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Felton v. Gates County Board of Education

United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Northern Division

January 31, 2017

MARY E. LYONS FELTON, Plaintiff,
v.
GATES COUNTY BOARD OF EDUCATION, Defendant.

          ORDER

          W. Earl Britt, Senior U.S. District Judge

         This matter is before the court on the motion for summary judgment filed by defendant Gates County Board of Education (“the Board”). (DE # 40.) Also before the court is the Board's motion to strike the sur-reply filed by plaintiff Mary E. Lyons Felton. (DE # 49.) The motions raised have been fully briefed and are ripe for disposition.

         I. FACTS

         Plaintiff, who is African-American, has over 13 years of experience in the public education system, four years of experience as an assistant principal, and holds principal and curriculum instructional specialist licenses and certificates. (Felton Dep., DE # 40-2, at 27, 204.) This case arises from plaintiff's unsuccessful attempts to gain employment as an administrator in the Gates County School System after a newspaper article reported that plaintiff had filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) against her former employer.

         In February 2010, while she was employed as an assistant principal at Edenton-Chowan Schools (“ECS”), plaintiff applied for an assistant superintendent position in the Gates County School System. (Felton Dep., DE # 40-2, at 70; Russell Aff., DE # 40-3, ¶ 8.) Marianne Russell, the then Director of Human Resources for Gates County Schools, reviewed all of the applications for this position to determine which applicants possessed the requisite qualifications for the position. (Russell Aff., DE # 40-3, ¶ 3.) Russell included plaintiff on the list of qualified applicants and forwarded plaintiff's application, along with the applications of all the other qualified candidates, to Dr. Zenobia Smallwood, who was superintendent of the Board at that time. (Id. ¶ 8.) Dr. Smallwood selected plaintiff to interview for the position. (Id.) Ultimately, Dr. Smallwood recommended that Earl Norfleet be hired, and he was appointed by the Board in July 2010. (Norfleet Aff., DE # 40-5, ¶ 2; see also Tab 10, DE # 44-9, at 2.)

         In March 2010, a local newspaper reported that plaintiff had filed charges against ECS with the EEOC, alleging race discrimination and retaliation. (Felton Aff., DE # 44-6, ¶ 8; Felton Dep., DE # 40-2, at 202.) It is undisputed that Russell saw the article about plaintiff's employment dispute with ECS at some point in 2010. (Russell Aff., DE # 40-3, ¶ 23.) Plaintiff's employment with ECS ended in August 2010, and she has remained unemployed since that time. (Felton Aff., DE # 44-6, ¶¶ 7, 26.)

         After becoming unemployed, plaintiff began applying for a number of vacant positions posted on the Board's website. (Felton Aff., DE # 44-6, ¶ 8.) During this period, the Board adopted a number of polices affecting the process of selecting candidates for interviews. On 6 June 2011, the Board issued a directive requiring that all qualified applicants who resided in Gates County be interviewed for any position for which they applied. (See Ex. 24, DE # 40-3, at 14.) Additionally, effective December 2011, policy required that all qualified internal candidates be given preference for vacant positions. (See Ex. 23, DE # 40-3, at 10-11.) In addition to these policy changes, there was a change in the Board's administration as Dr. Smallwood retired, and was replaced by Dr. Barry Williams as superintendent in January 2012. (Williams Aff., DE # 40-4, ¶ 2.)

         From 2011 to 2012, plaintiff submitted four applications for administrative positions in the Gates County School System, but was never selected for an interview. First, in 2011, plaintiff applied for the position of principal at Gates County High School. (Felton Aff., DE # 44-6, ¶ 7.) The applications for this position were reviewed by Russell to ensure completion and that each candidate met the required qualifications. (Russell Aff., DE # 40-3, ¶ 10.) Russell provided plaintiff's application, along with the applications of the other qualified applicants, to the administrator responsible for selecting interview candidates. (Russell Supp. Aff., DE # 47-1, ¶ 4.) Plaintiff later learned that position was offered to Tammi Ward, who plaintiff believed had inferior credentials because she had been employed as a counselor during the time plaintiff was an assistant principal at ECS. (Felton Aff., DE # 44-6, ¶ 7.) At the time Ward was hired for this position, she had one year of experience working as an assistant principal in the Gates County School System. (Russell Supp. Aff., DE # 47-1, ¶ 7; Felton Dep., DE # 40-2, at 215.)

         Second, plaintiff applied for another principal position at Buckland Elementary School in 2012. (Russell Aff., DE # 40-3, ¶ 10.) Russell compiled a list of qualified applicants for this position, which included plaintiff, submitted their applications to Mr. Norfleet, who screened the applications and selected the candidates who would be interviewed. (Russell Aff., DE # 40-3, ¶ 9; Norfleet Aff., DE # 40-5, ¶ 4.) The interview committee, comprised of Dr. Williams, Mr. Norfleet, Russell, Eboni Branch, and Debbie Byrum, ultimately recommended Vivian Goldsby to the Board. (Russell Aff., DE # 40-3, ¶ 10.) Goldsby was then the assistant principal at a Gates County school and had worked in the school system for the previous six years. (Id.)

         Third, plaintiff submitted an application on 11 April 2012 for the position of principal at Central Middle School. (Id. ¶ 19.) The fifteen applications submitted for the position were reviewed by Russell, who once again placed plaintiff on the qualified candidate list. (Id. ¶ 14; Russell Supp. Aff., DE # 47-1, ¶ 4.) Mr. Norfleet screened the applications of the qualified candidates, and selected the candidates who would be interviewed for the position. (Norfleet Aff., DE # 40-5, ¶ 4; Russell Supp. Affidavit, DE # 47-1 ¶ 4.) The successful candidate for the position, as recommended by the interview panel and Dr. Williams, was Tammy Boone. (Russell Aff., DE # 40-3, ¶ 15.) At the time of her selection, Boone was employed as an assistant principal in the Perquimans County Schools, was a Gates County resident, and had eight years of experience as a teacher in the Gates County Schools. (Id.)

         Fourth, plaintiff applied for the position of Director of Elementary Education in 2012. (Id. ¶ 19.) The position was created when the role of Director of Curriculum was split into two positions-one for elementary education and one for secondary education. (Id.) Eleven applications were submitted for the position. (Id.) Russell provided plaintiff's application, along those applications of other qualified applicants, to Mr. Norfleet for screening. (Id.) Only two candidates were selected for interviews: (1) the successful candidate, Tawana Morales, who had held the position of Director of Curriculum for six years before the split; and (2) another internal, resident candidate with a master's degree and licensure as a principal. (Id. ¶¶ 19-20.) None of the applicants for the Director of Elementary Education position were Gates County residents except the two who were interviewed. (Id. ¶ 21.)

         On 7 June 2012, plaintiff sent an email to Dr. Williams and Russell “regarding not receiving an invitation to interview for any of the advertised administrative positions for the 2012-2013 school year . . .” (Ex. 5, DE # 40-3, at 9-10.) In the email, plaintiff asked Dr. Williams to provide her with a written response identifying “the specific reason(s) she was not interviewed” and the “correlation between the review of the application materials and the decision NOT to interview [her]” in light of her qualifications and experience. (Id. at 10.)

         At the time he received the email, Dr. Williams was not familiar with plaintiff or her background. (Williams Aff., DE # 40-4, ¶ 7.) Russell informed Dr. Williams of plaintiff's prior applications. (Russell Aff., DE # 40-3 ¶ 24.) Additionally, Russell told Dr. Williams about plaintiff's prior employment dispute with ECS. (Id.; Williams Aff., DE # 40-4, ¶ 12.) Dr. Williams and Russell subsequently conferred with legal counsel about whether to respond to the email, and decided not to respond. (Id.) They also decided that plaintiff's background would not keep her from being considered for future positions, and decided that plaintiff met the required qualifications for the assistant principal position that had become vacant due to Goldsby's promotion to Buckland Elementary. (Id.; Russell Aff., DE # 40-3, ¶ 24.) Plaintiff initially accepted an interview for the position. (Russell Aff., DE # 40-3, ¶¶ 24-25; Felton Dep., DE # 40-3, at 141.) However, on the day of the interview, plaintiff sent Russell an email stating that she did not feel comfortable attending the interview. (Felton Dep., DE # 40-2, at 141-42.)

         Plaintiff later filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. (Id. at 154.) On 27 November 2013, the EEOC issued a determination finding there was reasonable cause to believe that plaintiff was retaliated against when she was denied an opportunity to interview for the assistant principal and Director of Elementary Education positions. (See DE # 1-1, at 2.) After conciliation between the parties was unsuccessful, the EEOC issued plaintiff a right to sue letter on 31 December 2014. (See id. at 1.) Subsequently, on 10 April 2015, plaintiff filed this suit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. ยง 2000e-16, alleging that she was denied interviews and the opportunity to be hired for various administrative level positions in retaliation for her participation in a protected activity. (DE # 1.) On 1 August 2016, the Board moved for summary judgment on plaintiff's retaliation claim pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (DE # 40.) Plaintiff filed a memorandum in ...


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