Daniels v. School Dist. Of Philadelphia, No. 14-1503 (3d Cir. Jan. 20, 2015)
Abstract: A U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit three-judge panel has ruled that a former teacher failed to state a prima facie case of retaliation under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) and Title VII based on her complaints of race and age discrimination. It concluded that while the teacher had established that she was engaged in protected activity and the school district took adverse employment actions against her, the teacher had failed to establish that there was causal connection between the protected activity and the adverse actions taken against her. The panel also found that the teacher’s retaliation claim failed because she was unable to show that the legitimate reasons proffered by the school district for the adverse actions were a pretext for age or race discrimination.
Facts/Issues: Dorothy Daniels, who is over 6o years old and African-American, was employed by the School District of Philadelphia (SDP) as an elementary and middle school teacher. Her tenure at the first school to which she was assigned was successful and at the end of the year, she received a satisfactory evaluation. However, her position at that school was eliminated due to budgetary cuts and she was forced to participate in the site selection process to find another position within the District. After participating in the site selection process, Daniels elected to teach middle school at Thomas Mifflin Middle School and SDP approved that assignment.
Leslie Mason was the principal at Mifflin. During a parent teacher conference, which was held not to long after Daniels started there, Mason made some comments that Daniels found to be ageist and offensive. Daniels spoke to Mason about those comments and she contended that Mason became antagonistic towards her after she complained about the comments. Mason conducted several classroom observations of Daniels, as is required by SDP procedures, and evaluated her based upon these classroom observations. She gave Daniels a negative evaluation, which Daniels believed to be unwarranted. Mason also took additional actions with regard to Daniels, which caused a strain in her relationship with Daniels.
At the end of the school year, Mason reduced the number of budgeted middle-school teachers for the upcoming year from three to two, an action that required Daniels to go through another forced transfer process. Although SDP’s central office, rather than the local principal, decides which teachers to retain and which to transfer, Mason told two students that she “had written [Daniels] out of the budget and that [Daniels] wouldn’t be returning in September 2010.”
Daniels received late notice of this action and was not able to participate in the site selection process because of the late notice. She wrote a letter to the SDP’s human resources department complaining about comments that Mason had made to her, attributing them to discrimination based upon her age. Approximately one day later, she met with the Deputy Chief of SDP’s staffing office about a teaching assignment. They did not agree on an assignment that day and SDP subsequently assigned her to Vare Middle School (VMS).
Shortly after Daniels began her new assignment at VMS, she filed a complaint with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC). She alleged age discrimination based on Mason’s remarks and Mason’s frequent monitoring of Daniels even though younger teachers were not monitored with the same frequency. Daniels also asserted a race discrimination claim based on her forced transfer from TMS and Mason’s failure to give her timely notice of the transfer.
Daniels difficulties continued at VMS. In February 2011, she filed a second PHRC complaint, this time concerning her treatment at VMS. Daniels claimed that SDP retaliated against her because she had filed her October 2010 PHRC complaint. Both the principal and assistant principal at VMS testified at depositions that they had no knowledge of Daniels’s PHRC complaints during the time that they took the adverse actions of which Daniels complained.
During the 2010-11 school year while Daniels was assigned to VMS, she began seeing doctors for anxiety and depression, which she attributed to her hostile treatment at school. Starting in March of 2011, she began a period of medical leave from VMS due to anxiety. After the 2010-11 school year ended, Daniels participated in the site selection process for the upcoming year, which resulted in her assignment to teach literacy at Penrose Elementary School (PES) for the 2011-12 school year.
As with her two previous assignments, Daniels ran into difficulties with the principal at PES. The principal allegedly screamed and in November, told her to either resign or retire, but not to return to her school. Daniels perceived these to be adverse actions. The principal later testified that she did not know of Daniels’s PHRC complaints when she took actions that Daniels regarded as adverse. In December 2011, Daniels supplemented her February 2011 PHRC complaint with a letter listing grievances against PES’s principal. Daniels took another medical leave beginning December 20, 2011.
Under SDP’s leave policy, if an employee misses ten consecutive workdays due to personal illness, notice is automatically sent to Carol Kenney, SDP’s director of employee health services. When Kenney’s office receives such a notice, it schedules an appointment for the employee with an SDP physician to determine whether the employee has a need for continued leave. An employee who disagrees with the conclusion of the SDP physician can request that another physician, not in SDP’s employ, evaluate her. If the employee makes such a request, SDP selects that physician from a list of physicians on which SDP and the teachers’ union previously had agreed.
SDP’s doctor concluded that Daniels would be fit to return to work on February 1, 2012. Per SDP’s policy, Daniels requested and was examined by a second doctor. That doctor, who is a psychiatrist, concluded, “Ms. Daniels’s symptoms of anxiety and depression arise from her dispute with the Principal and not from a definable psychiatric illness. Her problem is legal and administrative, not psychiatric.” Therefore, he determined that Daniels should have returned to work on February 1, 2012, reasoning that psychiatric treatment would not solve the source of her distress.
On February 21, 2012, Kenney notified Daniels of the second doctor’s conclusion and informed her that if she did not return to work on February 27, 2012, SDP would institute disciplinary proceedings against her. In reliance on the doctor’s determination, Kenney also denied Daniels’ wage continuation benefits. Daniels, however, did not return to work as directed. Rather, based on the opinion of her own physicians, Daniels did not return to work until March 27, 2012. Due to Daniels’s failure to return to work as directed, Kenney, who testified that she did not know at that time of Daniels’s PHRC complaints, recommended that SDP terminate her employment. On May 2, 2012, Daniels received notice that SDP had initiated the proceedings that ultimately led to the termination of her employment.
Daniels filed suit in federal court against SDP and a number of school officials. She claimed age discrimination under the ADEA, race discrimination under Title VII, and retaliation under both the ADEA and Title VII. The defendants made a motion for summary judgment and the court granted the motion in an order entered November 7, 2013, with respect to most of Daniels’s claims, including those of retaliation. The remainder of the case proceeded to trial, at which the jury returned a verdict in defendants’ favor. Daniels filed an appeal, which was limited to the summary judgment with respect to her retaliation claims against SDP alleging violations of the ADEA, Title VII, and the state law claim encompassing age and race discrimination.
Ruling/Rationale: The Third Circuit panel affirmed the lower court’s decision granting the defendants summary judgment on the retaliation claims. Because Daniels’ claims of retaliation under the ADEA and Title VII did not involve direct evidence of retaliation, the panel analyzed the claims using the burden-shifting framework that the Supreme Court established in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973). It stated that under the McDonnell Douglas framework, a plaintiff asserting a retaliation claim first must establish a prima facie case by showing: “(1) [that she engaged in] protected employee activity; (2) adverse action by the employer either after or contemporaneous with the employee’s protected activity; and (3) a causal connection between the employee’s protected activity and the employer’s adverse action.”
With regard to the protected activity prong, the panel found that three of the five instances asserted by Daniels satisfied that prong. Specifically, it concluded that her September 2010 letter to SDP administrators claiming that she had been subjected to a hostile work environment because of her age; her October 2010 PHRC complaint and the December 2010 amendment to that complaint, and her February 2011 PHRC complaint satisfied the first prong of McDonnell Douglas.
Addressing the adverse action prong, the panel found four out of the five instances identified by Daniels as adverse actions satisfied the second prong. It concluded that each of the following events qualified as adverse actions under McDonnell Douglas: (1) the designation of her absences on September 8, 13, and 14, 2010, as “unauthorized leave without pay,” even though SDP did not notify her of her assignment to VMS until September 14, and Christy’s related memorandum of December 20, 2010, warning Daniels that additional absences or lateness would lead to more severe disciplinary action; (2) the hostile work environment that Daniels experienced at VMS and PES from September 2010 to December 2011, which caused her mental health injuries; (3) the denial of her wage continuation benefits; and (4) SDP’s eventual termination of her employment.
However, the panel found that Daniels had failed to establish a causal connection between the instances of protected activity and the instances of adverse action. It stated: “In the absence of such a close temporal proximity, we consider the circumstances as a whole, including any intervening antagonism by the employer, inconsistencies in the reasons the employer gives for its adverse action, and any other evidence suggesting that the employer had a retaliatory animus when taking the adverse action.” It concluded that Daniels had failed to provide evidence that the school administrators responsible for the adverse action knew of her protected conduct at the time they acted. The Panel observed, “Although SDP may have harassed Daniels, she has not linked any of the harassment to the sort of retaliatory animus necessary to obtain relief under the anti-discrimination statutes on which she relies.”
Finally, the panel pointed out that “even assuming Daniels can make such a prima facie showing, SDP has proffered legitimate reasons for these adverse actions, which Daniels has failed to rebut.” It stressed that Daniels would have had to have offered evidence that the legitimate reason for termination proffered by SDP, i.e., the medical evaluation that Daniels was fit to return to service, was a pretext for age and race discrimination. The panel concluded: “Although SDP may have harassed Daniels, she has not linked any of the harassment to the sort of retaliatory animus necessary to obtain relief under the anti-discrimination statutes on which she relies.”
Daniels v. School Dist. Of Philadelphia, No. 14-1503 (3d Cir. Jan. 20, 2015)
[Editor’s Note: In January 2015, Legal Clips summarized a decision by a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit three-judge panel in Estate of Carlos Bassatt v. School Dist. No. 1 holding 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.]