Ferrara Fiorenza P.C.

Firm Wins Summary Judgment for Client District Facing Discrimination Claims Related to Hiring Superintendent


In a recent federal court case, Firm Partner, Miles G. Lawlor, Esq., won a motion for summary judgment, persuading the judge to dismiss a discrimination complaint against one of our school district clients.  The case involved a claim of racial and gender discrimination in the District’s hiring of a new Superintendent of Schools.  While the case had an unusual fact pattern (described below), it illustrates the need for all school districts to have well-trained hiring committees and to carefully document all aspects of their hiring process.

The background of the case was unique in that it was brought by a person who had been a Board member, resigned from the Board to apply for the position of Superintendent of Schools, and then was on the Board again.  The Board did not select the plaintiff to be Superintendent.   The plaintiff (an African-American woman) claimed that the Board did not choose her because of her race and sex.  On January 4, 2013, the judge granted summary judgment in favor of the Board because the Board showed that it had a nondiscriminatory reason for its decision, and the plaintiff did not submit admissible evidence to rebut the Board.

In this case, approximately 23 candidates applied for the position.  The Board decided to interview six candidates (three male and three female), including the plaintiff.  Besides the Board, a group of District residents and a group of District employees also interviewed the candidates.  The community group and the employee group both rated the plaintiff the lowest of the six.  The three candidates with the highest composite scores from the community and employee groups were named as finalists.  Two were male and one was female.  The Board selected one finalist, a white male, as the Superintendent.

The plaintiff then rejoined the Board, and served on it for a year and a half, until she moved outside the District.  While she was on the Board, she pursued a charge of discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.  After she had moved out of the District, she brought a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York, claiming that she was not hired because of her race and sex.

The plaintiff claimed that one Board member had expressed a preference for a male Superintendent.  However, her claim was based on hearsay.  (The plaintiff said that a Board member made the comment, another person overheard it, and that person told another person (the plaintiff’s sister-in-law), who relayed it to the plaintiff.)  The District rebutted it with affidavits from the Board member and the person to whom she had supposedly made the statement.

The Plaintiff alleged that the District had never had a female or black Superintendent.  Judge Telesca said that, even assuming this was true, it did not raise an inference of discrimination.  The plaintiff did not provide evidence that any black or female candidates had previously applied for the position and had been rejected.

The plaintiff asserted that she was better qualified to be Superintendent than the white male who was selected.  This required the District to present evidence that it had a non-discriminatory reason for its decision.

The District provided evidence that the plaintiff was ranked lowest of the six candidates by the community and employee groups, and was not selected to be one of the three finalists.  The court determined that this stated a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the Board’s decision not to select the plaintiff.

The court determined that the plaintiff did not rebut the Board’s reason by showing that the reason was pretextual and that the Board really had an improper motive for its decision.

The plaintiff contended that she was more qualified to be Superintendent than the individual selected by the Board.   However, the court said that an employee or candidate’s self-serving, subjective opinion about her own qualifications was not enough to raise an issue of fact that would warrant allowing the case to proceed to trial.  Also, she would have had to demonstrate that her qualifications were so obviously superior to those of the person selected that no reasonable person could have chosen him.  The court found that the plaintiff and the successful candidate had comparable academic and administrative experience.  The court did not second-guess the Board’s decision to give favorable consideration to the other person’s approximately 20 years of experience as the CEO of a company.

The court determined that the plaintiff failed to produce evidence suggesting that the Board was motivated by racial or gender bias.  Therefore, the court concluded that she failed to rebut the reasons given by the Board for not hiring her, and dismissed her complaint.

This case demonstrates the need for school districts to carefully document all aspects of their hiring decisions, from choices made to relative abilities of the job candidates.  Having such information available in this case permitted our firm to get the case “thrown out of court” early on in the litigation process, thereby saving the District a great deal of money and other resources.

If you have any questions about similar situations or need our assistance in training hiring committees on minimizing the risk of litigation in the hiring process, please feel free to contact our office.

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