Summary judgment granted to defendant employer in suit alleging race and age discrimination

The U.S. District Court in Richmond, VA granted summary judgment earlier this month to a defendant school board in a suit alleging both race and age discrimination.  Judge Gibney’s memorandum opinion in Harris v. Powhatan County School Board (No. 3:11-cv-224) illustrates how critical it is for plaintiff employees to gather and present evidence of their employers’ discriminatory intent.

Alexander Harris, a 70 year old African-American male, had worked for Powhatan County Schools for more than fifty years.  By 2008, he had become the Director of Maintenance and Custodial Services for the Powhatan County School Board (the “Board”).  Prior to the ’09-’10 school year, however, the Board voted to eliminate his position, citing budgetary constraints and a belief that Harris himself planned on retiring.  When the Board refused to pay Harris approx. $20,000 in “accumulated vacation pay” to which he thought he was entitled, Harris stated that he wouldn’t retire.  After the Board chose not to reinstate him — and instead transferred his duties to a white employee nearly 20 years younger — Harris sued the Board for allegedly violating his civil rights.

In his Complaint, Harris alleged that the Board terminated his employment because of his race and age, and that the Board breached an oral agreement (to pay him for his unused annual leave) because of his race.  The Board responded by offering two legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for the elimination of Harris’ position: their belief that he intended to retire anyway, and budgetary constraints.  The Board also denied the existence of any oral agreement with Harris (which he claimed was made more than 30 years ago), and pointed out that the terms of such an agreement — whereby Harris was to be paid for all of his unused leave upon his retirement — contradicted the Board’s policy forbidding the accumulation of leave in excess of 48 days.  Following discovery, the Board moved for summary judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a).

In claiming that his termination was an act of racial discrimination, Harris attempted to rely on the “burden-shifting” framework established in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973).  First, he established a prima facie case of apparent discrimination: he was black, he was terminated from a position he was qualified for, and he was effectively replaced by a white employee.  The burden then shifted to the Board to refute his claim, which it did by offering the non-discriminatory reasons for its decision.  Harris then had the opportunity to expose the Board’s proffered reasons as being a mere pretext for carrying out its discriminatory intent, but he failed to discredit their justification or show that their true motives were discriminatory.  As the Court pointed out, Harris did not dispute that the Board genuinely believed (even if it was ultimately mistaken) that Harris intended to retire.  Furthermore, Harris did not present evidence that the Board even considered race when making its decision.

With respect to Harris’ claim for discriminatory breach of contract (regarding unused leave), the Court concluded that Harris failed to establish that such an agreement ever existed.  Proving the existence of the agreement is a necessary prerequisite to creating a cause of action, and as the Court stated in its opinion, the “only proof of the alleged oral contract is Harris’ word”, which was insufficient to “override the abundant evidence disproving the contract’s existence.”

Lastly, the Court addressed Harris’ claims under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), which prohibits employers from discriminating against individuals of at least 40 years of age.  As with his race discrimination claims, Harris was able to use the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework to force the Board to present a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for his termination (which it did).  And, as before, Harris could not offer any evidence exposing the Board’s reasons as mere pretext…much less, that any consideration of his age was the “but for” cause of the Board’s actions.

In granting the school board’s motion for summary judgment as to all claims, the District Court reinforced how important it is for would-be plaintiffs to be prepared with specific facts and evidence sufficient to raise a “reasonable inference” that their employer discriminated against them.

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