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Teacher’s claim survives motion to dismiss

Correy E. Stephenson//January 18, 2022

Teacher’s claim survives motion to dismiss

Correy E. Stephenson//January 18, 2022

Plaintiff’s counsel Richard F. Hawkins III of Richmond

A former Richmond Public Schools teacher can move forward on her Title VII claim for race discrimination against the school district, a federal court judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge John A. Gibney Jr. determined that the teacher made sufficient allegations from which a finder of fact might conclude that she suffered racial discrimination, rejecting the school district’s argument that she failed to state a claim.

Gibney’s opinion is Ashanti v. City of Richmond School Board (VLW 021-3-546).

Assistant takes leading role

Sherie Ashanti, a Black woman, worked as a teacher at Summer Hill Preschool from January 2020 through June 2021. While at the school, she worked with an instructional assistant, Melody McCowin, whose job duties including providing support for and helping Ashanti with her class.

But Ashanti claimed McCowin attempted to take a leading role in the class, repeatedly contacting parents and drafting lesson plans even after Ashanti told her to stop.

At some point, according to Ashanti, Summer Hill principal Kelly Tobe intervened and sided with McCowin, accepting lesson plans from her and treating her as if she was the teacher. Tobe did not similarly intervene between white teachers at Summer Hill and their instructional assistants.

Ashanti further alleged that Tobe befriended a parent of one of Ashanti’s students and used a false charge filed by that parent as a reason for disciplining Ashanti. When Ashanti protested the discipline, Tobe falsely accused her of unprofessional conduct and falsely told human resources that Ashanti had behaved aggressively with Tobe.

When Ashanti wrote to the school superintendent protesting the discipline, he pushed for her termination. The school district did not renew Ashanti’s teaching contract for the following school year.

She filed a Title VII claim against Richmond Public Schools, or RPS, for race discrimination.

RPS moved to dismiss Ashanti’s complaint for failure to state a claim.

‘But for’ racial animus

Neither party disputed that Ashanti satisfied two of the requirements to bring a Title VII claim: She belonged to a protected class and RPS terminated her employment.

But RPS argued that Ashanti failed to allege that RPS terminated her employment because of her race.

Gibney said the school district “misconstrued” the complaint.

“Ashanti alleges that Tobe elevated her teaching assistant over her, treating the assistant as if she were the teacher in the class and treating Ashanti as if she were not,” he wrote. “RPS did not subject other teachers who did not belong to Ashanti’s protected class to this treatment. The complaint specifically alleges that ‘Ashanti, who is black, had her employment contract with RPS not renewed after her white principal interfered with her relationship between her and her instructional assistant, something she did not do with any of her white teachers.’ ‘Ultimately, the principal’s actions helped cause [RPS] to decide not to renew Ashanti’s teaching contract.’ Though Ashanti alleges evidence of racial discrimination only in Tobe’s interference with her instructional assistant, she alleges that Tobe’s conduct in that interference led to her termination, the adverse employment action.”

Essentially, Ashanti alleged that, but for Tobe’s racially motivated actions, RPS would have renewed her employment contract.

RPS pointed out that Ashanti failed to identify any comparators who were allegedly treated differently with respect to the adverse action complained of, the nonrenewal of her teaching contract.

Gibney explained that Ashanti did not need to plead comparator evidence to plausibly state a claim under Title VII, but that the court could “reasonably infer that if Tobe did not insert herself into the relationships of any white teachers and their instructional assistants, then no white teachers lost their jobs as a result of any such interference.”

More than mere speculation

Gibney distinguished case law where plaintiffs provided “mere speculation” of racial discrimination, finding Ashanti’s allegations sufficient to support a reasonable inference that the decisionmakers in her case were motivated by bias.

Unlike in other Title VII cases, no “obvious, nondiscriminatory explanation exists for RPS’s actions here, where RPS elevated an instructional assistant above a Black teacher, did not do so for white teachers, and further subjected the Black teacher to false accusations,” he wrote.

Ashanti further alleged what courts found missing in other cases that were dismissed at the complaint stage — that the actions at issue were motivated by her race.

“When viewed in the context of Tobe’s false accusations and fabricated dispute against Ashanti, and without an obvious, nondiscriminatory explanation for the disparity … ‘[i]t is sufficient that [Ashanti] states a plausible claim … based on the unexplained disparity in treatment between minorities and non-minorities …,’” Gibney said.

While the judge acknowledged that Ashanti’s complaint was “short and plain,” it still managed to assert a plausible case that RPS violated Title VII, he concluded, denying RPS’s motion to dismiss.

‘A reasonable balance’

Richmond attorney Richard F. Hawkins III represented Ashanti.

“Judge Gibney’s opinion reflects a reasonable balance between the right of a plaintiff to move forward in pursuing their civil rights claims and at the same time, making sure that claims that do not have enough of a plausible suggestion of discrimination do not move forward,” he said. “Just because the federal courts have a higher pleading standard does not mean that every case should be dismissed or that a plaintiff needs to put on all of his or her evidence to survive a motion to dismiss.”

Richmond attorney Melissa York represented RPS. Citing the pending litigation, she declined to comment.

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