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Smith v. Board of Education of Prince George's County

United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division

December 8, 2017

MABEL SMITH, Plaintiff,



         In her one-count Complaint, Plaintiff Mabel Smith alleges that she suffered retaliation in response to her complaints of age, gender, and national origin discrimination that she raised to her employer, the Board of Education of Prince George's County, Maryland (the "Board" or "Defendant"), in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e-2 et seq. Presently pending before the Court is the Board's Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF No. 26. No hearing is necessary to resolve the Motion. See Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md. 2016). For the reasons that follow, the Board's Motion is granted.

         I. BACKGROUND[1]

         Plaintiff is employed by the Board as a teacher in the Prince George's County school system and was assigned to Kettering Middle School as a classroom teacher for the 2005-2006 through 2014-2015 school years. ECF No. 26-12 at 6, 2.[2] Amin Salaam is Principal of Kettering Middle School and served as Plaintiffs immediate supervisor for the 2012-2013 through 2014-2015 school years. ECF No. 26-13 at 2. On February 27, 2015, Salaam informed Plaintiff of an impending disciplinary meeting related to Plaintiffs observation of, and role in, diffusing an altercation that occurred between two students in front of Plaintiff s classroom earlier that day. ECF No. 26-8 at l.[3] According to Salaam, the meeting was necessary because Plaintiff misled Salaam during his investigation into the altercation by erroneously informing him that she "did not see anything." Id. Following notification of this meeting, Plaintiff sent an email to Dr. Kevin Maxwell, Chief Executive Officer of Prince George's County Public Schools, on March 3, 2015, requesting that he review Salaam's conduct, and that Salaam harassed her, bullied her, and demeaned her character. ECF No. 26-8 at 1-6.

         Amana Simmons, the Board's Equal Opportunity Advisor, acknowledged receipt of Plaintiffs email to Maxwell and informed Plaintiff that the Board would treat it as a complaint of discrimination and/or harassment pursuant to the Board's Administrative Procedure 4170, ECF No. 26-11 at 62-72. See ECF No. 26-11 at 73. Simmons and Plaintiff met on March 3, 2015 to discuss Plaintiffs concerns. Following this meeting, Salaam held the aforementioned disciplinary meeting on March 11, 2015 with Plaintiff, Kettering Vice Principal Secoya Muschett, and Jimalatice Thomas, Plaintiffs union representative. ECF No. 26-2 at 4. During the meeting, Plaintiff denied that she was aware of the altercation that occurred between two students in front of her classroom on February 27. Id. After Salaam played recordings taken from a security camera showing Plaintiff breaking up the subject altercation, Plaintiff left the meeting to seek medical attention. Id.; see also ECF No. 26-10 (security camera recording). Salaam then informed Thomas and Muschett that he would issue a "Letter of Professional Counseling for Misconduct, Willful Neglect of Duty & Insubordination" (the "Letter") to Plaintiff for her conduct following the altercation, ECF No. 26-2 at 4, and issued the Letter later that day. ECF No. 26-2 at 37-39. While the Letter primarily discussed Plaintiffs conduct related to this altercation, Salaam also referenced two prior incidents where Plaintiff allegedly inappropriately yelled at Salaam in front of students and staff on September 11 and December 10, 2014. Id.

         Following the disciplinary meeting, Plaintiff remained absent from work on extended medical leave through the end of the 2014-2015 school year, but her salary and benefits remained unchanged. ECF No. 26-12 at 23-25, 29. On March 16, 2015, Plaintiff filed a Charge of Discrimination with the EEOC, alleging national origin and age discrimination and retaliation. ECF No. 26-3. Thereafter, on March 25, 2015, Plaintiff received a report from an observation conducted by Salaam, stating that her performance was "unsatisfactory." ECF No. 28-3. Plaintiff also received an evaluation for the 2014-2015 school year with an overall score of 49.57, corresponding to an "ineffective" rating. ECF No. 28-4. Subsequently, the score was increased to 75.29, corresponding to an "effective" rating. ECF No. 26-2 at 24. Plaintiff initiated the subject action on January 21, 2016, bringing one claim, "Title VII Retaliation." ECF No. 1. On July 26, 2016, the Court denied Defendant's Motion to Dismiss, ECF No. 3. See ECF No. 11. Following completion of discovery, Defendant now moves for summary judgment. ECF No. 26.


         "The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). "This standard provides that the mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact." Anderson, Ml U.S. at 247-48 (1986) (emphasis in original). Thus, "[t]he party opposing a properly supported motion for summary judgment 'may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of [his] pleadings, ' but rather must 'set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'" Bouchat v. Baltimore Ravens Football Club, Inc., 346 F.3d 514, 525 (4th Cir. 2003) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)) (alteration in original).

         On a motion for summary judgment, the Court must "view the evidence in the light most favorable to ... the nonmovant, and draw all inferences in her favor without weighing the evidence or assessing the witness' credibility." Dennis v. Columbia Colleton Med. Ctr., Inc., 290 F.3d 639, 644-45 (4th Cir. 2002). The moving party bears the burden of showing that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact. No genuine issue of material fact exists if the non-moving party fails to make a sufficient showing on an essential element of her case as to which she would have the burden of proof. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). Therefore, on those issues on which the non-moving party has the burden of proof, it is her responsibility to confront the summary judgment motion with an affidavit or other similar evidence showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.


         Plaintiffs Complaint identifies two actions that form the primary basis for her claim of retaliation under Title VII: (1) the March 11. 2015 Letter of Professional Counseling received by Plaintiff on March 18, 2015, ECF No. 1 ¶ 49, and (2) Salaam's ratings of Plaintiff as "ineffective" in interim and annual job performance reviews issued on March 25, 2015 and June 19, 2015, respectively, id. ¶¶ 50, 52.[4] Title VII prohibits employment discrimination based on "race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, " 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a), and its anti-retaliation provision serves to "prevent[] an employer from interfering (through retaliation) with an employee's efforts to secure or advance enforcement of the Act's basic guarantees." Burlington N. & Santa Fe Ry. Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53, 63; see also 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a).

         To establish & prima facie claim of retaliation under Title VII, a plaintiff must demonstrate three elements: "(1) [s]he engaged in a protected activity, (2) [her] employer acted adversely against [her], and (3) the protected activity was causally connected to the adverse action." Clarke v. DynCorp Int'l LLC, 962 F.Supp.2d 781, 789 (D. Md. 2013) (citations omitted). Once a plaintiff demonstrates a prima facie claim, the burden shifts to the employer to show that there was a legitimate non-retaliatory reason for the adverse action. Foster v. Univ. of Md.-Eastern Shore, 787 F.3d 243, 250 (4th Cir. 2015) (citing the burden-shifting framework set forth in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973)). Thereafter, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to rebut the employer's explanation and show that it was merely a pretext for discrimination. Id.

         Defendant argues that Plaintiff cannot establish that there was an adverse action, and that even if there was such an action, it was not causally related to a protected activity. As explained by the Court in resolving Defendant's earlier Motion to Dismiss, Title VII's protections against discrimination and retaliation are not coterminous. Smith v. Board of Ed Of Price George's Cnty., No. GJH-16-206, 2016 WL 4014563, at *4 (D. Md. July 26, 2016) (citing Burlington TV., 548 U.S. at 67). While a plaintiff alleging discrimination must show that she was subject to an adverse employment action that altered the terms or conditions of employment, a plaintiff alleging retaliation need only show that a reasonable employee would find "the challenged action materially adverse, which in this context means it well might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination." Burlington N., 548 U.S. at 68 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted); see also Hinton v. Virginia Union Univ., 185 F.Supp.3d 807, 827 (E.D. Va. 2016) ("Under [Burlington Northern], effect on terms or conditions of employment can certainly be a factor in the fact-based determination of material adversity, ... however, effect on terms or conditions of employment is no longer necessary to state actionable misconduct in a retaliation claim.") (internal citations and quotation marks omitted) (emphasis in original). The Court addresses each of the alleged retaliatory actions in turn.

         A. Letter of ...

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