facie ADEA retaliation case, the court explained, Danner needed to causally link her engagement in protected expression with a materially adverse action taken against her.
The county defendants claimed that Danner had not engaged in protected expression, but the court disagreed.
As the court explained, an employee engages in ADEA-protected activity when he or she opposes a practice reasonably believed to be discriminatory.
Danner alleged that the county defendants retaliated against her because of her age and her “failure to promote unfair practices in the workplace.” She added that she refused to engage in “unethical educational issues regarding unfair promotions, terminations, [and] favoritism,” and that the county catered to younger employees.
As Danner said in her complaint, she believed that she was retaliated against because she “refused to be silenced and/ or engage in, what [she] considered to be, unethical and unprofessional acts regarding educational issues, school finances, staff recommendations, promotions, and terminations, testing issues, and favoritism regarding certain teachers, parents, and students.”
“To be sure,” Proctor wrote, “Plaintiff's description of the activity opposed is somewhat general.”
The court decided not to “penalize” Danner for any imprecision in her complaint, however, because it found her allegations of engagement in protected activity to be sufficiently plausible.
The court decided that Danner then demonstrated that a reasonable employee would have found the board's conduct to be materially adverse.
As Danner alleged, she was fired from her position as principal at Livingston K-4 and was not hired for the K-8 principal position.
Because termination of employment and failure to hire constitute adverse employment actions, the court said, Danner established the adverse action element of an ADEA retaliation claim.
The court added that Danner sufficiently pleaded the third element of her prima facie retaliation case because she showed that the county was aware that she had opposed employment practices favoring younger individuals over those who fall within the protection of the ADEA.
Danner alleged that the county defendants had “successfully terminated, transferred or reassigned all of the older administrators” and that they retaliated against her for “her failure to promote unfair practices in the workplace.”
“Again,” Proctor wrote, “although not stated as precisely as possible, the court liberally construes these allegations, as it must, and finds that Defendants were aware Plaintiff had engaged in protected activity.”
Danner sufficiently alleged that the defendants terminated her employment because of her opposition to unfair employment practices, the court said, ruling that she had suffered an adverse action “not wholly unrelated” to her engagement in protected activity.
E. Dianne Gamble of Boardman Carr & Hutcheson in Chelsea, Ala., represented the county defendants.
By Anne A. Marchessault
Text of the opinion is available at http://www.bloomberglaw.com/public/document/Danner_v_Sumter_County_Board_of_Education_et_al_Docket_No_712cv02.
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