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Gaston v. Anson County School District

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

June 30, 2019




         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on Defendant's Motion for Sanctions, (Doc. No. 46), and Motion for Summary Judgment, (Doc. No. 48), and the parties' associated briefs and exhibits.[1] The Magistrate Judge issued a Memorandum and Recommendation (“M&R”) on Defendant's Motion for Sanctions, (Doc. No. 58), recommending that Defendant's Motion for Sanctions be granted due to Plaintiff's failure to comply with discovery and failure to appear at her deposition. Plaintiff filed a timely Objection to the M&R, (Doc. No. 60). After having been fully briefed, the motions are ripe for adjudication.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Factual Background

         The following facts are undisputed, or when disputed, are taken in the light most favorable to Ms. Phyllis Gaston (“Plaintiff”). In 2014, Plaintiff was enrolled in the Graduate Teaching Program at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (“UNC Charlotte” or “UNCC”). In August 2014, Plaintiff informed individuals at UNC Charlotte that she had “secured a full time teaching position in order to be certain that [she would] be prepared for the Spring, 2015 course.” (Doc. No. 50-3 at 5). On November 14, 2014, Plaintiff met Marty Godwin, the Assistant Superintendent and Human Resources (“HR”) Administrator for Defendant Anson County Board of Education (“Defendant” or “the Board”), [2] at a UNC Charlotte career fair. (Doc. No. 1 at 9). Mr. Godwin and Plaintiff discussed the potential of Plaintiff teaching at Anson County in the Spring. In this initial conversation, Plaintiff represented that she intended to serve as a full time lateral entry teacher[3] and indicated that she had the necessary qualifications to serve in this capacity. (Doc. No. 1 at 9; Doc. No. 52 at 1).

         On November 26, 2014, Plaintiff submitted a job application to Defendant that made the following representations:

(1) Plaintiff had one year of experience teaching high school English;
(2) Plaintiff had completed three months of student teaching/internship under the supervision of teacher Kendl Bostleman in seventh grade English/Language Arts during the 2012-2013 school year;
(3) Plaintiff anticipated receiving a teaching license on May 31, 2015 through a “College/University program” and would apply for the license when she was eligible.
(4) Plaintiff had received “State Advanced Certification” as highly qualified in English and Reading and Language Arts.

(Doc. No. 52-1 at 3-6). However, none of the materials on file with the Board or with UNC Charlotte show that Plaintiff had one year of experience teaching high school English or that she had ever received a certification as a highly qualified teacher. Moreover, Plaintiff had not completed three months of student teaching in the spring of 2013; rather, she received a grade of “W” and no credit for her student teaching in 2013. (Doc. No. 50-3 at 3). Thus, it appears that Plaintiff misrepresented her qualifications on her application to the Board.

         On December 3, 2014, the Board created a “New Hire Alert” for Plaintiff, which listed her job title as a substitute teacher, with an hourly pay of $98/day. (Doc. No. 52-2 at 2). Because Plaintiff had no certifications at the time the Board hired her, the term certified was crossed out. (Id.). At Plaintiff's behest, the Board's HR Supervisor, Joy Drake, signed a letter on December 4, 2014, stating that Plaintiff was “employed with Anson County Schools as an 8th Grade English Language Arts teacher effective December 3, 2014. This is a full time position.” (Doc. No. 51-1 at 3). This letter was supposedly provided to UNC Charlotte to release Plaintiff from her teaching program at UNC Charlotte. (Doc. No. 51 ¶ 3).

         Because Ms. Drake had been informed that Plaintiff qualified for a lateral entry license, Ms. Drake gave Plaintiff a draft of a “Temporary Full-Time” form contract. (Doc. No. 1 at 10; Doc. No. 51 ¶ 5). Ms. Drake noted on the unofficial copy that the “official contract w[ould] be available after December Board Meeting.” (Doc. No. 51-2 at 2). Because Plaintiff never provided the Board with the necessary materials for the Board to apply for lateral entry licensure on her behalf, the Board hired her as a full-time, uncertified, substitute teacher, (Doc. No. 51 ¶ 6; Doc. No. 51-3 at 2; Doc. No. 52 ¶ 13). Plaintiff acknowledged this status on April 2, 2015 after Ms. Drake informed Plaintiff that she was not invited to the new teacher orientation because she was “not being paid as a certified teacher yet” and that Plaintiff would “be invited to attend in August once [her] license ha[d] cleared licensure.” (See Doc. No. 51-4 at 2). Defendant alleges that after Plaintiff had begun teaching at Anson County Middle School, the Board became aware that Plaintiff was attempting to complete her student teaching internship-a UNC Charlotte field experience course-while being paid as a full-time substitute.[4]

         The record is replete with Plaintiff's negative performance reviews while teaching at Anson Middle School.[5] Despite consistent feedback, Plaintiff did not seem to heed the Board's recommendations for improvement. Ultimately, Plaintiff received two formal write-ups from the Board in April 2015-one for leaving her class in the hands of another teacher without obtaining prior authorization to do so, and the second for being the only staff member to not complete the mandatory, assigned safety training modules.

         On April 24, 2015, the school principal Mr. McLaurin informed Plaintiff that she was being reassigned from her full time English/Language Arts class to the Computer Lab. (Doc. No. 52-5). Plaintiff alleges that prior to this reassignment, Plaintiff had “reported numerous incidents of sexual and general harassment”[6] and that she was preparing “to write up a group of white male students for another incident of sexual harassment” on April 24, 2015-the same day she was reassigned. (Id.).[7] Her reassignment was to be effective starting Monday, April 27, 2015, and Mr. McLaurin instructed Plaintiff to “[s]ee Mrs. Harrington first thing on Monday morning to get the key . . . .” (Id.). On April 27, 2015, instead of reporting to the computer lab as instructed, Plaintiff went to her former classroom and “found a substitute teacher in her English/Language Arts classroom.” (Doc. No. 1 at 11). Subsequently, Plaintiff left the school early and went to HR and visited with her University Supervisor at UNC Charlotte. (Doc. No. 50-7 at 2). Plaintiff alleges that when she arrived home on April 27, 2015, her Anson County School email account had been deactivated. (Doc. No. 1 at 12). The next day on April 28, 2015, when Plaintiff arrived at work, she alleges that her ID card had been deactivated. (Id.). When Plaintiff was let into the building, she discovered that a substitute had been requested for the Computer Lab. (Id.). Subsequently, Plaintiff demanded that she speak with Mr. Adams, the assistant principal. (Id.). Multiple witnesses have testified to the fact that Plaintiff interrupted a closed-door meeting between Mr. Adams, a parent, and a student. (See generally Doc. No. 52-6). The record establishes that Plaintiff caused a public disruption in front of school personnel, students, and at least one parent-shouting and accusing both the principal and assistant principal of being white supremacists and threatening that she intended to file a lawsuit. (id.). After this scene, Plaintiff alleges that she went and spoke to Ms. Drake, requesting that Ms. Drake give Plaintiff her contract. (Doc. No. 1 at 12). Ms. Drake did not comply with Plaintiff's request, allegedly informing Plaintiff that she was a substitute. (Id.).

         The date of Plaintiff's termination, and whether Plaintiff was terminated at all, are disputed. Plaintiff alleges that Mr. Godwin called Plaintiff on May 8, 2015 and informed her that she had been terminated. (Id. at 13). On the contrary, Defendant alleges that Plaintiff was never terminated. (Doc. No. 49 at 13). Rather, Defendant claims that Plaintiff was merely removed from its system in January 2016, when the Chief Financial Officer for the Board was reviewing certain records and realized that Plaintiff had not been separated or terminated. (Doc. No. 51-5).

         After being alerted to this, the Board's superintendent directed that May 1, 2015- Plaintiff's last pay date-be considered Plaintiff's last day of employment and also directed that Plaintiff be “deactivate[d]” as a substitute “if that ha[d] not been done yet.” (See id.). On May 7, 2015, the Board informed UNC Charlotte that it would not be able to provide a student teaching certification for Plaintiff for the following reasons:

(1) Formal student teacher arrangement protocol was not followed by UNCC nor Mr. Gaston[;]
(2) Ms. Gaston's application [the Board] ha[d] on file indicate[d] that she ha[d] completed student [teaching] prior to becoming a substitute teacher for [the Board]; and
(3) [Ms. Gaston] d[id] not have a contract with ACS.

(Doc. No. 53-7 at 4). Mr. Godwin explained that the decision reflected that “normal student teaching is addressed through the HR department with signed documentation” and that Plaintiff's position as a substitute teacher “did ...

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