Federal appellate court rejects discharged finance director’s claims of discrimination and retaliation against Pennsylvania district

Dellapenna v. Tredyffrin Easttown Sch. Dist., No. 11-1394 (11th Cir. Oct. 28, 2011)

Abstract: A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit (PA, NJ, DE, VI) has ruled that a school district’s former finance director failed to present sufficient evidence of Title VII employment discrimination or retaliation based on her termination. The panel determined that she had failed to make a prima facie (on its face) showing of discrimination based on ethnicity, national origin or gender and, further, that she failed to present any evidence creating an inference of pretext. Lastly, it found that the retaliation claim fell largely because she failed to show how her termination was causally related to her complaint of discrimination.

Facts/Issues: Caroline Dellapenna was employed by Tredyffrin Eastown School District (TESD) as director of finance. Her tenure as finance director was brief and tempestuous. Shortly after Dellapenna assumed the position, TESD’s outside auditor uncovered a range of accounting irregularities, including over a million dollars of overstated accrued expenses.

In September 2006 Michael Azzara, TESD’s Chief Operations Officer and Dellapenna’s supervisor, was informed by the personnel director about disconcerting complaints regarding Dellapenna’s performance. Specifically, two employees working under Dellapenna had alleged that she regularly abused and berated her staff while instructing them to use improper accounting methods. Azzara subsequently interviewed the staff members and documented their grievances.

Suspecting Dellapenna had committed fraud, TESD hired an independent auditor to conduct an investigation. The auditor found no fraud, but determined that the accounting department’s procedures were not “in conformity with generally accepted accounting principles;” that Dellapenna was “aware” of this; and that she intentionally flouted prevailing accounting methods without the school district’s knowledge or approval.  The auditor concluded that the accounting department was “dysfunctional;” Dellapenna and her staff maintained “poor communication;” “personality conflict issues” abounded; and that this dysfunction needed to be addressed before the accounting department could perform its appointed tasks adequately.

Shortly after the auditor released the report (but after the audit investigation had begun), Dellapenna complained to TESD’s superintendent that she was being subjected to a hostile work environment and was mistreated because of her “age, gender, race, and/or ethnic background.” A committee investigated her complants, concluding there was no evidence of discrimination. It also concluded that Dellapenna’s “substantial misconduct” justified her termination. Waters then informed Dellapenna that TESD was firing her for cause, based on her “willful, wanton and/or gross misconduct as well as material and substantial dishonesty.” She waived her right to a hearing.

Instead, Deallpena filed suit against TESD in federal district court, alleging alleging race, gender, and age discrimination, as well as unlawful retaliation under Title VII and state law. The district court granted summary judgment to TESD, concluding that Dellapenna’s evidence did not satisfy the prima facie requirements for a discrimination claim. Even if she had established a a prima facie case, the district court found, TESD had articulated a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its actions, and Dellapenna had failed to show that these reasons were a pretext for discrimination. The district court also found Dellapenna’s allegations of hostile work environment and retaliation meritless. Dellapenna dropped the age discrimination claim.

Ruling/Rationale: The Third Circuit panel affirmed the lower court’s decision. It concluded that the evidence did not support Dellapena’s discrimination or retaliation claims. It first addressed her discrimination claim based on race, national origin and gender. The panel found that she found fell short of establishing Title VII’s required elements:

(1) she is a member of a protected class; (2) she was qualified for the position; (3) she suffered an adverse employment action; and (4) the school district treated similarly situated persons who are not members of the protected class—i.e., persons who behaved like Dellapenna but who are neither female, ethnically Chinese, nor from China—more favorably than her.

The panel also found that Dellapena had not carried her burden of showing that the legitimate reason proffered by TESD for terminating her was a pretext for discrimination for two reasons. First, the evidence failed to show TESD treated any male or non-Chinese employee more favorably than her, much less a “similarly situated” one who improperly discharged his job responsibilities and mistreated subordinates.  Second, Dellapenna failed to show a causal link between her protected status and her termination.

The panel pointed out that while the temporal proximity of an employee complaining of discrimination and a subsequent termination may be sufficient to show a causal link in some cases, here the overwhelming weight of the undisputed evidence demonstrated both Dellapenna’s accounting and management insufficiencies.  It concluded her discrimination claim was based on “only her subjective suspicions of discrimination, which are not sufficient to create an issue of material fact (which would preclude summary judgement).”

The panel also concluded that Dellapena had failed to rebut TESD’s clearly articulated legitimate and nondiscriminatory reasons for terminating Dellapenna, i.e., that she verbally abused her staff, intentionally misstated accounting records, and ordered her subordinates to do the same. An alleged comment by Azzara about working women, the panel found, was not sufficient to support an inference of pretext because he was not a decisionmaker.

Lastly, the panel held that Dellapenna’s arguments regarding retaliation were “baseless.” As with the discrimination claim, she failed to establish a prima facie case of retaliation because there was no showing that her termination was causally related to her complaints of discrimination. In addition, like the discrimination claim, even if she cleared the prima facie hurdle, Dellapenna would be unable show pretext.

Dellapenna v. Tredyffrin Easttown Sch. Dist., No. 11-1394 (11th Cir. Oct. 28, 2011)

[Editor’s Note:  A plaintiff’s discrimination or retaliation claim often fails when he/she is unable to show that discriminatory animus is the cause of the adverse employment action, and that the ostensible reason is mere pretext.  See a recent Tenth Circuit ruling in Cypert v. Indep. Sch. Dist. No. I-050 of Osage Cnty, No. 10-5122 (1oth Cir. Oct. 19, 2011), summarized in Legal Clips here.

In July 2011, Legal Clips summarized the decision of a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit (IL, IN, WI) in  Bennuzi v. Board of Educ. of the City of Chicago, holding that a female custodian employed by Chicago Public Schools (CPS) failed to state a valid claim for gender discrimination under Title VII, but did state a valid claim for retaliation under Title VII. The panel concluded that the custodian’s discrimination claim failed because she did not make the “requisite showing of gender-based discriminatory animus.” The facts revealed personal dislike between the custodian and the principal, but did not support the inference that the principal’s animus was based on the custodian’s gender.

On the other hand, the panel found that there were issues of material fact regarding the adverse actions the principal took after the custodian filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the suit at hand. Those actions, the notice of disciplinary action, and an hours-restricting memo, occurred after the custodian gave her deposition in the suit.]




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