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White v. Gaston County Board of Education

United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Charlotte Division

April 5, 2018

DR. JAMES ROBERT WHITE, Plaintiff,
v.
GASTON COUNTY BOARD OF EDUCATION, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Max O. Cogburn Jr. United States District Judge .

         THIS MATTER is before the court on defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (#38) and defendant's Second Motion to Continue Trial and Pretrial Deadlines (#60). Having considered defendant's motions and reviewed the pleadings, the court enters the following Order.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff, an African-American man, was employed by defendant as an assistant principal by Gaston County Schools (“GCS”) from August 2006 through July 2013, with a tenure spanning multiple schools. From 1973 to 1993, plaintiff was a guidance counselor for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (“CMS”), until he left to pursue a doctoral degree. Between 1997 and 2006, plaintiff held several part-time and/or temporary positions in education.

         Plaintiff's superiors included Reeves McGlohon, a white male who served as superintendent of GCS for approximately seven years. Plaintiff was originally hired by defendant in 2006 on Mr. McGlohon's recommendation, and in 2009, Mr. McGlohon recommended that plaintiff be given a second contract as an assistant principal.

         Another superior was Dr. Dixie Abernathy, who was the Assistant Superintendent of Elementary Schools for GCS at all relevant times. Dr. Abernathy has experience as a classroom teacher, assistant principal, and principal. As Assistant Superintendent, Dr. Abernathy's role was to supervise and support the principals of 32 elementary schools within GCS.

         In 2006, Plaintiff was first assigned to Tryon Elementary School, working under Principal Terry Usery, a white male. Plaintiff generally received evaluations of “at standard” or “above standard, ” though he also received two letters of reprimand. In March 2010, plaintiff was transferred to Rhyne Elementary School, where his supervisor was Principal Joey Hopper, also a white male. Plaintiff received an initial rating of “above standard”; under a new rating standard for the 2010-2011 school year, plaintiff's ratings ranged from “proficient” to “distinguished.”

         In October 2010, an African-American female fifth-grade student (referred to as “A.C.”) wrote a note to the school's guidance counselor, Rachel Vanzant, about her white male teacher, indicating that he made her uncomfortable. Plaintiff testified he told A.C. to write a note to the school counselor. According to plaintiff, Ms. Vanzant told him that A.C. had accused her teacher of sexual assault and that Principal Hopper had asked the teacher to handle it. Plaintiff directed Ms. Vanzant to tell the director of guidance, but did not inform Principal Hopper of the student's accusation or question Principal Hopper's handling of the situation. Plaintiff reported the incident to Dr. Abernathy when Dr. Abernathy called him roughly three weeks after the allegations were made, though plaintiff did not ask Dr. Abernathy to take any action or share the allegations with A.C.'s mother.

         In February 2011, A.C.'s mother contacted plaintiff to ask why nothing had been done about her daughter's accusation. Plaintiff told A.C.'s mother to call Dr. Abernathy. Dr. Abernathy in turn contacted plaintiff and told him that she and Dr. Tutterow, the Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources, would investigate. In March 2011, the Gastonia Police Department investigated the student's allegations and determined they were unfounded. Following her conversation with plaintiff, Dr. Abernathy investigated how the school principal had handled A.C.'s allegations. On March 15, 2011, Dr. Abernathy reprimanded Mr. Hopper for his inadequate investigation.

         Around the same time, plaintiff spoke with Wavey Williams, a former physical education teacher in GCS, that a student may have been sexually assaulted. Plaintiff spoke to him because Mr. Williams was a minister and someone plaintiff respected and trusted. Plaintiff was unaware that Mr. Williams knew A.C.'s mother. Plaintiff also did not encourage Mr. Williams to contact the NAACP, and that was not plaintiff's purpose in sharing the information with him. Nor did plaintiff tell Mr. Williams that race was an issue.

         On May 18, 2011, Mr. McGlohon recommended (and defendant approved) a number of administrative transfers, including plaintiff's transfer to Forestview High School. Plaintiff was pleased, as he had previously expressed a desire to be in a high school environment. However, near the end of May 2011, plaintiff had lunch with A.C. Ms. Vanzant saw plaintiff and A.C. in his office and told plaintiff he shouldn't eat with A.C. alone. On or around June 2, 2011, plaintiff told A.C.'s mother that Ms. Vanzant had warned him not to have lunch alone with her daughter. Also on or around June 2, 2011, a representative of the NAACP met with Dr. Abernathy about A.C.'s allegations. Later that day, plaintiff was summoned to Dr. Abernathy's office. Plaintiff said he was in the meeting to answer Dr. Abernathy's questions on what he told A.C.'s mother about Ms. Vanzant's warning, and did not participate in any discussion with the NAACP representative about A.C.'s allegations or the school's investigation. Dr. Abernathy subsequently gave plaintiff a written reprimand for his unprofessional communication with a parent about his coworkers. And at a meeting with defendant on June 20, 2011, Mr. McGlohon informed defendant that six of seven principals were satisfied with their assignment of a new assistant principal, but that an assistant principal was still being sought for Forestview (despite previous approval of plaintiff for that position). Plaintiff was instead transferred to North Belmont Elementary School, where he would work under principal Chris Germain, a white male.

         Plaintiff's stay at North Belmont was short, lasting only from August to September of 2011. Plaintiff did not show up for his first day of work or contact Germain. After plaintiff's relationship with Germain quickly deteriorated, as Germain expressed on multiple occasions that plaintiff's communication skills were strongly lacking, plaintiff was again transferred in late September 2011, this time to Catawba Heights Elementary School.

         At Catawba Heights, plaintiff worked under the direction of principal Phyllis Whitworth, an African American female. During his time there, Ms. Whitworth expressed repeated concerns with plaintiff's interpersonal and communication skills, and implemented measures she believed would help plaintiff, such as mandatory check-in times and improvement plans to address her concerns with plaintiff about insubordination. Plaintiff repeatedly complained about such measures, believing them to be subjective and unjustified, but Dr. Abernathy and Mr. McGlohon expressed support for Ms. Whitworth and told plaintiff to continue following his supervisor's instructions. Through spring of 2013, plaintiff accumulated various reminders, warnings, and letters of reprimand from Ms. Whitworth, as well as evaluations that rated him positively in some areas but negatively in others. Ultimately, Ms. Whitworth asked Dr. Abernathy that plaintiff not be returned to Catawba Heights, or that she be moved instead.

         On April 25, 2013, plaintiff was notified of the superintendent's intent to recommend that his contract not be renewed, as well as general reasons underlying Mr. McGlohon's recommendation. Plaintiff requested a hearing with defendant, and at the hearing, defendant was presented with a written submission on behalf of the superintendent explaining that the recommendation was based on “a pattern of responding inappropriately to supervisory contacts and displaying poor judgment in communications with other public education stakeholders, ” as well as supporting documents. Plaintiff was given the opportunity to present his own evidence. Following the hearing, defendant voted to uphold the superintendent's recommendation, and when plaintiff's contract expired, it was not renewed.

         Plaintiff did not appeal defendant's decision, nor file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. Instead, plaintiff filed a complaint with the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, which conducted an investigation and found insufficient evidence that there had been a violation of Title VI or Title IX.

         On June 20, 2016, plaintiff filed this action pro se in Mecklenburg County Superior Court. The original Complaint sought legal and equitable relief under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 2000 et seq. (“Title VI”); 42 U.S.C. § 1981; 42 U.S.C. § 1983; N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143.422.2; and various other State law claims. Defendant removed the action to this Court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1441.

         On October 12, 2016, counsel for plaintiff noticed their appearance in this case. On October 25, plaintiff filed a Motion for Leave to Amend Complaint, which was granted; plaintiff's Amended Complaint sought to streamline and clarify allegations, omitted certain claims, and added a new Title IX retaliation claim. On February 1, 2017, plaintiff filed a Second Amended Complaint. In this complaint, plaintiff alleges a Title VI discrimination claim, race discrimination and hostile work environment claims, and retaliation claims under § 1981, § 1983, and Title IX. Discovery has been completed pursuant to the March 30, 2017 scheduling order. Defendant filed the instant Motion for Summary Judgment (#38), plaintiff has responded (#50), and the motion is ripe for review.

         II. Legal Standard

         Summary judgment is warranted “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.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A factual dispute is genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A fact is material only if it may affect the suit's outcome under governing law. Id. The movant has the “initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986) (internal citations omitted). The burden then shifts to the nonmoving party. That party “must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Id. at 322 n.3. The nonmoving party may not rely upon mere allegations or denials of allegations in pleadings to defeat a motion for summary judgment. Id. at 324. Instead, that party must present sufficient evidence from which “a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248; accord Sylvia Dev. Corp. v. Calvert Cnty., Md., 48 F.3d 810, 818 (4th Cir. 1995).

         The Court views evidence and any inferences from evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255. “‘Where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party, there is no genuine issue for trial.'” Ricci v. DeStefano, 557 U.S. 557, 586 (2009) (quoting Matsushita v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986)). The question posed by summary judgment ...


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