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Brown v. Unified School District No. 501

United States District Court, D. Kansas

October 15, 2019

MARK E. BROWN, Plaintiff,
v.
UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 501, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          HOLLY L. TEETER, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Mark E. Brown, a teacher formerly employed by Defendant Unified School District No. 501, filed this lawsuit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e, et seq., alleging that Defendant refused to rehire him based on his race and in retaliation for a prior lawsuit he filed against Defendant. Plaintiff seeks reconsideration of the Court's July 24, 2019 Memorandum and Order granting Defendant's motion for summary judgment. Doc. 62. For the reasons discussed below, the Court denies Plaintiff's motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The factual background underlying the parties' dispute is set forth in detail in the Court's summary judgment order and is not repeated at length herein. In sum, this case stems from Defendant's 2016 refusal to consider Plaintiff for rehire. Plaintiff previously worked for Defendant from 1982 until his voluntary resignation in 1996. Plaintiff claims Defendant refused to rehire him based on his race and in retaliation for a prior lawsuit he filed against Defendant in 1991. Based on these allegations, Plaintiff asserted two claims under Title VII: (1) race-based discrimination for failure-to-hire and (2) retaliation.

         Defendant subsequently moved for summary judgment on both of Plaintiff's claims, arguing that Plaintiff could not establish a prima facie case on either claim and, regardless, could not prove that Defendant's proffered reasons for refusing to rehire him were mere pretext for discrimination and retaliation.[1] Docs. 54-55. On July 24, 2019, the Court entered an order granting summary judgment in favor of Defendant. Doc. 62. In its order, the Court found that: (1) although Plaintiff had met the prima facie burden on his Title VII failure-to-hire claim, Plaintiff could not rebut Defendant's legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for refusing to reconsider its 2001 no-rehire decision by showing that those reasons were mere pretext for discrimination; and (2) Plaintiff could not establish a prima facie case on his retaliation claim, and, even if he could, he again could not show that Defendant's stated reasons for its no-rehire decision were pretext. Id. Judgment was accordingly entered in favor of Defendant. Doc. 63.

         Plaintiff now asks the Court to reconsider portions of that order-specifically, the Court's holding that “no reasonable jury could determine that Defendant's legitimate reasons for its actions were mere pretext” for intentional discrimination or retaliation. Doc. 64 at 1.

         II. STANDARD

         District of Kansas Rule 7.3 provides that “[p]arties seeking reconsideration of dispositive orders or judgments must file a motion pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(e) or 60.”[2] D. Kan. R. 7.3(a). Grounds warranting relief from judgment under Rule 59(e) include: (1) an intervening change in controlling law, (2) the availability of new evidence that could not have been obtained previously through the exercise of due diligence, and (3) the need to correct clear error or prevent manifest injustice. Brinkman v. Norwood, 2018 WL 1806758, at *1 (D. Kan. 2018); see also Servants of the Paraclete v. Does, 204 F.3d 1005, 1012 (10th Cir. 2000). Such a motion “is appropriate where the court has misapprehended the facts, a party's position, or the controlling law.” Servants of the Paraclete, 204 F.3d at 1012. But it is not a vehicle to “revisit issues already addressed or advance arguments that could have been raised in prior briefing.” Id. Nor is it “a second chance for the losing party to make its strongest case or to dress up arguments that previously failed.” Voelkel v. Gen. Motors Corp., 846 F.Supp. 1482, 1483 (D. Kan. 1994). The party seeking relief bears the burden of demonstrating that he is entitled to such relief. Brinkman, 2018 WL 1806758, at *1. Reconsideration of a judgment is an extraordinary remedy and should be used sparingly. Id.

         III. ANALYSIS

         In his motion, Plaintiff does not expressly state which grounds for relief he is asserting. But he does not identify an intervening change in the controlling law or new evidence that could not have been obtained previously (and the Court discerns none). Plaintiff therefore appears to move under the third ground for relief only: the need to correct clear error or prevent manifest injustice.

         The Tenth Circuit defines “clear error” as “an arbitrary, capricious, whimsical, or manifestly unreasonable judgment.” United States v. Carter, 2019 WL 329573, at *1 (D. Kan. 2019) (citing Wright ex rel. Tr. Co. of Kan. v. Abbott Labs., Inc., 259 F.3d 1226, 1236 (10th Cir. 2001)). “Manifest injustice, ” meanwhile, is a “direct, obvious, and observable error in a trial court” that is “apparent to the point of being indisputable.” Id. (citing Paliwoda v. Showman, 2014 WL 11517806, at *1 (D. Kan. 2014)). To prove manifest injustice, a plaintiff must show “more than just a clear and certain prejudice.” Id. Rather, a plaintiff must also show “a result that is fundamentally unfair in light of governing law.” Id.

         The “clear error” or “manifest injustice” that Plaintiff claims warrants reconsideration is with respect to the Court's analysis of the third prong of the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting scheme-the pretext analysis.[3] In its summary judgment order, the Court held that Plaintiff had not met his burden of showing that Defendant's asserted reasons for its refusal to rehire Plaintiff- i.e., Plaintiff's negative performance evaluations and the 1989 sexual misconduct investigation- were mere pretext for discriminatory and retaliatory intent. Doc. 62 at 14-17, 20-21. But Plaintiff contends this holding was incorrect, arguing the Court erred in concluding that Defendant honestly believed the reason it gave for its conduct and acted in good faith on that belief. Doc. 64. Specifically, Plaintiff argues the Court disregarded evidence set out by Plaintiff in his summary judgment briefing. Id.

         The Court disagrees with Plaintiff. First, the Court's analysis of pretext in its summary judgment order was a correct application of the law to the facts, and Plaintiff's arguments do not meet Rule 59(e)'s standard of showing “clear error” or “manifest injustice.” As the Court stated in its order, pretext may be shown by demonstrating a defendant's proffered justifications for taking the adverse action are unworthy of belief. Dewitt v. Sw. Bell Tel. Co., 845 F.3d 1299, 1307 (10th Cir. 2017). A court's role is not to “second guess” the defendant's business judgment. Id. Indeed, whether the defendant's proffered reasons for its actions were fair or correct is immaterial so long as the defendant honestly believed those reasons and acted in good faith upon those beliefs. Swackhammer v. Sprint/United Mgmt. Co., 493 F.3d 1160, 1169-70 (10th Cir. 2007). Plaintiff does not dispute the law and, indeed, cites this proposition from Swackhammer in support of his motion to alter or amend. Doc. 64 at 2.

         Here, in finding that Defendant honestly believed the reason it gave for its decision not to rehire Plaintiff and acted in good faith on that belief, the Court discussed at length the numerous uncontroverted facts supporting this finding. Doc. 62 at 14-17, 20-21. This evidence included negative performance evaluations from Plaintiff's tenure with Defendant, which noted concerns regarding his professionalism, communication skills, and inappropriate comments to students. Id. at 15. One such evaluation, which the Court cited in its summary judgment order, commented that Plaintiff's performance while employed with Defendant was “less than that of other teachers in the areas of professional skills, interpersonal relationships, and especially personal characteristics.” Id. Another evaluation included a request that Plaintiff be transferred to a different school due to doubts he could meet students' needs. Id. The Court also cited information from Plaintiff's personnel file (which, as noted in the summary judgment order, was reviewed by HR personnel in connection with Defendant's decision not to rehire Plaintiff) regarding an investigation into sexually-inappropriate comments Plaintiff made to a female student under his supervision during his tenure as a girls' basketball coach. Id. at 15-16. With respect to this last piece of evidence, the Court further ...


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