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Sutton v. Somerset County Board of Education

United States District Court, D. Maryland

June 18, 2018

GREGORY H. SUTTON Plaintiff
v.
SOMERSET COUNTY BOARD OF EDUCATION, et al. Defendants

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          ELLEN L. HOLLANDER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         In a First Amended Complaint (ECF 22), plaintiff Gregory Sutton, who is African American, brings this race discrimination suit against his former employer, the Somerset County Board of Education (the “Board”), and its Superintendent of Schools, John Gaddis, Ed.D., [1]defendants. He seeks an injunction, damages, a declaratory judgment, legal fees, and costs under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et. seq., as well as 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981 and 1983.

         Defendants' motion for summary judgment is now pending. ECF 31. It is supported by a memorandum (ECF 35-1) (collectively, the “Motion”) and numerous exhibits. Plaintiff opposes the Motion (ECF 36), supported by a memorandum (ECF 36-1) (collectively, the “Opposition”). He has also submitted numerous exhibits. Defendants have replied. ECF 41.

         No oral argument is necessary to resolve the Motion. See Local Rule 105.6. For the reasons set forth below, I shall grant the Motion.

         I. Factual Background

         The Board is a corporate body politic organized and existing under the laws of the State of Maryland, which governs and has ultimate responsibility for the management, operation, and control of the Somerset County Public School (“SCPS”) system. ECF 22 at 2, ¶ 5.[2] This includes the promulgation of all orders, rules, regulations, policies, and instructions related to the hiring, training, discipline, supervision and control of educators, principals, supervisors, and all other employees. Id.

         Dr. Gaddis, who is Caucasion, has served as the Superintendent of the SCPS system since July 1, 2013. ECF 31-2 (Affidavit of Beth Whitelock, Board's Supervisor of Human Resources), ¶ 6; ECF 31-14 (Gaddis Deposition), at 4. Sutton is an African-American male who was employed by the Board as Supervisor of Transportation and Operations for the SCPS system from February 24, 2014 through June 30, 2016. ECF 31-2, ¶ 5; ECF 31-16 (Sutton Deposition) at

         3, 7.

         As Superintendent, Gaddis had the authority to appoint and to terminate the Supervisor of Transportation and Operations. See Md. Code (2018 Repl. Vol.), §§ 6-201(a)(1), 6-201(c)(1), and 6-202(a) of the Education Article (“Educ.”); ECF 31-14 at 8; ECF 31-15 (Deposition of Board Chair Warner Sumpter), at 3.[3] Gaddis hired Sutton in February 2014 to fill the position of Supervisor of Transportation and Operations. ECF 31-2 at 4-5, ¶¶ 15, 25; ECF 31-14 at 5-8. However, when Sutton reported to work on February 24, 2014, Sutton learned that he was hired as the “Interim” Supervisor of Transportation and Operators. However, the job was not posted as an “Interim” position. See ECF 36-5 (Declaration of Sutton), ¶ 5; ECF 36-7 (Memorandum of Understanding); ECF 36-6 (job posting and duties). Moreover, according to plaintiff, his salary was at the bottom of the advertised range, and did not give him “credit for [his] forty-plus years of experience in working in transportation . . . .” ECF 36-5, ¶ 12.

         Also on February 24, 2014, Sutton and the SPCS executed a Memorandum of Understanding, by which Sutton was appointed to the position. ECF 36-7. As part of his duties, Sutton was responsible for administering and overseeing the Board's Transportation Department, which included numerous bus contractors, drivers who operated 32 school buses, and bus routes that serviced nearly 3, 000 students attending ten public schools throughout the county. ECF 31-6 (Sutton's response to request for admissions of facts), at 3. See also the Code of Maryland Regulations (“COMAR”), § 13A.06.07.01B(30) (defining “Supervisor of Transporation”).

         On November 16, 2015, an incident involving two students occurred on a school bus operated for SCPS by Eugene Borden, an African American bus driver. ECF 31-6 at 6. The incident was reported to Sutton by the parent of one of the students. Id.

         Sutton met with Borden on November 18, 2015, to discuss the incident and to review a videotape of it. Id. at 7. Later that day, Sutton issued a letter of suspension to Borden, which summarized both the incident and the meeting. ECF 31-7; ECF 36-13 (same). Sutton recounted that a parent complained that a student twisted the arm of a female student and “left bruises, ” In addition, defendants cite Educ. § 6-201(c) for the proposition that Gaddis had the authority to hire and terminate Sutton. ECF 31-1 at 5, ¶ L. However, the section appears to apply only to hiring. In my reading of the statute, § 6-202(a)(1) governs termination. requiring a visit to an emergency room. Id. at 1. Moreover, the injured student claimed that she reported the occurrence to Borden, who “did nothing about it.” Id. at 1. Sutton advised Borden that he was being “suspended from driving a school bus pending further investigation.” Id.

         According to the suspension letter, the video showed that while the bus was in motion, students were “walking up and down the aisle, hitting each other with rolled up paper, climbing over the seats, hanging out the window” and Borden “never corrected this behavior . . . .” ECF 31-7 at 1. Borden's “failure to . . . correct[ ] the behavior of the students on [his] bus made [it] an unsafe bus.” Id. As a result, Borden was notified that he would be “disqualified from driving a school bus” if he did not “agree to attend a driver improvement class by November 30, 2015.” Id. at 1-2.

         Borden did not agree to attend the class. Therefore, Sutton submitted a Disqualification Form to the Maryland State Department of Education (“MSDE”) on December 15, 2015. ECF 31-6 at 7; ECF 31-8 (Disqualification Form); ECF 36-14 (same). As the reason for “Disqualification, ” Sutton stated: “Refusal to attend a driver improvement class on pupil management.” ECF 31-8; ECF 36-14. Sutton notified Borden of his disqualification. ECF 31-6 at 7; ECF 36-14 at 5.

         Referencing COMAR §§ 13A.06.07.07D and 13A.06.07.08C, the MSDE Disqualification Form states: “Any local school system has the discretion to reinstate an individual disqualified for Unsafe Actions . . . by submitting a letter in writing to the Department's Office of Pupil Transportation.” ECF 31-8; ECF 36-14.

         On Saturday, April 30, 2016, while Sutton was out of town, he received a call from Bernard Johnson, the Board's driver trainer, advising that a bus contractor needed a substitute driver for Monday, May 2, 2016. ECF 22, ¶ 16. Johnson recommended Borden, and Sutton agreed to the suggestion. Id. ¶ 17. The decision was made without any written request to reinstate Borden, so as to authorize him to operate a school bus in which SCPS students were to be transported. ECF 31-6 at 10; ECF 31-11 (letter from Sutton to Sumpter dated May 23, 2016) at 1; ECF 36-3 (Hearing of September 13, 2016) at 35-37. As a result, on Monday, May 2, 2016, Borden operated a school bus to transport SCPS students, even though he was in a disqualified status. ECF 31-6 at 10-11.

         In the late morning of May 2, 2016, after Borden had already operated the school bus to transport students to school, Sutton was reminded by one of his subordinates that Borden was disqualified from driving a school bus. ECF 36-3 at 38. Sutton claims that until this point he had forgotten that Borden was disqualified. ECF 31-11 at 1; ECF 36-3 at 38. When reminded, Sutton promptly endeavored to have Borden reinstated and directed that Borden be administered the driver improvement course, which he had previously refused to take. ECF 36-15 (email chain of May 2, 2016 to May 3, 2016), at 2. At some point on May 2, 2016, after Borden had already driven the school bus, he agreed to take the required safety course, and did so. ECF 31-11 at 1; ECF 36-3 at 38-39.

         Thomas Davis, the Deputy Superintendent of the SCPS system, issued a memorandum to Gaddis on May 3, 2016, regarding Sutton's decision to allow Borden to operate a school bus the previous day. ECF 31-3 at 6, 30-31; ECF 36-11. On that date, Gaddis met with Sutton and Davis to discuss the events of May 2, 2016, and Sutton was placed on paid administrative leave, pending an investigation. ECF 31-3 (Affidavit of Davis), at 6-7; ECF 36-3 (Sutton Deposition), at 41-43.

         Gaddis wrote a letter to Sutton on May 3, 2016. ECF 31-3 at 38. He confirmed Sutton's suspension due to Sutton's “complete lack of sound judgment” in regard to his decision “to use Mr. Borden as a substitute and the implications from utilizing a disqualified driver.”

         At his deposition, Sutton recalled that at his meeting with Gaddis, the Superintendent told him that he (Sutton) “had put the school system in jeopardy, by allowing Mr. Borden to drive the school bus.” ECF 36-3 at 41. Sutton also testified as to his explanation, id.: “And then I told him that, I just forgot. I wasn't feeling well.” Id. According to Sutton, Gaddis responded: “That's no excuse.” Id.

         By letter of May 4, 2016, Davis asked the MSDE to remove Borden from MSDE's disqualified driver list and to reinstate him to operate school buses for the County. ECF 31-3 at 7, ¶ 27; ECF 31-3 at 39. The MSDE granted this request. ECF 31-3 at 7, ¶ 27; id. at 40; see also ECF 36-16 (Sutton Deposition), at 6.

         Davis conducted the investigation, at the direction of Gaddis. The investigation revealed that before Sutton authorized Borden to operate the school bus on May 2, 2016, Sutton failed to follow the proper MSDE procedure for reinstating Borden. ECF 31-3 at 32-37. Although Borden was disqualified at the relevant time, he was found to have operated the school bus in a safe manner. ECF 31-3 at 6, ¶ 25; ECF 36-3 at 28-29.

         Gaddis issued a letter of termination to Sutton on May 17, 2016, effective June 30, 2016. ECF 36-11; see ECF 36-3 at 44. The letter of termination outlined a number of issues with Sutton's performance, but focused primarily on Sutton's decision to allow Borden to drive a school bus on May 2, 2016, while he was disqualified. Id. at 2. Gaddis characterized Sutton's decision as an “error in judgment, ” and noted that this decision “placed the contractor and the Somerset County Public School system in grave jeopardy, ” resulting in a “measure of liability” that was “truly unacceptable.” Id.

         On May 23, 2016, Sutton appealed Gaddis's termination decision to the Board. ECF 31-11; ECF 36-17. He maintained that he “did not knowingly allow a disqualified driver to operate a school bus.” Id. at 2. Sutton also recounted the unexpected need for a driver on May 2, 2016, and explained that he forgot that he had required the driver improvement class, even though this was at Sutton's discretion. Id. Sutton added that as soon as the oversight was brought to his attention, he rectified the error. Id. Further, Sutton said: “Again, if I had known that the driver had been disqualified, I would never have given the authorization for him to drive. However, what I find odd is that the driver is now driving, yet I am being recommended for termination.” Id.[4]

         The Board held a hearing on September 13, 2016, regarding Sutton's appeal. ECF 36-3. It was conducted by Robert Eaton, Esquire, who served as the Hearing Examiner. ECF 31-12 at 1. At that hearing, Gaddis testified that Sutton's decision to allow Borden to drive while disqualified was the catalyst for his termination. ECF 36-3 at 5-6, 9-10, 26-27.[5]

         The Hearing Examiner issued Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law, concluding that the termination was not arbitrary, unreasonable, or illegal. ECF 36-12 at 1-3.[6] At oral argument on December 9, 2016, the Board granted Sutton's request to reopen the evidence, so that Sutton could introduce another exhibit. Id. Thereafter, the Hearing Examiner considered the additional evidence, but reached the same conclusion. Id. at 2. At Sutton's request, the Board heard oral argument on March 31, 2017. Id.

         On July 20, 2016, Sutton was replaced by Michael Bartemy, who is Caucasian. Sutton maintains that Bartemy had “virtually no relevant experience, training or education.” ECF 36-1 at 16. Further, according to plaintiff, the terms of Bartemy's employment “were significantly more favorable than those offered Mr. Sutton[.]” Id. Among other things, Bartemy received a higher salary and he was ...


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