The Sentinel: Board of Education loses

Board of Education loses

  • 30 Jul 2014
  • Written by  Kelsey Sutton

 

GREENBELT — A federal court ordered the Prince George’s County Board of Education to pay a former Largo High School teacher $350,000 in damages for firing the teacher as retaliation for a discrimination complaint, but the teacher’s attorney said the case may not be over yet.

“I am delighted,” said Bryan Chapman, attorney for plaintiff Jon Everhart, a former Largo High School literature teacher. “[The decision] gave Jon Everhart some relief after four years.”

Everhart, a former teacher of the year, filed a lawsuit after the school system fired him in Aug. 2010.

Everhart claims Largo High School Principal Angelique Simpson-Marcus made racially-fueled discriminatory remarks toward him, and when he filed complaints with the Prince George’s County Educators’ Association and the Board of Education, the school system fired him in retaliation.

Everhart claims he first became aware of discriminatory remarks from Simpson-Marcus in 2003, when a student notified him. The student told Everhart that Simpson-Marcus, a gym teacher at the time, told her class, “The only reason a white man teaches in P.G. County is that they can’t get a job elsewhere.”

After he filed his grievance, Everhart claims Simpson-Marcus told him if she became principal he would be the first person she would fire. After Simpson-Marcus became principal in 2007, Everhart claims she called him “poor white trash” and other derogatory terms in front of students, parents, teachers and staff. Everhart also claims he received negative evaluations after Simpson-Marcus became principal.

The federal jury found Everhart’s firing was illegal under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects employees from being fired from federally funded schools as retaliation for issuing complaints of racial discrimination.

The jury also ruled the Board of Education needs to pay for health and retirement benefits, as well as lost pay, which Chapman claims is in excess of $200,000, putting his total reward at more than $500,000.

The jury, however, contrary to Everhart’s claims, found he did not experience a hostile work environment during his time at Largo High School.

Chapman said he and Everhart may seek to further pursue the hostile work environment charge.

“It’s not over,” Chapman said. “There are going to be more fireworks.”

Max Pugh, a spokesman for Prince George’s County Public Schools , said he could not comment on ongoing legal matters.

Everhart said when he brought the issue of his alleged harassment to the attention of the school board they did nothing to address his complaints. Everhart then contended he was further harassed, mistreated and ultimately fired because of the complaints he filed.

But the Board’s attorney argued there was no harassment, just a disgruntled former teacher trying to make excuses for his poor classroom performance.  “This case is about an under-performing teacher who refused to take responsibility for his failures,” defense attorney Robert Baror said in closing arguments.  Baror defended Simpson-Marcus, saying she was simply doing her job and holding Everhart accountable for failing to maintain adequate student performance in his classroom.

Chapman contended low teacher evaluations were a direct result of the harassment Everhart faced and the complaints he began filing.

Everhart took the stand himself, with hundreds of documented letters he sent to his union representative regarding the harassment.  “The Board of Education ignored the harassment and the complaints in the personnel file increased,” Chapman said during closing arguments. “They’re blaming the victim.”

Throughout the trial, the case also relied on testimony from one of Everhart’s former students, former assistant principals and other school employees.

The Board of Education has 30 days to respond to the jury’s decision.

Hostile Work Environment: Making a Prima Facie Case

Employment discrimination can take the form of workplace harassment.  To be actionable in federal court, the level of harassment has to be severe or pervasive enough to constitute a hostile work environment.  For instance, a workplace that is saturated with sexual jokes, slurs, or innuendo could constitute a sexually hostile work environment.  A workplace that is saturated with racial jokes, slurs, or innuendo could constitute a racially hostile work environment.

A hostile work environment can be actionable if an employer is aware of the harassment but fails to take prompt and effective corrective action.  The employee generally has a duty to complain to the employer about the harassment.

In order to establish a prima facie hostile work environment claim, a plaintiff must demonstrate that the alleged conduct:

1) was unwelcome;

2) resulted because of [race, sex, national origin, religion, etc.];

3) was “sufficiently severe or pervasive” to alter the conditions of [his or her] employment; and,

4) was imputable to [his or her] employer.

Ocheltree v. Scollon Prods., Inc., 335 F.3d 325, 338 (4th Cir. 2003).

First, a plaintiff can demonstrate that the harassment is unwelcome by complaining about it.

Second, if a female employee is the victim of sexual jokes, slurs, or innuendo from a male co-worker or supervisor, the harassment is assumed to be because of her sex.  The same can be said about harassment that targets an employee’s race, national origin, or religion.

Third, the offensive conduct must be sufficiently severe or pervasive.  Generally, the offensive conduct must be more than incidental.  For example, a few instances of racial or sexual name-calling may not be actionable.  However, a workplace where racial or sexual name-calling is a daily occurrence could be actionable. Spriggs v. Diamond Auto Glass, 242 F.3d 179 (4th Cir. 2001); Harris v. Forklift Sys., 510 U.S. 17, 22 (1993) (”A discriminatorily abusive work environment…can and often will detract from employees’ job performance…”)

Fourth, an employer can generally be found liable for a hostile work environment when the employer: 1) has knowledge of the harassment, and, 2) fails to take prompt and effective corrective action. Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742 (1998); Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, 524 U.S.775 (1998).

If you are a victim of a hostile work environment, seek the advice of an experienced attorney as soon as possible.

Bryan A. Chapman, Esquire

www.baclaw.com