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‘Paranoia,’ not race, prompted school’s action

Where a teacher’s emails accused a co-worker and students of participating in a “coordinated effort” of taking unauthorized pictures and raised conspiratorial beliefs about surveillance by school employees, he was placed on administrative leave and required to undergo a fitness for duty evaluation because of his “increasing paranoia,” and not his race.

Background

Bruce W. Pearson sued the Prince William County School Board for racial discrimination and retaliation. Now pending before the court are cross motions for summary judgment.

Race discrimination

Plaintiff broadly alleges racial discrimination focusing on four incidents: (1) the denial of his April 2017 and 2018 field trip requests, (2) his placement on paid administrative leave, (3) his referral for a fitness for duty evaluation, or FFDE and (4) his termination.

The field trip denials are not adverse employment actions because plaintiff suffered no harm to his employment status or pay. Similarly, courts have generally held that an employer’s placement of an employee on paid leave pending an investigation and requiring an employee to submit to a FFDE are not materially adverse employment actions under Title VII.

Even if these actions were adverse employment actions, moreover, Pearson’s emails evincing increasing paranoia and lack of boundaries were sufficiently concerning for defendant to refer him for an FFDE and place him on paid administrative leave. Moreover, defendant has provided uncontroverted evidence that it has not singled out Black employees for referral for an FFDE. In fact, the majority of such referrals have been for white employees.

Although being terminated does qualify as an adverse employment action, Pearson has not established the other elements of a prima facie case of discriminatory discharge from employment. The record shows that Pearson’s emails raised valid concerns about his ability to maintain appropriate boundaries and working relationships, as his emails accused a co-worker and students of participating in a “coordinated effort” of taking unauthorized pictures of his classroom and students, and raised conspiratorial beliefs about surveillance by school employees.

Additionally, plaintiff has not shown that the position was filled by a similarly qualified applicant outside his protected class. After plaintiff was fired, he was replaced temporarily and then permanently by Black teachers. Additionally, plaintiff has not provided any evidence of similarly situated white (or other non-Black) employees who were treated more favorably than he was treated.

Even if the court were to find that Pearson established a prima facie case of discrimination, the school board has provided more than sufficient evidence that the decisions to place plaintiff on paid administrative leave, refer him for an FFDE and terminate his employment were made for a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason. Pearson’s emails were clearly inappropriate and raised legitimate concerns about his mental stability and his lack of boundaries with co-workers and potentially with students. Pearson has not shown that this explanation was a pretext for discrimination.

Retaliation

Plaintiff broadly alleges three incidents as the basis for his retaliation claim: (1) his placement on paid administrative leave, (2) the referral for an FFDE and (2) his termination.

The record establishes that defendant was already discussing an FFDE referral based on plaintiff’s October emails by at least early December 2018, and the FFDE referral was officially made in January 2019. Accordingly, plaintiff has not produced any evidence that would support a finding that the defendant’s decisions to refer plaintiff for an FFDE and place him on paid administrative leave pending the FFDE were causally connected to his filing a charge with the EEOC in June 2019.

Although the final decision to terminate plaintiff was made on Sept. 4, 2019, almost three months after Pearson filed his EEOC charge, that plan began months before plaintiff filed his EEOC complaint and therefore the termination was merely the culmination of defendant’s “previously contemplated” plan. Accordingly, Pearson cannot prove but-for causation.

Moreover Pearson has failed to produce sufficient evidence from which a reasonable factfinder could conclude that the decisions to place him on paid administrative leave, refer him for an FFDE and terminate his employment were motivated by a retaliatory animus. Finally, defendants have provided sufficient unrebutted evidence from which a reasonable factfinder could conclude that the reasons given for referring plaintiff to FFDE, placing him on paid administrative leave and terminating him were not pretextual.

Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment denied. Defendant’s motion for summary judgment granted.

Pearson v. Prince William County School Board, Case No. 1:19-cv-1543, March 25, 2021. EDVA at Alexandria (Brinkema). VLW 021-3-160. 28 pp.

VLW 021-3-160