A first grade teacher took a leave in early January, 2016, after her 14-year old son committed suicide. A little more than two months later she came back to work, hoping that a return to the classroom would help alleviate her grief.
The teacher felt good about her performance in the classroom, but others did not. Early in May the principal and superintendent met with the teacher to express their concerns. It must have been a difficult conversation. The superintendent asked the teacher to take on a paraprofessional position for the next school year. This would require the teacher to resign from teaching and accept an at-will position. The superintendent informed the teacher that if she did not resign, the superintendent would recommend the nonrenewal of her contract. The superintendent left the meeting thinking that the teacher had agreed to resign and take the paraprofessional job.
But that was not the case. The next day the teacher informed the assistant superintendent that she wanted to sign her contract for the next year—her teaching contract. That was a surprise to the assistant superintendent who had heard from the superintendent that the teacher would be resigning and accepting a different position. More meetings ensued, but meanwhile the deadline for recommendations to the school board was fast approaching.
So the superintendent did, in fact, recommend nonrenewal of the teacher’s contract. However, the board tabled the matter. After that, the superintendent offered the teacher a teaching contract for the next year with a reassignment to Pre-K. The teacher was supposed to sign and return the contract by May 24th. She did not do that. Nevertheless, the board voted to renew her teaching contract in June. In July, the teacher gave the school a written resignation: “To the extent that anyone thinks I do have a valid contract with FISD, I am giving my notice of resignation.”
To recap: we have 1) a teacher trying to recover from a catastrophic loss; 2) dissatisfaction by school administrators with the teacher’s job performance; 3) an effort to persuade the teacher to accept a different position; 4) a recommendation of nonrenewal; 5) inaction by the board on that recommendation; 6) an offer of re-employment with a deadline for response; 7) the teacher failing to meet that deadline; 8) the board deciding to renew the contract anyway; and 9) the teacher’s unequivocal resignation.
Then: the lawsuit. The teacher claimed that the school district discriminated against her on the basis of disability and forced her to work in a hostile environment. The court ruled in favor of the district on both claims. The court did what it is supposed to do in an emotionally charged situation—it provided a cold-blooded analysis based on well-established legal standards.
Hostile Environment. As to “hostile environment” the court noted that “the alleged conduct neither rises to the level of severity…nor is the type of conduct that courts have found to constitute harassment.” Key Quote:
When the record demonstrates a legitimate concern regarding an employee’s performance, as is the case here, “criticism…and even threats of termination do not satisfy the standard for a harassment claim.” [The teacher] must concede that she was never prevented from doing her job, suspended, or formally disciplined.
Disability Discrimination. The district asserted that the teacher did not have a discrimination claim for the simple reason that she had resigned voluntarily. The school never took any “adverse employment action” against her. However, that was not the end of it. The court pointed out that a resignation could be an adverse action if it amounted to a “constructive discharge.” If “working conditions become so intolerable that a reasonable person in the employee’s position would have felt compelled to resign.” That’s where the teacher’s own testimony was relevant:
Q. Do you think that your working conditions were intolerable?
A. Can you explain that?
Q. Yeah. Do you think that your working conditions were so bad that you had to quit?
The court: “This admission is a showstopper.”
The case is Willard v. Friendswood ISD, decided by the federal district court for the Southern District of Texas on December 12, 2019. We found it at 2019 WL 6790584.
DAWG BONE: CONSTRUCTIVE DISCHARGE OCCURS ONLY WHEN THE JOB HAS BECOME INTOLERABLE.
Tomorrow: female coach claims sex discrimination.