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Watford v. Jefferson County Public Schools

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

September 1, 2017

Joyce Watford, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
Jefferson County Public Schools, Defendant, Jefferson County Board of Education; Jefferson County Teachers Association, Defendants-Appellees.

          Argued: March 9, 2017

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Kentucky at Louisville. No. 3:13-cv-00425-Thomas B. Russell, District Judge.

         ARGUED:

          Andrew Dutkanych III, BIESECKER, DUTKANYCH & MACER, LLC, Louisville, Kentucky, for Appellant.

          C. Tyson Gorman, WYATT, TARRANT & COMBS, LLP, Louisville, Kentucky, for Appellee Board of Education. Benjamin S. Basil, PRIDDY, CUTLER, NAAKE & MEADE, PLLC, Louisville, Kentucky, for Appellee Teachers Association. Gail S. Coleman, UNITED STATES EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION, Washington, D.C., for Amicus Curiae.

         ON BRIEF:

          Andrew Dutkanych III, Krista A. Willike, BIESECKER, DUTKANYCH & MACER, LLC, Louisville, Kentucky, for Appellant.

          C. Tyson Gorman, Amanda Warford Edge, WYATT, TARRANT & COMBS, LLP, Louisville, Kentucky, for Appellee Board of Education. Benjamin S. Basil, Don Meade, PRIDDY, CUTLER, NAAKE & MEADE, PLLC, Louisville, Kentucky, for Appellee Teachers Association. Gail S. Coleman, UNITED STATES EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION, Washington, D.C., for Amicus Curiae.

          Before: DAUGHTREY, MOORE, and GIBBONS, Circuit Judges.

          OPINION

          KAREN NELSON MOORE, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         At issue in this employment-discrimination case is a collective bargaining agreement ("CBA") negotiated and signed by Defendants-Appellees Jefferson County Board of Education ("JCBE") and Jefferson County Teachers Association ("JCTA"). Under the CBA, if an employee believed that they were discriminated against, that employee could file a grievance with JCBE. However, if the employee subsequently filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"), the CBA required that the grievance proceedings be held in abeyance. Such was the case here. Watford filed a grievance on the day she was terminated-October 13, 2010-and those proceedings are still in abeyance. Frustrated that her grievance proceedings were held in abeyance simply because she filed an EEOC charge, Watford brought this case, alleging that JCBE and JCTA retaliated against her for filing an EEOC charge. The district court awarded summary judgment against Watford, an award that is inconsistent with this court's admonition that "an adverse action against [an] employee because the employee had pursued the statutorily protected activity of filing a charge with the EEOC" is "clearly" retaliation. See EEOC v. SunDance Rehabilitation Corp., 466 F.3d 490, 498 (6th Cir. 2006). Because of this inconsistency, and because the CBA is retaliatory on its face, we REVERSE the district court's judgment and REMAND for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Watford's eleven-year teaching career with Jefferson County Public Schools ("JCPS") came to an end when JCPS terminated her on October 13, 2010. R. 40-4 (Termination Letter at 4) (Page ID #883). In Watford's termination letter, the JCPS superintendent claimed that her final two years were marked by "insubordination and conduct unbecoming a teacher." Id. Believing that her termination was instead due to discrimination on the basis of race, sex, and age, Watford filed a grievance with Defendant-Appellee Jefferson County Board of Education ("JCBE") on the very day she was terminated. R. 44-7 (Watford Grievance No. T11-017-09-06) (Page ID #1171). So began Watford's case.

         A. The Collective Bargaining Agreement

         At the heart of this dispute is the CBA between JCBE and JCTA. The CBA, which stipulates to teachers' rights-from academic freedom to school safety-contains grievance procedures in the event "that there has been a violation, misinterpretation or improper application of one or more specific provisions of this Agreement or any complaint alleging improper, arbitrary, or discriminatory conduct." R. 36-4 (CBA art. 29, § A.1) (Page ID #400). Grievances begin with informing the teacher's "immediate supervisor or the appropriate administrator" and may be appealed up the hierarchy to the superintendent. See id. art. 29, § D (Page ID #402). If the teacher is still unsatisfied with the superintendent's decision, the JCTA may submit the grievance to arbitration. Id. (Page ID #403). Throughout, the grievance process is intended to proceed "as rapidly as possible, " with time limits set at each stage (which, naturally, may "be extended by mutual agreement"). See id. (Page ID #401-04).

         The CBA also places limits on potential grievants' choice of remedies. Kentucky has a dispute resolution process for teachers called an "administrative hearing tribunal, " see Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 161.790 (West 2006), and teachers covered by the CBA must select either the tribunal process or the grievance process; they cannot pursue both. See R. 36-4 (CBA art. 9, § D) (Page ID #326). In addition, and centrally to this case, "[i]f the employee opts to pursue a complaint using another agency, the parties agree to hold the grievance in abeyance until the agency complaint is resolved." See id. Finally, the CBA stipulates that "[t]he Association and the aggrieved party will be required to exhaust this Grievance Procedure including arbitration before seeking alternative remedies, provided that by doing so they will not be deemed to have waived or otherwise prejudiced any constitutional, statutory, or other legal rights that they may have." Id. art. 29, § I.3 (Page ID #405).

         B. Watford's Discrimination and Retaliation Allegations

         As alluded to earlier, Watford has thoroughly availed herself of grievance procedures and EEOC charges. After the JCPS superintendent dismissed Watford's aforementioned grievance, see R. 44-7 (Superintendent Decision Grievance No. T-11-017-09-06) (Page ID #1172), Watford sought to have the grievance arbitrated along with six other grievances she had filed before she was terminated. R. 36-5 (Feb. 11, 2011 E-mail from Bethel to Partee) (Page ID #428-29). Although the parties tentatively scheduled an arbitration to begin in July 2011, id., an EEOC charge that Watford filed against JCPS[1] on February 24, 2011, R. 34-3 (Charge No. 474-2011-00452) (Page ID #151), caused the arbitration to be held in abeyance. R. 37-7 (Feb. 25, 2011 Letter from Meredith to Flaherty) (Page ID #610).

         Disappointed that the arbitration would not proceed as scheduled, Watford filed another EEOC charge, this time alleging that the arbitration was held in abeyance in retaliation for filing an EEOC charge. R. 37-8 (Charge No. 24J-2011-00066) (Page ID #612). A little over one year later, the EEOC issued a determination that there was "reasonable cause to believe that the [JCPS] held [Watford's] grievance proceedings in abeyance in retaliation for her filing a charge of discrimination with the [EEOC]." R. 34-6 (Determination for Charge No. 24J-2011-00066) (Page ID #207-08). After receiving this determination, Watford filed a related EEOC charge against JCTA, stating that she "requested that JCPS grant [her] the right to pursue arbitration of [her] grievances ...


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