Tuesday, February 19, 2013

High School Coach's Retaliation Case Moves Forward

Last week, a federal district court ruled in favor of Connie Morris, a high school coach in Bessemer, Alabama, in her retaliation and employment discrimination case against the Bessemer School District.  The court agreed that Morris had presented sufficient evidence in support of her retaliation claim and thus survived the district's motion for summary judgment. 

In the spring of 2010, the school district decided not to renew Morris as head coach of the girls' basketball team.  Morris claimed that this decision, as well as subsequent decisions not to hire her for other coaching positions or to rehire her for basketball, were in retaliation for her numerous internal complaints about disparities in resources for girls' teams, as well as external complaints filed with the U.S. EEOC.  Typically in retaliation cases, it is challenging for plaintiffs to present evidence that shows the causal relationship between the plaintiff's complaints about discrimination and the adverse employment actions that followed.  In this case, though, the court agreed that Morris's case was sufficient in this regard in part because the adverse actions were sufficiently close in time to Morris's complaints. In other employment contexts, a time lapse of more than three months, as was the case for Morris, is not sufficient to establish a causal relationship between the plaintiff's complaint and the adverse action.  But in the school context, the act of hiring/rehiring happens on a prescibed schedule.  What is important is that the school board took action to not hire/rehire Morris at its next opportunity following her series of complaints, even though there was a lapse of three months between her last written complaint and some of the adverse actions against her.

The Board argued that it chose not to rehire/hire Morris for reasons other than retaliation. In particular, the school principal had cited a desire to move the program in a "new direction" and for leadership that could lead the team to a state championship.  However, Morris presented enough evidence to challenge the Board's "new direction" explanation as a pretext, or cover up, for retaliation.  For one thing, the person that was hired to take over the program had no prior experience coaching at the high school or college level, and was as a result considerably less qualified than Morris to lead the team to a championship.  Morris also relied on the testimony of an assistant principal who verified that the part of the principal's motivation for changing the coaching staff was Morris's complaints.

For these reasons, the court denied the school district's motion for summary judgment -- a move that clears the way for Morris's case to go to trial, though a summary judgment victory usually gives the plaintiff leverage to pursue a favorable settlement instead.

Morris v. Bessemer Bd. of Educ., 2013 WL 549896 (N.D.Ala., Feb. 13, 2013).