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Courtney-Pope v. Board of Education of Carroll County

United States District Court, D. Maryland

September 17, 2019




         In this employment discrimination case, plaintiff Lydia Courtney-Pope, a self-represented school teacher, filed suit against her former employer, the Board of Education of Carroll County (the “Board”), asserting claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, as amended by the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq.; the Maryland Fair Employment Practices Act (“FEPA”), Md. Code (2014 Repl. Vol., 2017 Supp.), § 20-601 et seq. of the State Government Article (“S.G.”); and the Family and Medical Leave Act, 29 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq. (“FMLA”). In particular, plaintiff alleges that the Board failed to make reasonable accommodations for her disability of post-traumatic stress disorder, in violation of the ADA (Count One); discriminated against her on the basis of her disability, in violation of the ADA (Count Three) and the FEPA (Count Four); interfered with her medical leave, in violation of the FMLA (Count Five); and retaliated against her for taking medical leave, in violation of the FMLA (Count Six). Id. at 18-33.[1]

         The Board has filed a post-discovery motion for summary judgment (ECF 64), supported by a memorandum of law (ECF 64-1) (collectively, the “Motion”) and numerous exhibits. Plaintiff filed a combined opposition to the Motion and a cross motion for summary judgment (“Cross Motion”), along with numerous exhibits. See ECF 69.[2] The Board's reply is at ECF 80. Plaintiff's reply is at ECF 86, with additional exhibits.

         The motions have been fully briefed, and no hearing is necessary to resolve them. See Local Rule 105(6) (D. Md. 2018).[3] For the reasons that follow, I shall grant the Board's Motion in part and deny it in part, and I shall deny plaintiff's Cross-Motion.

         I. Factual Background[4]

         From 2005 to 2014, plaintiff was a chorus and dance teacher at South Carroll High School (“SCHS” or the “School”) in Carroll County, Maryland. ECF 74, Ex. 1; ECF 64-10 (Pl.'s July 13, 2018 Dep.) at 6, Tr. 40:15-18. In addition to teaching, plaintiff coordinated twice-yearly choral concerts, participated in festivals, prepared students for choral and dance concerts, and assisted with additional fundraising concerts. ECF 64-10 at 5-6, Tr. 39-40. Plaintiff was well liked by students and parents alike, and received exemplary evaluations and honors from school administrators. ECF 74, Exs. 2, 4, 6.

         Plaintiff's employment was governed by a “Master Agreement” between the Board and the Carroll County Education Association. ECF 74, Ex. 36C. School Principal Jeffrey Hopkins and SCHS Assistant Principal Meghan Humbert-Brown[5] were two of plaintiff's supervisors. ECF 74, Ex. 6.

         In 2011, plaintiff developed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”). It was due, among other reasons, to certain trauma that she had experienced arising out of marital difficulties. ECF 74, Ex. 43, Pl.'s Affidavit, ¶¶ 5-10; ECF 64-2 (Hopkins Affidavit), ¶ 3 . In or about the summer of 2014, plaintiff was diagnosed with PTSD by her doctor, which constitutes a disability within the meaning of the ADA. Id. As a result of her PTSD, plaintiff experienced “hyper-vigilance, … flashbacks, exhaustion due to medication and inability to sleep, sensitivity to sounds and crowds, anxiety (racing heart and feeling of no breath) under stress, conflation of trauma and when under duress, dissociation.” ECF 74, Ex. 43.

         At the beginning of the 2014 school year, plaintiff informed Brown and Hopkins of her diagnosis and requested several accommodations. ECF 1, ¶ 25; ECF 74, Ex. 43, Plaintiff's Affidavit, ¶¶ 12-16. In her Complaint, plaintiff identifies three accommodations that she requested: (1) to leave at the end of the day, without staying past her contractual leave time; (2) to walk or run on the School's track during her preparation periods to help “decompress”; and (3) to take leave when needed, after proper notification, to attend therapy and counseling sessions to manage and treat her PTSD. ECF 1, ¶ 26; ECF 69 at 10-11.

         Plaintiff does not allege that any of those requests were denied. Id. However, she asserts that defendant's employees were “cold, insensitive, and callous, ” and she complains that they never “engage[d] her in an interactive process to [] discuss her disability . . . and how SCHS could accommodate” her. ECF 1, ¶¶ 32-33. Nevertheless, plaintiff notes an “accommodation conversation” she had with Brown on August 25, 2014, “within 5 minutes, after the bell had rung, on the first day of school, in the hallway outside [plaintiff's] classroom, as new students were filing into [her] classroom.” ECF 74, Ex. 43.

         In September 2014, plaintiff requested twelve weeks of intermittent FMLA leave. ECF 74, Ex. 8. On September 23, 2014, plaintiff notified Brown and Hopkins about her FMLA application. ECF 74, Ex. 9. In plaintiff's FMLA application, her doctor stated that, “due to emotional lability and mood instability, employee may be unable to interact effectively with students or co-workers at times.” ECF 74, Ex. 8 at 2. Her doctor also stated that plaintiff “may have trouble maintaining her regular work schedule on occasions as she goes through treatment.” Id. at 4. On October 1, 2014, plaintiff's FMLA request was approved, permitting plaintiff to take up to sixty days of FMLA leave in the twelve-month period from September 22, 2014 to September 22, 2015. ECF 74, Ex. 12.

         In her Affidavit, plaintiff indicates that, at the outset of the school year in August or September 2014, at her “SLO meeting, ”[6] she met with Ms. Brown and disclosed her PTSD and its cause. ECF 74, Ex. 43 (Plaintiff's Affidavit), ¶ 12. She requested a waiver of the required professional development projects that caused her further anxiety by requiring her to stay after school and give up her preparatory periods. ECF 74, Ex. 43, Plaintiff's Affidavit, ¶¶ 15, 16; see also ECF 69 at 9 n.10. Plaintiff avers that she was “over-candid” with Ms. Brown about her PTSD, and Ms. Brown was “uncharacteristically combative.” ECF 74, Ex. 43, ¶¶ 14, 15.

         Plaintiff claims that, based on Ms. Brown's response, she “appealed” to Hopkins, but he refused plaintiff's request “to waive further professional developments, ” saying that “‘it wouldn't be fair'” to other teachers. Id. ¶ 16. In contrast, Hopkins testified that, at the start of the school year, he and plaintiff had “talked” about plaintiff's request for “family medical leave.” ECF 64-11 at 22, Tr. 25. And, Hopkins claimed that “there was never an issue of [plaintiff] not being able to take her leave.” Id. at 21, Tr. 74.

         According to plaintiff, beginning in October 2014, she was mistreated as a result of using her FMLA leave. On October 10, 2014, after plaintiff had taken FMLA leave for the day, Brown reported to Hopkins that plaintiff was absent and had failed to leave regular or emergency lesson plans for her substitute, even though plaintiff had indeed left the lesson plans in the classroom and had sent both Brown and another teacher an email with the plans that morning. ECF 74, Ex. 17, Ex. 18; ECF 74, Ex. 43, Administrative Hearing Tr. of Mar. 12, 2015, and Mar. 13, 2015 (hereinafter, “Hearing Tr.”) at 403-05; ECF 64-11 (Hearing Tr.) at 107[7]; ECF 64-10 (Pl.'s July 13, 2018 Dep.), at 19-25, Tr. 80-86. Nonetheless, Brown demanded ten extra lesson plans from plaintiff for the days for which she took leave, although other teachers were not required to provide such plans. ECF 74, Ex. 43, Hearing Tr. at 407; ECF 64-10 at 19-25; see also ECF 74, Ex. 39B, ¶ 5; Ex. 40, ¶ 5 (affidavits from two teachers who attest they were never required to prepare emergency lesson plans, despite absences).

         Plaintiff suffered an anxiety attack on October 15, 2014, as a result of her PTSD, triggered by her classroom relocation and a verbal altercation with another employee. ECF 74, Ex. 43, Hearing Tr. at 416-418. Plaintiff asked Brown for a substitute teacher to cover her classes for the rest of the day. Id. at 418-19. According to plaintiff, Brown responded, “What do you want me to do, pull a sub out of thin air?” Id. at 419. Brown did, however, find a substitute for plaintiff. Id. at 420.

         On October 20 and 22, 2014, plaintiff used FMLA leave to take full-day absences. ECF 1, ¶ 89. On October 21 and 23, 2014, plaintiff met with Hopkins to discuss the lesson plan issue from October 10 and other matters. ECF 74, Ex. 43, Mar. 12, 2015 Hearing Tr. at 413; ECF 69 at 19; ECF 64 at 9. Plaintiff avers that, during the October 21 meeting, Hopkins yelled at her for not completing the ten additional lesson plans, and refused to listen to her explanations. ECF 74, Ex. 43, Pl.'s Affidavit, ¶ 32. According to plaintiff, during the October 23 meeting, Hopkins again did not listen to her explanations, and refused her accommodations, stating “there is a limit.” Id. ¶¶ 4, 33.[8] Hopkins sent a letter to plaintiff memorializing these meetings, but plaintiff refused to sign it because of its alleged inaccuracies. ECF 74, Ex. 43, Hearing Tr. at 413; ECF 64-18. On November 17, 2014 and December 1, 2014, plaintiff used only 45 minutes of leave, yet she claims her salary was docked each time for half a day. ECF 1, ¶¶ 90, 91; see ECF 74, Ex. 23.

         On or about November 14, 2014, Hopkins entered plaintiff's locked office with a substitute teacher while plaintiff was absent. ECF 64-2, ¶ 8; ECF 69 at 19-20; see also ECF 74, Ex. 37, ¶¶ 4-8; Ex. 40, ¶ 24. He “observed pills laying out in the open on [plaintiff's] desk.” ECF 64-2, ¶ 8. Hopkins took the pills to the school nurse, “[k]nowing that [plaintiff's] students were often observed in her office with or without her present.” Id. The school nurse confirmed the pills were vitamins. But, Hopkins spoke with plaintiff upon her return “about the importance of not leaving pills in places accessible to students, but [he] never disciplined [plaintiff] regarding this incident.” Id. In addition, sometime in the beginning of the school year, Hopkins had offered plaintiff an “Employee Assistance Brochure” in response to her “confiding in [him] about her marital problems.” Id. ¶ 7.

         On December 15, 2014, plaintiff met with Hopkins, Human Resources Specialist Kelly Keith, and plaintiff's union representative, Glen Galante. ECF 64-10 (Pl.'s July 13, 2018 Dep.) at 26-27, Tr. 101-02. Plaintiff explained that she was joking when she told her students to take a nap, and that the students knew she meant they would be doing a listening exercise. ECF 74, Ex. 43, Hearing Tr. at 436-37; ECF 64-11 at 108. At the meeting on December 15, 2014, Hopkins raised other allegations about plaintiff's teaching practices, including unsubstantiated grading practices and refusal to teach the required lesson plan during an Advisory period, all of which plaintiff denied. ECF 74, Ex. 43, Hearing Tr. at 435-37.

         At the conclusion of the meeting, plaintiff was provided with a letter signed by Board Superintendent Stephen Guthrie, placing her on administrative leave, with pay, pending an investigation, based on reports that plaintiff had instructed students to take a nap in class on December 12, 2014, and because plaintiff had posted inappropriate information on a student's social media page. ECF 64-10 (Pl.'s July 13, 2018 Dep.) at 27-28, Tr. 102-04[9]; see also ECF 64-24 (Guthrie letter).

         Thereafter, Hopkins conducted an investigation into plaintiff's teaching practices. And, he received several additional reports from students. ECF 64-11 at 112-119; ECF 64-25 (student letters).[10]

         Plaintiff admits she posted on a pregnant student's social media page, but claims that she did so under the mistaken belief that the student had graduated already. ECF 74, Ex. 43, Hearing Tr. at 438-39. Plaintiff's social media message, written in response to the student's post about being past her due date, stated: “Oh honey! Have a glass of wine and some ‘special time' with daddy! If that doesn't work, msg me!” Id. at 439-41; ECF 74, Ex. 32 (social media post).

         On December 17, 2014, Hopkins wrote a letter to his supervisor, Tom Hill, detailing his findings and requesting that plaintiff be disciplined up to and including termination of employment. ECF 64-26. Hopkins's letter outlined several concerns, including plaintiff giving students unsubstantiated or incomplete grades, telling students to take a nap during class and Advisory period instead of doing the required lesson, telling students she was hungover, and posting inappropriately on a student's social media page. Id. The next day, December 18, 2014, Hill wrote a letter to Jimmie Saylor, the Board's Director of Human Resources, recommending plaintiff's termination “on the grounds of misconduct, and repeated inappropriate and unprofessional behavior in the presence of students.” ECF 64-27. In turn, Saylor made the same recommendation to the Assistant Superintendent of Administration, Jonathan O'Neal. ECF 64-28.

         On December 19, 2014, plaintiff was told that she must either resign or be fired. ECF 1, ¶ 94; ECF 69 at 23. Superintendent Guthrie sent a letter to plaintiff on December 22, 2014, recommending her termination from employment for misconduct in office, incompetency, and willful neglect of duty. ECF 64-29; ECF 64-10 (Pl.'s July 13, 2018 Dep.) at 29-30, Tr. 105-06. Plaintiff was also advised of her right to a hearing before the Board. Id.

         The Board convened a two-day hearing on March 12 and 13, 2015, pursuant to Md. Code (2014 Repl. Vol., 2017 Supp.), § 6-202(a)(3) of the Education Article (“Educ.”). See ECF 64-11 (Hearing Tr.).[11] Plaintiff appeared with counsel. ECF 64-31 at 53. Nineteen witnesses testified at the hearing, including Brown, Hopkins, Keith, Guthrie, Galante, Saylor, and plaintiff. Id. Thereafter, the Hearing Examiner issued a comprehensive opinion recommending plaintiff's termination, based on findings of misconduct, incompetency, and willful neglect of duty. ECF 64-31.

         On July 8, 2015, the Board heard oral argument from counsel for the parties. ECF 64-10 (Pl.'s Dep.) at 36-39, Tr. 113-14. In a “Decision” of August 12, 2015 (ECF 64-33), the Board did not agree with the Hearing Examiner that plaintiff was “derelict in her duties with respect to leaving plans for her substitute teacher on October 10, 2014 . . . .” ECF 64-33 at 10. But, in all other respects, the Board unanimously agreed with the Hearing Examiner's findings.

         By a vote of three to one, the Board adopted the Superintendent's recommendation to dismiss plaintiff “for misconduct in office, willful neglect of duty, and incompetency.” Id. at 10. The Fourth Board member concurred in the findings, but dissented as to termination, based on plaintiff's “10-year tenure with CCDS and her acknowledged talents . . . .” ECF 64-33 at 10-11.

         On February 3, 2015, plaintiff filed a charge of discrimination with the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights (“MCCR”), which she amended on April 20, 2015. ECF 6-25. The charge was also filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). See ECF 30. On August 11, 2016, the MCCR issued a finding of “No Probable Cause to believe that [defendant] discriminated against [plaintiff] because of her . . . disability.” ECF 6-29 at 12. The EEOC adopted the findings of the MCCR on October 26, 2016, and closed its file on the charge. ECF 74, Ex. 11. This suit followed on December 21, 2016. ECF 1.

         On January 19, 2018, the Court dismissed Count Two of plaintiff's Complaint, without prejudice, allowing plaintiff to move to amend her Complaint by February 12, 2018. ECF 19 at 8-10. Plaintiff did not do so. Defendant filed an Answer to the Complaint, and the case proceeded to discovery in accordance with the Court's Scheduling Order. See ECF 22; ECF 24.

         Additional facts are included, infra.

         II. Legal Standards

         A. Summary Judgment

         Under Rule 56(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment is appropriate only “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.” See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-24 (1986); see also Formica v. Aylor, 739 Fed.Appx. 745, 754 (4th Cir. 2018); Iraq Middle Mkt. Dev. Found v. Harmoosh, 848 F.3d 235, 238 (4th Cir. 2017). To avoid summary judgment, the nonmoving party must demonstrate that there is a genuine dispute of material fact so as to preclude the award of summary judgment as a matter of law. Ricci v. DeStefano, 557 U.S. 557, 585-86 (2009); Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 585-86 (1986); see also Gordon v. CIGNA Corp., 890 F.3d 463, 470 (4th Cir. 2018).

         The Supreme Court has clarified that not every factual dispute will defeat a summary judgment motion. “By its very terms, 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 v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986) (emphasis in original). A fact is “material” if it “might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law.” Id. at 248. There is a genuine issue as to material fact “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id.; see Variety Stores, Inc. v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 888 F.3d 651, 659 (4th Cir. 2018); Sharif v. United Airlines, Inc., 841 F.3d 199, 2014 (4th Cir. 2016); Raynor v. Pugh, 817 F.3d 123, 130 (4th Cir. 2016); Libertarian Party of Va. v. Judd, 718 F.3d 308, 313 (4th Cir. 2013).

         On the other hand, summary judgment is appropriate if the evidence “is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252. But, “the mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the plaintiff's position will be insufficient; there must be evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the plaintiff.” Id.

         Notably, “[a] party opposing a properly supported motion for summary judgment ‘may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of [her] 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, 522 (4th Cir. 2003) (quoting former Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)), cert. denied, 541 U.S. 1042 (May 17, 2004); see also Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-24. And, the court must view all of the facts, including reasonable inferences to be drawn from them, in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Ricci, 557 U.S. at 585-86; Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd., 475 U.S. at 587; accord Hannah P. v. Coats, 916 F.3d 327, 336 (4th Cir. 2019); Variety Stores, Inc., 888 F.3d at 659; Gordon, 890 F.3d at 470; Roland v. United States Citizenship & Immigration Servs., 850 F.3d 625, 628 (4th Cir. 2017); Lee v. Town of Seaboard, 863 F.3d 323, 327 (4th Cir. 2017); FDIC v. Cashion, 720 F.3d 169, 173 (4th Cir. 2013).

         The district court's “function” is not “to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249; accord Guessous v. Fairview Prop. Invs., LLC, 828 F.3d 208, 216 (4th Cir. 2016). Thus, in considering a summary judgment motion, the court may not make credibility determinations. Wilson v. Prince George's Cty., 893 F.3d 213, 218-19 (4th Cir. 2018); Jacobs v. N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts, 780 F.3d 562, 569 (4th Cir. 2015); Mercantile Peninsula Bank v. French, 499 F.3d 345, 352 (4th Cir. 2007). Therefore, in the face of conflicting evidence, such as competing affidavits, summary judgment ordinarily is not appropriate, because it is the function of the fact-finder to resolve factual disputes, including matters of witness credibility. See Black & Decker Corp. v. United States, 436 F.3d 431, 442 (4th Cir. 2006); Dennis v. Columbia Colleton Med. Ctr., Inc., 290 F.3d 639, 644-45 (4th Cir. 2002).

         When, as here, the parties have filed cross motions for summary judgment, the court must consider “each motion separately on its own merits ‘to determine whether either of the parties deserves judgment as a matter of law.'” Rossignol v. Voorhaar, 316 F.3d 516, 523 (4th Cir. 2003) (citation omitted); see Mellen v. Bunting, 327 F.3d 355, 363 (4th Cir. 2003). Simply because both parties have filed for summary judgment does not mean that summary judgment to one party or another is necessarily appropriate. “Both motions must be denied if the court finds that there is a genuine issue of material fact. But if there is no genuine issue and one or the other party is entitled to prevail as a matter of law, the court will render judgment.” 10A Alan Wright & Arthur Miller, Et Al., Federal Practice & Procedure § 2720, at 336-37 (3d ed. 1998, 2012 Supp.).

         In reviewing the parties' submissions, the court is mindful that plaintiff is self-represented. Therefore, her submissions must be liberally construed. See Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007). But, the court must also abide by the “‘affirmative obligations of the trial judge to prevent factually unsupported claims and defenses from proceeding to trial.'” Bouchat, 346 F.3d at 526 (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Drewitt v. Pratt, 999 F.2d 774, 778-79 (4th Cir. 1993), and citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323-24 (1986)).

         B. Methods of Proof

         In general, at trial a plaintiff may establish a discrimination claim through “two avenues of proof.” Thomas v. Delmarva Power & Light Co., 715 Fed.Appx. 301, 302 (4th Cir. 2018) (per curiam) (Title VII); see Hill v. Lockheed Martin Logistics Mgmt., Inc., 354 F.3d 277, 284 (4th Cir. 2004) (en banc), abrogated on other grounds by Univ. of Tex. Sw. Med. Ctr. v. Nassar, 570 U.S. 338 (2013)). At summary judgment, reference to the avenues of proof merely serves to inform a court's evaluation of evidence. See Haynes v. Waste Connections, Inc., 922 F.3d 219, 223 (4th Cir. 2019) (recognizing that a Title VII plaintiff may avoid summary judgment by proceeding under the burden - shifting framework established in McDonnell Douglas Corp. . . .”); Pettis v. Nottoway Cty. Sch. Bd., 592 Fed.Appx. 158, 160 (4th Cir. 2014) (stating that a plaintiff asserting racial discrimination “may avoid summary judgment by proceeding under the burden-shifting framework established in McDonnell Douglas . . . .”).

         The plaintiff's first avenue is to offer “‘direct or indirect'” evidence of discrimination under “‘ordinary principles of proof.'” Burns v. AAF-McQuay, Inc., 96 F.3d 728, 731 (4th Cir. 1996) (citation omitted), cert. denied, 520 U.S. 1116 (1997). “To avoid summary judgment” when proceeding under ordinary principles of proof, “‘the plaintiff must produce direct evidence of a stated purpose to discriminate and/or [indirect] evidence of sufficient probative force to reflect a genuine issue of material fact.'” Rhoads v. FDIC, 257 F.3d 373, 391 (4th Cir. 2001) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted; alteration in original).

         In Warch v. Ohio Casualty Ins. Co., 435 F.3d 510, 520 (4th Cir. 2006), the Fourth Circuit explained the concept of direct evidence:

Direct evidence must be “evidence of conduct or statements that both reflect directly the alleged discriminatory attitude and that bear directly on the contested employment decision.” Taylor v. Virginia Union Univ., 193 F.3d 219, 232 (4th Cir. 1999) (en banc) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Even if there is a statement that reflects a discriminatory attitude, it must have a nexus with the adverse employment action.

         In the absence of direct or indirect evidence of discrimination, the focus shifts to the plaintiff's second avenue of proof-the burden-shifting approach first articulated by the Supreme Court in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973). Notably, courts have applied the McDonnell Douglas proof scheme to a variety of employment statutes, including “appropriate” claims under the ADA, such as a discrimination claim. Ennis v. National Ass'n of Business and Educational Radio, Inc., 53 F.3d 55, 58 (4th Cir. 1995).

         The McDonnell Douglas proof scheme “is inapplicable where the plaintiff presents direct evidence of discrimination.” Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Thurston, 469 U.S. 111, 121 (1985). See, e.g., Young v. United Parcel Serv., Inc., U.S., ___ 135 S.Ct. 1338, 1345 (2015) (construing the Pregnancy Discrimination Act). But, there is no direct evidence of discrimination in this case. Therefore, I turn to review the McDonnell Douglas proof scheme. It is “a procedural device, designed only to establish an order of proof and production.” St. Mary's Honor Ctr. v. Hicks, 509 U.S. 502, 521 (1993) (emphasis omitted). Under the McDonnell Douglas approach, the “ultimate burden of persuasion [at trial] never ‘shifts' from the plaintiff, ” who must prove intentional unlawful discrimination. Williams v. Cerberonics, Inc., 871 F.2d 452, 456 n.2 (4th Cir. 1989) (citation omitted).

         If the plaintiff chooses to proceed under the McDonnell Douglas approach, the plaintiff must first establish a “prima facie case of discrimination.” Merritt v. Old Dominion Freight Line, Inc., 601 F.3d 289, 294 (4th Cir. 2010); see Abilt v. Central Intelligence Agency, 848 F.3d 305, 315 (4th Cir. 2017). Although the precise formulation of the required prima facie showing will vary in “different factual situations, ” McDonnell Douglas, 411 U.S. at 802 n.13, the plaintiff is generally required to show that the employer took adverse action against an applicant “under circumstances which give rise to an inference of unlawful discrimination.” Texas Dep't of Cmty. Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 253 (1981).

         If a plaintiff establishes a prima facie case of unlawful discrimination, “a presumption of illegal discrimination arises, and the burden of production shifts to the employer” to produce evidence of a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for its adverse employment action. Hoyle v. Freightliner, LLC, 650 F.3d 321, 336 (4th Cir. 2011); see Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 142 (2000); Hurst v. District of Columbia, 681 Fed.Appx. 186, 189-90 (4th Cir. 2017) (per curiam). “If the defendant carries this burden of production, the presumption raised by the prima facie case is rebutted.” Burdine, 450 U.S. at 255. In that circumstance, “the McDonnell Douglas framework-with its presumptions and burdens-is no longer relevant, ” and “simply drops out of the picture.” St. Mary's Honor Ctr., 509 U.S. at 510-11. The plaintiff must then prove, by a preponderance of evidence, “that the [employer's] proffered reason was not the true reason for the employment decision” and that the plaintiff “has been the victim of intentional discrimination.” Burdine, 450 U.S. at 256; see also Reeves, 530 U.S. at 143; St. Mary's Honor Ctr., 509 U.S. at 516-20; Adams v. Trs. of Univ. of North Carolina-Wilmington, 640 F.3d 550, 560 (4th Cir. 2011) (“[I]n demonstrating the Defendants' decision was pretext, [plaintiff] had to prove ‘both that the reason was false, and that discrimination was the real reason.'”) (quoting Jiminez v. Mary Washington Coll., 57 F.3d 369, 378 (4th Cir. 1995)) (emphasis in original).

         Conversely, if the defendant does not submit evidence of a legitimate basis for its actions, the factfinder may “infer discriminatory animus because experience has proved that in the absence of any other explanation it is more likely than not that those actions were bottomed on impermissible considerations.” Furnco Const. Corp. v. Waters, 438 U.S. 567, 579-80 (1978). And, if the defendant fails to meet the burden of producing “evidence which, taken as true, would permit the conclusion that there was a nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse action, ” then “the court must award judgment to the plaintiff as a matter of law.” St. Mary's Honor Ctr., 509 U.S. at 509 (emphasis in original). This is because a legal presumption of intentional discrimination has been established. Id. at 510 n.3; see Burdine, 450 U.S. at 255 n.8 ...

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