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Kersten v. Loudon County Board of Education

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee, Knoxville Division

November 7, 2014



THOMAS A. VARLAN, Chief District Judge.

This civil action is before the Court on defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. 29] as to plaintiff's sole claim that defendant, her former employer, violated the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA"), 29 U.S.C. ยงยง 621, et seq., when it failed to renew her teaching contract [Doc. 1]. Plaintiff has responded [Doc. 34], and defendant has replied [Doc. 38].

Defendant argues that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law, pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, because plaintiff has failed to establish a prima facie case of discrimination [Doc. 30]. Defendant further argues that even assuming plaintiff has established a prima facie case, defendant has articulated a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its failure to renew plaintiff's teaching contract, which plaintiff has not shown to be a pretext. Plaintiff responds that she has established a prima facie case, and defendant's reason for its failure to renew her contract is a pretext for discrimination [Doc. 34]. Plaintiff also states in her response to the motion that she is entitled to summary judgment, but she has not filed a motion for summary judgment. For the reasons set forth below, the Court finds that genuine issues of material fact exist that preclude summary judgment for both parties. Accordingly, defendant's motion for summary judgment will be denied.

I. Facts

Plaintiff Nancy Kersten was born in 1954 [Doc. 37 p. 4]. She began her teaching career in 1976 as a third-grade teacher in New Orleans. In 2001, plaintiff began teaching in the State of Tennessee as a third-grade teacher in Monroe County [Doc. 37 p. 4]. She subsequently obtained tenure there [Doc. 37 p. 4]. Around July 2008, plaintiff applied for a teaching position at Eaton Elementary School in Loudon County in order to work closer to home [Doc. 31 p. 1; Doc. 34-2 p. 9-10].

Eaton Elementary School principal, Jennifer Malone, and assistant principal, Melanie Amburn, participated in plaintiff's initial interview in July 2008 [Doc. 31 p. 1]. Both Principal Malone and Assistant Principal Amburn were over the age of forty at the time [Doc. 31 p. 1]. In the interview process, Principal Malone explained that the open position was an interim fourth-grade teaching position created by another teacher's maternity leave [Doc. 31 p. 2; Doc. 31-1 p. 9]. Principal Malone made a recommendation to the Director of Schools, Wayne Honeycutt, that defendant hire plaintiff as an interim fourth-grade teacher at Eaton, and Director Honeycutt made the formal decision to hire plaintiff [Doc. 31 p. 1-2]. At the time he made the decision to hire plaintiff, Director Honeycutt was over the age of forty [Doc. 31 p. 4]. Plaintiff worked as an interim fourth-grade teacher at Eaton for the 2008-2009 school year on a one-year contract that was subject to renewal at the end of the year [Doc. 31 p. 2].

Because of the interim nature of plaintiff's position, her contract initially was not renewed for the 2009-2010 school year [Doc. 31 p. 2]. Nevertheless, a third-grade teaching position subsequently became available at Eaton, which defendant offered to plaintiff and plaintiff accepted [Doc. 31 p. 2]. During the 2009-2010 school year, Plaintiff worked as one of eight teachers on the third-grade teaching team at Eaton [Doc. 31 p. 2]. She was the only non-tenured teacher on the third-grade team [Doc. 31 p. 3].

Around March 31, 2010, Principal Malone met with plaintiff to inform her that Principal Malone would be recommending against the renewal of plaintiff's contract for the 2010-2011 school year [Doc. 31 p. 3]. Principal Malone told plaintiff that plaintiff's contract was not being renewed due to the reduction of one third-grade teaching position at Eaton for the upcoming school year, and because plaintiff was the last third-grade teacher hired into her position [Doc. 31 p. 3].[1] Principal Malone also asked whether plaintiff would be interested in a second-grade teaching position should one become available, and plaintiff said she would be interested in it [Doc. 31-1 p. 11]. Plaintiff understood Principal Malone to be asking because there had been rumors that one of the second-grade teachers would be leaving [Doc 31-1 p. 11]. Principal Malone recommended against renewing plaintiff's contract, and Director Honeycutt made the decision not to renew it [Doc. 31 p. 3-4]. At the time, he was not aware of plaintiff's age [Doc. 31 p. 4]. Around April 14, 2010, Plaintiff received a letter from defendant stating that her contract would not be renewed for the following school year [Doc. 31-1 p. 10; Doc. 34-4 p. 10]. At no point in her employment did plaintiff hear Principal Malone or Director Honeycutt make comments about her age [Doc. 31 p. 3-4].

On April 20, 2010, Principal Malone wrote a letter of recommendation for plaintiff [Doc. 34-4 p. 9; Doc. 37 p. 5]. In the letter, Principal Malone stated, among other things: "I am writing to highly recommend Nancy Kersten for a teaching position in your school system.... She is of stellar character, dependable, and works well with students, parents, and colleagues.... She is well-versed in instructional practices, very intelligent, and she consistently plans and implements lessons with student learning in mind.... She works hard to establish positive relationships between school and home, and she has excellent classroom management strategies." [Doc. 34-4 p. 9; Doc. 37 p. 5].

In her deposition on June 20, 2014, Principal Malone confirmed that the statements in the letter of recommendation were truthful from her perspective [Doc. 34-3 p. 9]. At the time plaintiff's contract was not renewed, plaintiff held a valid Tennessee teaching license to teach first through eighth grade and had about twenty-five years of teaching experience [Doc. 34-4 p. 8; Doc. 37 p.4]. Defendant admits that plaintiff was qualified for her employment as a teacher [Doc. 37 p. 4].

After the non-renewal of plaintiff's contract, but before the end of the 2009-2010 school year, Assistant Principal Amburn spoke with plaintiff about a teaching position that had become available [Doc. 31 p. 4; Doc. 37 p. 3]. The parties agree that plaintiff turned down the position, but they dispute the nature of the position and plaintiff's reason for turning it down [Doc. 31 p. 4; Doc. 37 p. 3]. Defendant contends that Assistant Principal Amburn told plaintiff it was a first-grade teaching position, and plaintiff told Assistant Principal Amburn that she was not interested because she did not want to teach children that young [Doc. 31 p. 4]. Plaintiff contends that it was a "K-1 split, " which would involve teaching part kindergarten and part first grade, and she told Assistant Principal Amburn she was not qualified to teach kindergarten [Doc. 37 p. 3]. In any event, Plaintiff's last day of employment was May 27, 2010 [Doc. 34-4 p. 41].

On June 7 through 11, 2010, Principal Malone participated in interviews of approximately twenty-seven people for teaching positions at Eaton [Doc. 34-3 p. 28-29, 35; Doc. 34-4 p. 40]. Among the people interviewed on June 10 was a man named J. Anderson Harp, Jr. [Doc. 34-3 p. 28-29, 35; Doc. 34-4 p. 40]. Mr. Harp was twenty-seven years old at the time [Doc. 37 p. 4-5]. On the same day as Mr. Harp's interview, Principal Malone signed a "Teacher Recommendation Form" for his hire as a third-grade teacher, effective August 2, 2010 [Doc. 34-3 p. 27-28; Doc. 34-4 p. 39]. The field for "Teacher Being Replaced" lists plaintiff's name [Doc. 34-4 p. 39]. Director Honeycutt's signature appears on the form as the approver, dated June 16, 2010 [Doc. 34-4 p. 39]. The form notes that Mr. Harp's "Tennessee Teacher License Number" is "Pending" [Doc. 34-4 p. 39]. Mr. Harp was in fact hired to teach at Eaton for the 2010-2011 school year [Doc. 34-3 p. 26-28].

In August 2010, plaintiff filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") in Nashville alleging that defendant had discriminated against her on the basis of age and gender [Doc. 1-1 p. 1]. Defendant responded in December 2010, with supplemental responses in February 2012 [Doc. 34-4 p. 12-38].

In its original explanation for its action, defendant's statements to the EEOC included: (1) "The Charging Party states that she met with the principal of the school who told that the fourth grade team was being reduced from seven teachers to six. In fact, that reduction did occur at the school;" (2) "It is also asserted by the administration of the school at which Charging Party was employed that she lacked a positive attitude and that she did not work well with the fourth grade team to which she was assigned;" and (3) "Respondent states that it has a duty to provide the best teachers to its students whom it can employ and made a determination, pursuant to statute, that this teacher's contract should not be renewed" [Doc 34-4 p. 23-26].

Defendant's original explanation to the EEOC also gave three specific examples of plaintiff's alleged poor conduct: (1) "Charging Party was called onto [sic] a conference with the principal and parent.... the Charging Party stated (to the parent) that... your child would have to be retarded not to understand the proper way to turn in his assignments;'" (2) "[E]ach faculty member was requested by the school administration to attend an after-hours series of events called March Madness. Charging party complained the [sic] school administration regarding this request and proceeded to call the state teacher association....;" and (3) "[P]arent complaints regarding Charging Party and her classroom management were numerous and involved a lot of time for the school" [Doc. 34-4 p. 25]. In her June 2014 deposition, Principal Malone stated that the first two alleged examples of plaintiff's misconduct (calling a student "retarded" and complaining about the "March Madness" events) were not accurate [Doc. 34-3 p. 25-26].

In other parts of its original EEOC response, defendant was asked about the teaching position in question during the relevant time period. Defendant responded in part: "Total number of applications received for the vacant position formerly occupied by the Charging Party was 30" [Doc. 34-4 p. 29]. In response to a question about who filled the position in question, defendant responded, "J. Anderson Park, Jr." [Doc. 34-4 p. 30]. In response to a question about whether it had considered plaintiff for the position, defendant stated: "The Charging Party's name was mentioned by the principal of the school as a possibility for the position. However, since the Charging Party had not submitted any formal application or a resume, neither had she expressed any interest whatsoever in a position at Eaton School, the leadership team chose not to consider her name for any position that became vacant" [Doc. 34-4 p. 30]. In her June 2014 deposition, Principal Malone explained that this statement to the EEOC was incorrect insofar as she did not mention plaintiff as "a possibility for the position, " but rather as "a possibility for a position" [Doc. 34-3 p. 18-22 (emphasis added)].

In its February 2012 supplemental filings with the EEOC, defendant was asked to provide the birth date of Mr. Harp. Defendant responded: "The employment of J. Anderson Harp, Jr. has no bearing upon this matter. The charging party seems to be of the opinion that Mr. Harp took her place. In fact, that is not the case. Mr. Harp was instead hired to replace a tenured teacher. Without waiving this objection, the date of birth for Mr. Harp is 07/03/1982." [Doc. 34-4 p. 37]. In her June 2014 deposition, Principal Malone elaborated that a third-grade teaching position became vacant after a second-grade teacher announced her ...

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