Many school districts will argue that they did not wrongfully terminate an employee because the person ceased to be employed as a result of a contract expiring. Does this work? Let’s dive in using a recent case as a springboard.
In Moore v. Jackson Public School District, No. 22-60376, 2023 WL 2521862, at *1 (5th Cir. Mar. 14, 2023), Bessie Moore, a longtime employee of the Jackson Public School District, sued the school for, among other things, retaliation for a prior Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) charge that she had filed.
After being transferred to a new school and assigned to the library, Moore choose not to show up for the first several days of the school year. She then unilaterally reorganized the library contrary to Mississippi Department of Education requirements and refused to run the school’s Accelerated Reader program. When told to bring the library back into compliance, Moore stopped coming to work for five months. When Jackson Public returned the library back to proper compliance, it put Moore’s personal belongings in storage. Upon showing up for work five months later, Moore reported to the police that the principal had stolen it. After returning for nine whole days, Moore opted to not work the rest of the school year when she received a performance improvement plan. At the end of the school year, her contract expired.
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What are the legal elements to prove retaliation under Title VII?
Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, an employee must present sufficient evidence of the following legal elements to prove unlawful retaliation:
- Protected activity: The employee must show that they engaged in a protected activity, such as complaining about discrimination or harassment, opposing discriminatory practices, or participating in an investigation or lawsuit related to discrimination.
- Adverse employment action: The employee must present evidence that the employer took an adverse action against the employee.
- Causal connection: The employee must show that there is a causal connection between their protected activity and the adverse employment action. This can be shown through timing, such as the adverse action occurring soon after the protected activity, or through evidence of retaliatory animus.
If the employee cannot present evidence of each of these three elements, a court will likely dismiss the case. On the other hand, if the employee presents such evidence of workplace retaliation, the legal burden then shifts to the employer, which must then articulate a legitimate, non-retaliatory reason for its conduct. The employee then would have the opportunity to demonstrate that the employer’s stated reason is false or did not actually motivate the adverse action.
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What is an adverse employment action for a retaliation case under Title VII?
In a retaliation case under Title VII, an adverse employment action refers to any action taken by an employer that would deter a reasonable employee from engaging in protected activity, such as complaining about discrimination or harassment, opposing discriminatory practices, or participating in an investigation or lawsuit related to discrimination. An adverse employment action can take many forms and can be both tangible and intangible.
Some examples of tangible adverse employment actions include termination, demotion, denial of promotion, pay reduction, suspension, and denial of training or other job opportunities. Intangible adverse employment actions may include actions that create a hostile work environment, such as increased scrutiny, negative evaluations, or reassignment to a less desirable position.
In the case of Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53 (2006), United States Supreme Court defined an adverse employment action broadly as any action that could dissuade a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination. Thus, the scope of what constitutes an adverse employment action is fairly broad and will depend on the specific circumstances of each case. The variable potential outcomes for a retaliation case under Title VII makes it very important that you consult with an employee’s rights attorney regarding your potential claims.
In Moore, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that Moore’s claim failed because she did not point to an adverse employment action:
Moore alleged that the following were materially adverse employment actions that she suffered: being reprimanded in the presence of others, being assigned a specific seat in a meeting, being micromanaged, being denied the opportunity to speak in open discussions, being directed to perform other teacher’s responsibilities, JPSD not facilitating her projects, being peered at, someone moving a pencil sharpener, having her belongings removed from the library, and Principal Torrey changing the locks on the library door. … The district court cited a multitude of decisions by this Court that show the alleged conduct does not qualify as adverse employment actions. Since an adverse employment action is a prerequisite for establishing a prima facie case of retaliation, the district court did not err in its judgment and is AFFIRMED …
Id. at *3.
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Is the failure to renew a teaching contract an adverse employment action under Title VII?
Whether the failure to renew a teaching contract constitutes an adverse employment action depends on the specific circumstances of the case, which an employment lawyer should help you sort out. Remember, an adverse employment action is considered any action taken by an employer that materially affects the terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, such as a demotion, suspension, or termination. With this in mind, several courts have held that the failure to renew a teaching contract to be an adverse employment action. For example, in Gunther v. County of Washington, 623 F.3d 1303 (11th Cir. 2010), a teacher’s contract was not renewed after she filed a discrimination complaint against her school district. The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held that the failure to renew her contract constituted an adverse employment action because it materially affected her employment status.
Likewise, in Simms v. Oklahoma ex rel. Dept. of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Servs., 165 F.3d 1321 (10th Cir. 1999), a teacher’s contract was not renewed after she complained about sexual harassment by a coworker. The United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit held that the failure to renew her contract constituted an adverse employment action because it materially affected her ability to continue working in her chosen profession.
In Fagan v. Clark County Sch. Dist., 847 F.2d 584 (9th Cir. 1988), the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reached a similar conclusion. In this case, a teacher’s contract was not renewed after she spoke out against a school board member. The court held that the failure to renew her contract constituted an adverse employment action because it materially affected her ability to continue working in her chosen profession.
It’s important to understand that not all situations where a teaching contract is not renewed will be considered an adverse employment action. Each case is evaluated on its own merits, and factors such as the reason for non-renewal, the teacher’s employment history, and the impact on the teacher’s career prospects will be taken into consideration.
Indeed, in Moore, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit rejected her argument that the alleged non-renewal of her contract was an adverse action:
Moore’s final issue on appeal is that JPSD retaliated against her by failing “to tender Moore a contract.” In fact, a contract was approved for Moore by the JPSD Board of Trustees on April 18, 2018; however, Moore never responded to calls or emails regarding executing the contract or made any inquiries until after her contract was voided along with all the other unsigned contracts on June 7, 2018. The district court noted that the nonrenewal of a contract can qualify as a materially adverse action but “the evidence in the record shows that that was not the case here.” The district court explained that JPSD presented evidence “that all employee contract renewals, including plaintiff’s, took place during the April 18 JPSD Board meeting.” Accordingly, “at most,” Moore could allege that “JPSD delayed tendering her renewal contract,” but, that would still not rise to the level of an adverse employment action.
Id. at *4.
So, the kicker is that Jackson Public never fired Moore. Indeed, it offered her a contract for the following year despite her conduct. It only required her to come to school to get and sign the contract. She never did. Jackson Public the called Moore to inquire about her intent for the contract offer. She did not respond. Because Moore declined to sign the contract, she ceased to be an employee because of her own actions not that of the employer.
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Was I wrongfully fired for reporting discrimination against me at work?
The best way to determine if you were wrongfully fired or terminated and may have a claim against your former employer is to call the right attorney to schedule a free and confidential consultation. (Read: What is the Spitz No Fee Guarantee?; Why Having Skilled Employment Attorneys Is Critical; Employment Law: Avoid Hiring The Wrong Attorney). Call our lawyers in Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina, and Kentucky to get help now. Spitz, The Employee’s Law Firm and its experienced attorneys are dedicated to protecting employees’ rights and solving employment disputes.
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