Friday, March 19, 2021

Racial comment to teacher brings her case to a jury

Corene Carter was an English teacher in the Syracuse City School District who sued her employer for racial discrimination. She told the school principal that others at work were mistreating her. The Principal told plaintiff that this was happening because "You're a well-educated Black woman. They're intimidated by you." Evidence like this returns the case to the docket after the trial court dismissed the case on summary judgment.

The case is Carter v. Syracuse City School District, a summary order issued on March 10. The first question for the court is whether plaintiff suffered any adverse actions that make it worthwhile for her to sue in the first place. The Court of Appeals (Livingston, Chin and Bianco) says she does. The City argued that plaintiff's mistreatment was not sufficiently adverse, but the Court of Appeals disagrees. 

A rational juror could find that a Carter, who claims she was (1) subject to a negative evaluation carried out under irregular circumstances, (2) placed on an improvement plan, (3) reassigned from classroom teaching to teaching from a cart, (4) excluded from a master teacher program, (5) removed as chair of the English Department, (6) assigned to teach tenth grade while her cohorts advanced to eleventh grade, and (7) passed over for assignment to teach Advanced English, has adduced enough evidence to demonstrate at least one adverse employment action.

Further adverse actions took the form of her removal as chair of the English Department to a less-distinguished title, and she was also assigned to teach from a cart, staffed to the tenth grade, and passed over for an Advanced English class. The school district argued these were mere "alterations of job responsibilities" that could take place in any workplace and therefore do not qualify as adverse actions under the discrimination statutes, but the Court of Appeals thinks that, as a whole, we have enough here for a lawsuit. Sometimes, even the lack of any financial loss will give rise to an adverse action if enough bad things happened to the plaintiff. This is one of those cases. 

A few points about the adverse action analysis. First, while a negative performance evaluation, without more, may not be enough, the evaluation in this case, along with her placement on an improvement plan, "contributed to the other actions she claims [the District] took against her." Second, while the district court said there was no evidence the master teacher program exists, the jury may find otherwise, since plaintiff testified that such a program does exist, and the Director of Personnel referenced it during an interview with the State Division of Human Rights. “Assessments of credibility and choices between conflicting versions of the events are matters for the jury, not for the court on summary judgment.” The Court cites Rule v. Brine, Inc., 85 F.3d 1002, 1011 (2d Cir. 1996), for this proposition.

Plaintiff also has to prove these adverse actions took place because her race. The Court of Appeals finds a jury may answer that question in the affirmative. When Carter told the principal Dittman that her colleagues were mistreating her, "he agreed that they were intimidated by her because she was a Black woman and stated that he was also intimidated by her. Later, after being put on an improvement plan and experiencing professional fallout, Carter asked [the] Vice Principal ... 'Why are they doing this to me?' He responded, 'You’re a well educated Black woman. They’re intimidated by you.'" The Court of Appeals hold that "[t]hese comments by senior school officials attributed Carter’s professional setbacks to prejudice against Black women. They are thus enough not only to surmount Carter’s minimal burden of making a prima facie case but also to permit a finding that the neutral reasons the School District gave for its actions were pretext for racial discrimination."

Plaintiff also sues over a hostile work environment because of her race. That claim is also revived on appeal following the grant of summary judgment. Colleagues and supervisors "made a number of racially hostile comments to her," including (1) Her colleague, List, repeatedly talked about the school’s “cute little Black kids” and how “poorly behaved” and “ill mannered” they were.; (2) another colleague, Pairaino, began to tell Carter a racist joke, stopping only upon seeing her disapproval.; (3) another colleague, Resti, told Carter, regarding a fight between two Black students, that “it was ‘cultural’ so what could you expect.” When Carter complained about her colleagues’ behavior to the Principal, he agreed “that the White teachers felt intimidated by [her] because of [her] status as a ‘tall, Black, well-spoken, educated, professional woman,’” and stated that he was intimidated by her. And, as noted, when Carter asked the Vice Principal, “Why are they doing this to me?” after she received a negative evaluation and was put on an assistance plan, he responded, “You’re a well educated Black woman. They’re intimidated by you.”

What strikes me about the hostile work environment claim is that we have fewer than a half-dozen racial comments. Published cases sometimes hold that only a few comments within a few years are not enough to create a hostile work environment, but HWE cases can be all over the place on this issue. Sometimes, you know an HWE when you see one.

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