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Brown v. South Central Kansas Education Service Center

United States District Court, D. Kansas

April 25, 2018

MARK E. BROWN, Plaintiff,
v.
SOUTH CENTRAL KANSAS EDUCATION SERVICE CENTER, DISTRICT # 628, d/b/a NEW DIRECTIONS LEARNING ACADEMY, Defendant.

          ORDER

          ERIC F. MELGREN, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This case arises out of the non-renewal of Plaintiff Mark E. Brown's teaching contract with Defendant South Central Kansas Education Service Center, District # 628, doing business as New Directions Learning Academy, and Defendant's failure to hire Plaintiff when a teaching position became available shortly after he received his notice of non-renewal. Plaintiff alleges that Defendant failed to hire him on the basis of his race in violation of federal and state antidiscrimination laws.[1] This matter comes before the Court on Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 25). For the reasons explained below, the Court grants Defendant's motion.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background[2]

         Defendant's mission includes helping school districts to educate students in the most effective and efficient manner. It serves approximately 27 Kansas school districts, and provides various services, including adult education services. Defendant provides adult education services in Topeka, Kansas, under the name New Directions Learning Academy (“New Directions”). New Directions helps adults obtain high school diplomas by assisting students with their questions-it does not offer teacher-led classes, but rather, students make their own lesson plans.

         In 2012, New Directions provided services at four Topeka locations-Fairlawn Plaza, Oakland Community Center, Shawnee County Jail, and Shawnee County Jail Annex. In the spring of 2012, Plaintiff applied for a part-time teaching position at the Jail Annex. After interviewing with Susan Lindstrom, program coordinator for New Directions, Plaintiff received and accepted an offer for the position. Defendant's Executive Director, Dr. Bradley Mark Pepper, did not participate in the decision to hire Plaintiff. In March 2014, Plaintiff's security clearance to work at the Jail Annex was terminated-a decision Defendant had no involvement in making. Rather than terminate Plaintiff's employment, Lindstrom and Dr. Pepper created a position for Plaintiff at the Fairlawn location.

         In March 2015, in response to changes in Kansas law affecting Defendant's funding, Dr. Pepper determined that Defendant needed to cut 50% or more from its budget. As a result, Defendant implemented a reduction in force (“RIF”) that reduced Defendant's total staff by approximately 32%. At the time of the RIF, the Fairlawn location employed three full-time teachers, two part-time teachers, two counselors, and one teaching assistant. All of the teachers held at least one certification. Of the three full-time teachers, one held a certification in math, one held a certification in social studies, and one held a certification in English. Plaintiff held certifications in physical education, health, special education, and psychology, and the other part-time teacher held certifications in math and science. As part of the RIF, Defendant elected not to renew the teaching contracts of two Fairlawn employees-Plaintiff and the teaching assistant. Plaintiff received his notice of non-renewal on or about May 7, 2015.

         After Defendant completed the RIF process, and after Plaintiff had been issued his notice of non-renewal, the full-time teacher holding a certification in social studies resigned. Lindstrom submitted an internal New Hire Request Form to fill the vacancy. The form included, among other things, separate sections for the person completing the form to indicate the “qualifications” and “requirements” for the position. The qualifications box includes the following notation: “Secondary Certification in preferably Social Studies, Science, . . .” and the requirements box states “9-12 Kansas license current, . . .” Plaintiff attached to his Response a purported advertisement for the position placed in the Topeka Capital Journal Newspaper, titled “Secondary Certified Teacher New Direction Learning Academy.” The advertisement does not appear to identify any “qualifications” or “requirements” for the position, does not include a job description, and does not state any certification preferences for the position.

         Defendant's employee handbook addresses the rehiring of an employee affected by a RIF. It states, in relevant part:

Any certified/licensed employee who has not been re-employed as a result of reduction of the teaching staff shall be considered for re-employment if a vacancy exists for which the certified/licensed employee would be qualified. The Executive Director will recommend to the Board reinstatement of any such certified/licensed person whom he/she deems qualified and able to serve the best interests of the Service Center. The Board shall not be required to consider reinstatement of any such person after a period of one year from the date of non-renewal.

         In seeking to fill the vacancy, Lindstrom was particularly interested in hiring a teacher certified in social studies. The teacher that created the vacancy held a social studies certification and Lindstrum believes it is important to have teachers certified in the main core areas of math, social studies, and English. Lindstrom received four applications for the position, including one from Plaintiff. Although Plaintiff held other certifications and met the minimum requirements to work as a teacher at New Directions, he did not have a certification in science or social studies. Lindstrom did not consider Plaintiff qualified for the vacancy, and Defendant did not consider Plaintiff for the position because he did not have a social studies certification. The applicant hired to fill the position held a certification in social studies.

         Plaintiff is African American and argues that Defendant discriminated against him on the basis of his race when it failed to hire him to fill a teaching vacancy in June 2015, and instead filled the position with a Caucasian applicant, in violation of Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 1981, and the Kansas Act Against Discrimination (“KAAD”). While Plaintiff's Complaint alleged several violations of federal and state law, Plaintiff agrees that the only “remaining issue is whether or not he was discriminated against because of his race in relation to the failure to hire him for the vacancy created at the end of the school year by the resignation of an employee retained under the RIF.”

         II. Legal Standard

         Summary judgment is proper if the moving party demonstrates that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact, and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.[3] A fact is “material” when it is essential to the claim, and issues of fact are “genuine” if the proffered evidence permits a reasonable jury to decide the issue in either party's favor.[4] The movant bears the initial burden of proof and must show the lack of evidence on an essential element of the claim.[5]If the movant carries its initial burden, the nonmovant may not simply rest on its pleading, but must instead “set forth specific facts” that would be admissible in evidence in the event of trial from which a rational trier of fact could find for the nonmovant.[6] These facts must be clearly identified through affidavits, deposition transcripts, or incorporated exhibits-conclusory allegations alone cannot survive a motion for summary judgment.[7] The Court views all evidence and reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the non-moving party.[8]

         III. Analysis[9]

         A plaintiff may demonstrate intentional discrimination either through direct or indirect evidence.[10] The Court applies the familiar McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework where, as here, the plaintiff seeks to prove discrimination with indirect evidence.[11] Under this framework, Plaintiff must first establish a prima facie case of discrimination-his burden at this stage is not onerous.[12] In a failure to hire case, this requires that Plaintiff show: (1) he belongs to a protected class, (2) he applied for and was qualified for the position in question, and (3) he “was rejected under circumstances which give rise to an inference of unlawful discrimination.”[13] Once Plaintiff establishes his prima facie case, the burden shifts to Defendant to “articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse employment action.”[14] Defendant's burden at this stage “is ‘exceedingly light, ' ” and Defendant's “stated reasons need only be legitimate and non-discriminatory ‘on their face.' ”[15] Once Defendant meets its burden to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its hiring decision, the burden shifts back to Plaintiff to demonstrate that Defendant's proffered justification is pretext.[16]

         A. Plaintiff has established a prima facie case of discrimination.

         Defendant argues that Plaintiff cannot establish a prima facie case of discrimination because he was not qualified for the full-time teaching position and no evidence supports an inference that Defendant's decision not to hire Plaintiff resulted from unlawful discrimination. As noted above, Plaintiff does not face an onerous burden at this stage, and the Court concludes that Plaintiff has met his burden. First, the parties do not dispute that Plaintiff belongs to a protected class. Second, although the “qualifications” identified by Lindstrom include a secondary certification, “preferably” in social studies or science, Plaintiff has presented evidence suggesting that he met the listed “requirements” to fill the position.[17] Further, the notation that a social studies or science certification was “preferred” suggests that a candidate may be qualified for the position without having a preferred certification. Plaintiff has presented sufficient facts at this stage to allow an inference that he met the minimum qualifications for the position. Finally, that Defendant did “not eliminate the position for which the candidate was rejected, ” and instead hired a Caucasian applicant to fill the position satisfies the third requirement in Plaintiff's prima facie case-that he “was rejected under circumstances which give rise to an inference of unlawful discrimination.”[18]

         B. Defendant has proffered a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for rejecting Plaintiff's application.

         Defendant states that it did not hire Plaintiff because it needed to replace a teacher that held a social studies certification and Plaintiff did not possess a social studies or science certification, the certifications preferred by Defendant. In explaining its desire to hire a teacher with a social studies certification, Defendant posits that it is important to have teachers certified in the main core areas of math, social studies, and English.[19] Ultimately, Defendant rejected Plaintiff's application in favor of a candidate holding a social studies certification. Defendant has satisfied its light burden to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for not hiring Plaintiff, and the burden shifts back to Plaintiff to demonstrate that Defendant's proffered justification is pretextual.

         C. Plaintiff cannot show pretext.

         Plaintiff may show pretext by identifying “such weaknesses, implausibilities, inconsistencies, incoherencies, or contradictions in the employer's proffered legitimate reasons for its action” such “that a reasonable factfinder could rationally find them unworthy of credence and hence infer that the employer did not act for the asserted non-discriminatory reasons.”[20] When analyzing pretext, Courts “examine the facts as they appear to the person making the decision, not the plaintiff's subjective evaluation of the situation.”[21] Courts will not question the wisdom, fairness, or correctness of an employer's proffered reasons; rather, the “relevant inquiry is . . . whether [the employer] honestly believed those reasons and acted in good faith upon those beliefs.”[22] “[M]ere conjecture that an employer's explanation is a pretext for intentional discrimination is an insufficient basis for denial of summary judgment.”[23]

         Evidence of pretext “may take a variety of forms, ”[24] but typically a plaintiff will ...


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