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Bowman v. Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners

United States District Court, D. Maryland

August 11, 2017

YOLANDA BOWMAN, Plaintiff,
v.
BALTIMORE CITY BOARD OF SCHOOL COMMISSIONERS, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          RICHARD D. BENNETT, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Yolanda Bowman (“plaintiff” or “Bowman”), an African-American woman, has filed this action against defendant the Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners (“defendant” or “the Board”), alleging retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e, et seq., (“Title VII”) and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, §§ 42 U.S.C. 2000d-7, et seq., (“Title VI”). Plaintiff was suspended without pay and, later, not re-hired as a teacher at the Mary E. Rodman Elementary School in Baltimore, Maryland, after she failed to obtain parental consent forms from all students who participated in a “prison pen pal program” through which the children corresponded with Bowman's husband, an incarcerated felon. The failure to obtain these consent forms generated letters of complaint from many parents of her students. Nevertheless, Bowman alleges that she was suspended not as a result of the prison pen pal program, but, instead, in retaliation for her having complained of racial discrimination at a staff meeting over three months before her suspension took effect.

         Now pending before this Court is defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (“Defendant's Motion”).[1] (ECF No. 20.) The parties' submissions have been reviewed, and plaintiff has been accorded a period of discovery in this case.[2] No hearing is necessary. See Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md. 2016). For the reasons stated below, Defendant's Motion is GRANTED, and Summary Judgment shall be ENTERED in favor of defendant on both counts.

         BACKGROUND

         In ruling on a Motion for Summary Judgment, the Court reviews the facts and all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378 (2007); Hardwick ex rel. Hardwick v. Heyward, 711 F.3d 426, 433 (4th Cir. 2013).

         Plaintiff Yolanda Bowman, an African-American woman, is a certified special education teacher with over twenty years of teaching experience. (ECF No. 1 at ¶¶ 7-8.) In October 2012, Bowman was hired to work as a fifth grade teacher within the Baltimore City Public Schools system. (Bowman Depo., ECF No. 20-3 at 4-5.) She was initially assigned to William Paca Elementary School, but subsequently was transferred to Mary E. Rodman Elementary School (“Rodman”) for the 2013/14 academic year. (Id.) Michele Broom (“Broom”), an African-American woman, was the principal of Rodman throughout Bowman's tenure there. (Id. at 7.) Nearly all (98%) of the students at Rodman were also African-American. (Id.)

         During Bowman's first year at Rodman, she taught the third grade and had approximately eighteen (18) students in her class. (ECF No. 20-3 at 6-7.) In her second year at the school, the 2014/15 academic year, Bowman was the only teacher assigned to teach the fifth grade, with forty-two (42) students in her class. (Id. at 8, 22.) That same year, a first-year teacher, Ms. Tousignant, a Caucasian female, was assigned to teach the fourth grade class. (Id. at 25-26.) It is undisputed that the inexperienced Ms. Tousignant struggled to control her students and that Ms. Bowman, with her extensive teaching background, lent her assistance to Ms. Tousignant. (Id. at 25-26.)

         When a new teacher joined Rodman during the 2014/15 year, she was assigned to the fourth grade in order to reduce the number of students assigned to the struggling Ms. Tousignant. (Id. at 21-22.) After the fourth grade class was divided, Ms. Tousignant was responsible for only fifteen students. (Id.) The number of students assigned to Ms. Bowman was unchanged. (Id. at 22.) During a staff meeting held on October 13, 2014, Bowman asserted that she felt that the reassignment was unfair and that she was being discriminated against because the school had reduced the number of students assigned to Ms. Tousignant, a Caucasian, but not to Ms. Bowman, an African-American. (Id.)

         While Bowman testified that she and Principal Broom had a professional relationship prior to the 2014/15 academic year, she now alleges that Broom began treating her with tension and hostility from that start of the school year. (ECF No. 20-3 at 24, 28.) Notwithstanding, it is undisputed that Broom encouraged Bowman to start extracurricular clubs at the school. (Id. at 28-29.) Ms. Bowman proposed a “prison pen pal program, ” through which students in Bowman's class wrote letters to Bowman's husband Mr. Price, a convicted felon who has been incarcerated in federal facilities since 2008 with an expected release date in 2019. (Id. at 3, 37.) Given the sensitive nature of this activity, students were required to obtain parental permission slips before communicating with the inmate. (Id. at 37.) While some students returned permission slips, several others did not. (Id. at 37-41.) Even students who did not return their permission slips participated in the program. (Id.)

         In December 2014, Price sent to Bowman and the students a very personal letter describing the events that led to his imprisonment and his experience in prison. (ECF No. 20-4.) Following the receipt of Price's letter, on Saturday, December 20, 2014, Bowman sent to the parents of her fifth grade students a text message explaining that as a result of his correspondence with the students, her husband had been placed in solitary confinement. The text message stated:

“Greetings Mary E. Rodman Family, This is Ms. Bowman. First and for most [sic] I want to wish you all a blessed and favorable Christmas. May all your needs be meet [sic]. I now have to ask you for a favor. I started a pen pal program with the students in my class and my significant other who is incarcerated. Students received monthly letters which they were excited about and periodic phone calls which we talked [sic] on speaker. Permission slips were sent home to avoid confusion. Well, we spoke to Mr. Price as a class on December 11 and I did not here [sic] from him again. Last night I received a letter from him stating that he was placed in solitary confinement for saying to the students that he was not a nice guy and that was considered a threat to children. My family is completely devastated by this especially that this happening during the holidays. I am writing the prison to request an immediate investigation and I need your help. First please talk to your children about correspondences with Mr. Price and find out for yourself what was said, then please send me your email address so we can demand an explination [sic] from the prison. I'm trying to get 100 letters out my Mon. [sic] morning so my children can at least speak to there [sic] father on Christmas. Mr. Price and I were actually trying to do something positive for our kids as we both move forward in becoming ministers. Thank you for all you do, and I look forward to your email addresses. God's favor on your life!!”

(ECF No. 20-6.) The following Monday, December 22, 2014, multiple parents contacted school administrators to express concern about the unexpected and peculiar text message from Ms. Bowman and about the prison pen pal program as a whole. (ECF Nos. 20-8, 20-9.)

         When Principal Broom and school administrators learned of the parents' complaints, they contacted the Baltimore City Public Schools Office of Labor and Relations. (ECF No. 20-8.) By letter dated January 5, 2015, Jerome Jones, Manager of the Office of Labor Relations, notified Bowman that she was being placed on administrative leave with pay pending further investigation into her activities and a Loudermill hearing.[3] (ECF No. 20-10.) The Loudermill hearing was conducted on January 12, 2015. See ECF No. 20-11. Following the hearing, Dr. Gregory Thornton, Chief Executive Officer of the Board, recommended that Ms. Bowman be terminated. (ECF No. 20-12.) By letter dated February 3, 2015, Bowman was placed in a status of suspension without pay effective February 10, 2015. (ECF No. 20-12.) Despite Thornton's recommendation, the Board did not terminate Ms. Bowman's employment immediately, but instead chose not to renew her teaching contract by letter dated May 1, 2015. (ECF No. 20-13.)

         While still on administrative leave, on January 29, 2015, Bowman filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), alleging retaliation and discrimination based on her race and age. (ECF No. 25 at 11-14.) Following its investigation, the EEOC dismissed Bowman's Charge and issued her a Right to Sue letter on February 5, 2015. (Id. at 3.) On May 5, 2015, Bowman filed a two-count Complaint in this Court alleging retaliation in violation of Title VI and Title VII. (ECF No. 1.) Defendant timely moved to dismiss Bowman's Complaint. (ECF No. 4.) Accepting as true ...


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