Estate of Carlos Bassatt v. School Dist. No. 1, No. 13-1244 (10th Cir. Dec. 31, 2014)
Abstract: A U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit three-judge panel has ruled that a Colorado school district’s proffered reason for terminating an individual from his student teaching assignment was not a pretext for discriminating against him on the basis of ethnicity. It concluded that the student teacher’s Title VII retaliation claim failed, as did the retaliation claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and § 1983, because all of the retaliation claims depend on the McDonnell Douglas burden shifting analysis and he failed to present evidence that rebutted the defendant’s claim that his misconduct was the motivating factor for the decision to terminate him.
The panel, noting the general rule that federal courts do not give preclusive effect to the findings of state administrative agencies, stated it would give preclusive effect to such findings if reviewed by a state court. As a result, the panel determined that it was bound by the administrative agency’s Final Order I, which held that the student teacher had established a prima facie case of retaliation, but came to no conclusion on the ultimate issue of retaliation. However, the panel declined to give preclusive effect to the agency’s Final Order II, which held that the school district’s proffered non-discriminatory reason for terminating the student teacher was a pretext.
The panel rejected the three arguments advanced by the student teacher that were meant to show that the school district’s reason for terminating him was pretextual. First, it rejected his contention that the federal district court had incorrectly assigned the burden of proof to him. Second, it found that the school administrator had sufficient evidence to support his credibility determination. Finally, the panel concluded, as discussed above, that Final Order II had no persuasive value.
Facts/Issues: Carlos Bassatt, who was Hispanic, was studying for his Masters in Education. As part of his required coursework, he was student teaching at West High School (WHS), which is in School District No.1 of the City and County of Denver, Colorado (SD1). Student teachers do not have teaching contracts with SD1 and are not district employees. Maria Iams, a SD1 employee, accused Bassatt of masturbating while sitting in his car, which was parked in a WHS lot. Iams reported the incident to a colleague, who in turn informed Officer Vicente Damian, a Denver police officer assigned to WHS as a resource officer.
Damian interviewed Iams and had her view the surveillance tape of the parking lot. She was unable to identify the man on the tape as the man she saw masturbating. However, WHS Dean of Students Dan Trujillo identified Bassat as the man in the tape. Damian prepared a written statement and incident report. WHS Principal Patrick Sanchez was notified of the incident.
Sanchez and Damian met with Bassatt and informed him that he had been accused of masturbating in his car in the WHS parking lot. Bassatt denied the allegations. Sanchez informed Bassatt that he was being placed on administrative leave pending further investigation. After speaking with Iams and Bassatt, Damian concluded that Iams was telling the truth.
Although Damian issued a citation to Bassatt, the district attorney’s office declined to prosecute the case. After learning that no charges had been filed, Sanchez emailed Bassatt and advised him that he could return to work. However, SD1’s Director of Labor Relations Bart Muller informed Sanchez that the district attorney’s decision not to prosecute did not prevent the school district from taking action against Bassett for his alleged misconduct. Muller also stressed to Sanchez the importance of student safety.
Sanchez and Muller met with Bassatt again. Bassatt admitted that he had been reclining in his car in the parking space next to Iams, but denied that he had been masturbating. Bassatt then declared that the accusation was racially motivated and that the District’s decision to end his placement at West was discriminatory. On September 27, 2007, SD1 advised Bassatt that he was terminated from his student teaching placement.
Bassatt filed a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission (CCRC) seeking an administrative hearing. After a two-day hearing, an administrative law judge (ALJ) concluded that Bassatt had established neither discrimination nor retaliation claims because he had failed to: (1) establish the existence of circumstances giving rise to an inference of unlawful discrimination, and (2) establish a prima facie case of retaliation. Bassatt appealed the ALJ’s finding regarding his retaliation claim to the CCRC.
The CCRC issued a final order (Final Order I), reversing the ALJ’s conclusion on the retaliation claim. Final Order I found that Bassatt had in fact established a prima facie case of retaliation and, further, that the District’s reason for terminating Bassatt was pretextual. The District appealed Final Order I to the Colorado Court of Appeals. The court issued an opinion affirming the CCRC’s finding that Bassatt had established a prima facie case of retaliation.
The appellate court did not consider the question of pretext or the ultimate issue of retaliation. After reversing “in part the [CCRC’s] rulings on the ALJ’s findings of fact,” it remanded the case back to the CCRC “to reconsider the ultimate issue of whether the [District’s] termination of Bassatt constituted discriminatory retaliation . . . .”
Before the CCRC had reconsidered the case on remand, after the Colorado Court of Appeals’ decision, Bassatt filed suit against SD1 in federal district court. Bassatt raised a number of claims in his complaint, including unlawful retaliation by SD1 in violation of Title VII and retaliation by SD1 because it breached his student teacher agreement in violation of 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981 and 1983. While the case was pending in district court, the CCRC issued its second order (Final Order II). The CCRC concluded in Final Order II that Bassatt had established that the District had terminated him in retaliation for his accusations of discrimination. It concluded specifically that the District did not provide a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for its action. Final Order II was never reviewed on appeal.
In August of 2012, Bassatt died. Following Bassatt’s death, his estate was substituted as plaintiff in the district court suit. The district court granted SD1’s motion for summary judgment. It concluded that the estate had failed to make a sufficient showing of pretext to defeat summary judgment on its Title VII retaliation claim. It also dismissed the Estate’s claims under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981 and 1983 because Bassatt did not have a contract with the District to student teach, which would have provided for continued employment and established a property right protected by due process.
Ruling/Rationale: The Tenth Circuit panel affirmed the district court’s decision. Before addressing the substance of Bassatt’s arguments, the panel clarified the role that Final Order I and Final Order II would play in its analysis of Bassatt’s retaliation claims. It reiterated that the “findings of a state administrative agency generally do not bind federal courts.” However, it acknowledged that “federal courts must give preclusive effect to factual and legal determinations made by state courts when reviewing state administrative agency actions.”
As a result, the panel concluded that it was bound by the “Colorado Court of Appeals decision reviewing Final Order I because the state agency’s determination was reviewed on appeal by a state court.” With, regard to Final Order II, which found pretext and retaliation, the panel found that it was not bound by that administrative decision because it was never reviewed by a state court.
Turning to the Title VII retaliation claim, the panel determined that it should be subject to the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting approach. Having concluded that it was bound by the Final Order, which held that Bassatt had established a prima facie case of retaliation, the panel focused on the issue of pretext. Specifically, whether the non-discriminatory reason proffered by SD1, i.e., the misconduct in the parking lot, for terminating Bassatt’s student teaching assignment was a pretext for discrimination based on ethnicity.
The panel rejected all three reasons put forth by Bassatt in support of his argument that SD1’s reason for termination was pretextual. First, it found that the district court had correctly assigned the burden of proof in regard to the pretext question. It stated: “When an employment decision is made based on alleged misconduct, the plaintiff must present evidence that rebuts the defendant’s claim that the misconduct was the motivating factor for the employment decision.”
Next, the panel rejected the contention that there was insufficient evidence for Sanchez to make the determination that Iams was credible. While conceding that the failure to conduct a fair investigation can raise an inference of pretext, such a circumstance did not exist in the present case because Sanchez heard both Bassatt and Iams’ accounts of the incident. It also pointed out that Sanchez , as the principal, “had to weigh numerous competing interests, including the safety of his students.” The panel concluded that, “Sanchez’s decision to believe Iams over Bassatt, when there was no direct evidence either way, is not evidence of pretext.”
The panel found nothing about SD’s investigation that suggested deficiencies from which a court could infer pretext. While acknowledging discrepancies in Iams’ report of the incident, it pointed out that Bassatt had admitted that he was the person reclined in the driver’s seat of the car. It also found that Bassatt was focused on the wrong question, i.e., whether the inadequacy of the investigation foreclosed Sanchez from believing Bassatt. Instead, the panel identified the relevant inquiry as “whether Sanchez subjectively, but honestly, believed that Bassatt had engaged in the misconduct.”
Finally, the panel rejected Bassatt’s argument that Sanchez’s email invitation to Bassatt to return to work is evidence that Sanchez did not truly believe Bassatt had engaged in the misconduct. It concluded that the argument failed “in light of the Colorado Court of Appeals’ decision, which specifically reviewed and rejected this position.”
The panel agreed with the district court that Bassatt had failed to establish pretext. It emphasized that there was no evidence that Sanchez was motivated by anything other than the alleged misconduct and that Bassatt acknowledged that Sanchez genuinely believed Iams’s allegations. The panel also noted, “Sanchez is Latino, and we conclude that this undermines any suggestion of pretext.”
Finally, the panel agreed with the district court, in finding that Final Order II was “neither binding nor persuasive.”
Addressing the §§ 1981 and 1983 claims, the panel said that they “are defeated because they too are subject to the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting analysis.” It also asserted that even if there was pretext, Bassatt could not prevail on those claims because he did not have an employment contract with the school district. It pointed out that none of the documents referenced by Bassatt as part of his student teaching assignment constituted a contract to teach.
Estate of Carlos Bassatt v. School Dist. No. 1, No. 13-1244 (10th Cir. Dec. 31, 2014)
[Editor's Note: In November 2014, Legal Clips summarized a decision by a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit three-judge panel in Fong v. School Bd. of Palm Beach Cnty. holding that a teacher, whose contract was not renewed, failed to state a valid claim for Title VII discrimination based on national origin. The panel concluded that the direct evidence presented by the teacher was insufficient to show intentional discrimination. It also found that the teacher failed to establish her claim through indirect or circumstantial evidence. Assuming, without deciding, that the teacher had presented a prima facie case of discrimination, the panel concluded that the teacher had failed to meet her burden of showing that the legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for the contract nonrenewal proffered by the school district was a pretext for intentional discrimination.]