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Burgess v. School Board of Brevard County

United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Orlando Division

May 3, 2018




         This matter comes before the Court without a hearing on the Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 25) filed by the Defendant, the School Board of Brevard County (henceforth, the “School Board”), the response in opposition (Doc. 31) filed by the Plaintiff, Lamar Burgess (“Burgess”), and the reply (Doc. 35) filed by the School Board.

         I. Background

         This is an employment discrimination case. Burgess, who is African-American, worked for the School Board for 33 years. Originally hired in the position of Maintenance Worker, he subsequently held the positions of Pest-Control Technician and Maintenance Helper. He became an HVAC Mechanic around 2001 and, over time, was promoted from level I to level III in that position.

         As described in detail below, beginning in 2012 there were a number of disagreements involving Burgess and two of his supervisors, who were white. In August 2013, Burgess was terminated. He was rehired a few weeks later, but his new job did not pay as well and required him to travel further to get to work. He worked in the new position for three years, retiring in 2016.

         Burgess filed the instant suit on November 23, 2016. In it, he asserts the following claims under Title VII: disparate treatment (Count I); hostile work environment (Count II); and retaliation (Count III). In counts IV through VI, Burgess asserts these same claims under the Florida Civil Rights Act of 1992, Fla. Stat. § 760.01 et seq. (“FCRA”).[1] By way of the instant motion, the School Board moves for summary judgment on all claims.

         II. Legal Standards

         A. Summary Judgment

         A party is entitled to summary judgment when the party can show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). Which facts are material depends on the substantive law applicable to the case. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2510, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). The moving party bears the burden of showing that no genuine issue of material fact exists. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 2553, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). In determining whether the moving party has satisfied its burden, the court considers all inferences drawn from the underlying facts in a light most favorable to the party opposing the motion, and resolves all reasonable doubts against the moving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255, 106 S.Ct. at 2513.

         When a party moving for summary judgment points out an absence of evidence on a dispositive issue for which the non-moving party bears the burden of proof at trial, the nonmoving party must “go beyond the pleadings and by [his] own affidavits, or by the depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 324, 106 S.Ct. at 2553. Thereafter, summary judgment is mandated against the nonmoving party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish a genuine issue of fact for trial. Id. The party opposing a motion for summary judgment must rely on more than conclusory statements or allegations unsupported by facts. Evers v. Gen. Motors Corp., 770 F.2d 984, 986 (11th Cir. 1985) (“conclusory allegations without specific supporting facts have no probative value”).

         The Court must consider all inferences drawn from the underlying facts in a light most favorable to the party opposing the motion, and resolve all reasonable doubts against the moving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255, 106 S.Ct. at 2513. The Court is not, however, required to accept all of the non-movant's factual characterizations and legal arguments. Beal v. Paramount Pictures Corp., 20 F.3d 454, 458-59 (11th Cir 1994).

         B. Title VII Disparate Treatment

         Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., as amended, prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It prohibits both intentional discrimination - known as “disparate treatment” - as well as some practices that are not intended to discriminate but in fact have a disproportionately adverse effect on minorities - which is referred to as “disparate impact”.

         Disparate treatment presents “the most easily understood type of discrimination.” Teamsters v. United States, 431 U.S. 324, 335, n. 15, 97 S.Ct. 1843, 52 L.Ed.2d 396 (1977). Disparate treatment cases occur where an employer has “treated [a] particular person less favorably than others because of” a protected trait. Watson v. Fort Worth Bank & Trust, 487 U.S. 977, 985-986, 108 S.Ct. 2777, 101 L.Ed.2d 827 (1988). A plaintiff in a disparate treatment case must establish that the defendant had “a discriminatory intent or motive” for taking a job-related action. Id. at 986, 108 S.Ct. 2777.

         A plaintiff in a Title VII case may prove intentional discrimination through direct evidence, circumstantial evidence, or through statistical proof. Rioux v. City of Atlanta, Ga., 520 F.3d 1269, 1274 (11th Cir. 2008). Where the employee attempts to prove discriminatory intent by way of circumstantial evidence, the claims are subject to the methods of proof set forth in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 93 S.Ct. 1817, 36 L.Ed.2d 668 (1973) and Texas Dep't. of Community Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 101 S.Ct. 1089, 67 L.Ed.2d 207 (1981). Under this framework, to establish a prima facie case of race-based disparate treatment, a plaintiff must show that: (1) he is a member of a protected class; (2) he was subjected to adverse employment action; (3) his employer treated similarly situated employees outside the class more favorably; and (4) he was qualified to do his job. Maniccia v. Brown, 171 F.3d 1364, 1368 (11th Cir. 1999). To be “similarly situated” to the plaintiff, another employee - referred to as a “comparator” - must be similarly situated in “all relevant respects.” Holifield v. Reno, 115 F.3d 1555, 1562 (11th Cir. 1997). In cases involving discriminatory discipline, the court must ask “whether the employees are involved in or accused of the same or similar conduct and are disciplined in different ways.” Burke-Fowler v. Orange County, Fla., 447 F.3d 1319, 1323 (11th Cir. 2006) (internal quotation marks omitted). The quantity and quality of the comparator's misconduct, moreover, must be “nearly identical” to that of the plaintiff “to prevent courts from second-guessing employers' reasonable decisions.” Id.

         If a prima facie case is established, the burden shifts to the employer to rebut the resulting presumption of discrimination by producing evidence that it acted for a legitimate non- discriminatory reason. McDonnell Douglas, 411 U.S. at 802, 93 S.Ct. at 1824. The defendant need not persuade the court that it was actually motivated by the proffered reason, but need only present evidence raising a genuine issue of fact as to whether it discriminated against the plaintiff. Burdine, 450 U.S. at 257, 101 S.Ct. at 1095-96.

         If the four McDonnell Douglas elements are proven but the employer articulates a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its actions, the plaintiff must then show that the employer's alleged reason is a pretext for illegal discrimination. McDonnell Douglas, 411 U.S. at 802-04, 93 S.Ct. at 1824-25. To prove such a pretext, the plaintiff must “cast sufficient doubt on the defendant's proffered nondiscriminatory reasons to permit a reasonable factfinder to conclude that the employer's proffered legitimate reasons were not what actually motivated its conduct.” See Combs v. Plantation Patterns, 106 F.3d 1519, 1538 (11th Cir. 1997) (internal quotation marks omitted). A legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason proffered by the employer is not a pretext for prohibited conduct unless the plaintiff shows that the reason is false and that the real reason is impermissible discrimination. St. Mary's Honor Ctr. v. Hicks, 509 U.S. 502, 515-16, 113 S.Ct. 2742, 2751-52, 125 L.Ed.2d 407 (1993). Further, an employer's deviation from its company policy, standing alone, does not demonstrate discriminatory animus. Mitchell v. USBI Co., 186 F.3d 1352, 1355-56 (11th Cir. 1999).

         C. Hostile Work Environment

         To establish a hostile work environment claim, an employee must prove that the workplace “is permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult, that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim's employment and create an abusive working environment. Harris v. Forklift Sys., Inc., 510 U.S. 17, 21, 114 S.Ct. 367, 370, 126 L.Ed.2d 295 (1993). Where an employee bases his hostile work environment claim on race, he must prove: (1) that he is a member of a protected class; (2) that he was subjected to unwelcome racial harassment; (3) that the harassment was based on his race; (4) that the harassment was severe or pervasive enough to alter the terms and conditions of his employment and create a discriminatorily abusive working environment; and (5) that the employer is responsible for the environment. Adams v. Austal, U.S.A., L.L.C., 754 F.3d 1240, 1248-49 (11th Cir. 2014) (citing Miller v. Kenworth of Dothan, Inc., 277 F.3d 1269, 1275 (11th Cir. 2002)).

The fourth element requires a plaintiff to prove that the work environment is both subjectively and objectively hostile. Mendoza v. Borden, Inc., 195 F.3d 1238, 1246 (11th Cir.1999). “The employee must ‘subjectively perceive' the harassment as sufficiently severe and pervasive to alter the terms or conditions of employment, ... [and] ‘the objective severity of harassment should be judged from the perspective of a reasonable person in the plaintiff's position, considering all the circumstances.'” Id. (quoting Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Servs., Inc., 523 U.S. 75, 81, 118 S.Ct. 998, 1003, 140 L.Ed.2d 201 (1998)). The fifth element requires a plaintiff to prove that the employer is responsible for the hostile work environment because of actions taken by either a supervisor or a coworker. Miller, 277 F.3d at 1278.

Adams, 754 F.3d at 1249.

         In evaluating the objective severity of the harassment, courts within this Circuit must consider, among other factors: (1) the frequency of the conduct; (2) the severity of the conduct; (3) whether the conduct is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and (4) whether the conduct unreasonably interferes with the employee's job performance. Miller, 277 F.3d at 1276 (citing Allen v. Tyson Foods, 121 F.3d 642, 647 (11th Cir. 1997)).

Our precedents direct district “courts [to] examine the conduct in context, not as isolated acts, and determine under the totality of the circumstances whether the harassing conduct is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the terms or conditions of the plaintiff's employment and create a hostile or abusive working environment.” Mendoza, 195 F.3d at 1246. The totality of a plaintiff's workplace circumstances does not include other employees' experiences of which the plaintiff is unaware. Courts conduct the objective assessment from the perspective of a reasonable person in the plaintiff's position, knowing what the plaintiff knew. Id. A reasonable person in the plaintiff's position is not one who knows what the plaintiff learned only after her employment ended or what discovery later revealed.

Adams, 754 F.3d at 1250.

         D. ...

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