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Lawson v. Hinds County School District

United States District Court, S.D. Mississippi, Northern Division

February 3, 2014



DANIEL P. JORDAN, III, District Judge.

This employment-discrimination case is before the Court on Defendant Hinds County School District's Motion for Summary Judgment [37]. The key issues are whether Plaintiff Richard Lawson, an African-American public-school teacher, was constructively discharged by the District, and if so, whether he has submitted sufficient evidence of race-based intent to avoid summary judgment. The Court finds fact questions on both issues and therefore denies summary judgment on the Title VII and § 1981 claims. But because Plaintiff has not established any basis for municipal liability under § 1983, that claim is dismissed.

I. Facts and Procedural History

Lawson taught high-school history at the Main Street RESTART Center under a one-year employment contract with the District. The contract covered the 2009-2010 school year. In the spring semester of that year, the District began a reduction in force (RIF). So on February 1, 2010, District Superintendent Dr. Stephen Handley sent RESTART Center Principal Chad Shealy a letter directing him to eliminate two teaching positions. Feb. 1, 2010 Letter [37-1] at 1. By law, the School Board was required to vote on Shealy's recommendations and make final personnel decisions.

There is no dispute Shealy selected Lawson to be recommended for non-renewal and verbally conveyed that information to Lawson on or around March 25, 2010. But dispute exists as to what, precisely, Shealy told Lawson. According to Shealy, he merely informed Lawson that he was recommending non-renewal to the School Board. But Lawson recalls Shealy making it clear that Lawson "had been selected, the decision was made and that [Lawson] was selected. So there was nothing potential about it. It was direct." Lawson Dep. [37-3] 10. Lawson's account finds support in the District's EEOC position statement signed by District Superintendent Handley. That document states that "Mr. Lawson was informed that... his contract would not be renewed." District Position Statement [40-6] at 7.

According to Lawson's account of the meeting, he asked for an explanation and was told: "Mr. Lawson, you being a black man, I believe that you could easily get a job in the education system with your connection." Lawson Dep. [37-3] 17. Shealy then conveyed that "he felt like it would be best if [Lawson] did a resignation rather than have a nonrenewal on [his] record. So he recommended... resignation." Id. Shealy also warned that "once a school district sees nonrenewal, they usually just throw your application or your resume to the side because a red flag goes up." Id. at 17-18. Lawson took the advice and submitted a resignation letter before Shealy's recommendation was presented to the School Board. The School Board never considered whether to non-renew Lawson's contract, but it ultimately approved his resignation.

Lawson filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC on August 3, 2010, asserting that he was "forced to resign (constructively discharged)" because of his race. Compl. [1-2] Ex. A. Following an EEOC determination favorable to Lawson, the parties engaged in an unsuccessful conciliation process, and the EEOC issued a right-to-sue letter on June 8, 2012. Lawson filed suit on August 30, 2012, in Hinds County Circuit Court, asserting Title VII, § 1983, and § 1981 claims of race discrimination, as well as a state-law breach-of-contract claim. Defendant removed the case and, at the close of discovery, filed its motion for summary judgment. The Court has personal and subject-matter jurisdiction and is prepared to rule.

II. Standard

Summary judgment is warranted under Rule 56(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure when evidence reveals no genuine dispute regarding any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The rule "mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986).

The party moving for summary judgment "bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of [the record] which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Id. at 323. The nonmoving party must then "go beyond the pleadings" and "designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'" Id. at 324 (citation omitted). Conclusory allegations, speculation, unsubstantiated assertions, and legalistic arguments are not an adequate substitute for specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial. TIG Ins. Co. v. Sedgwick James of Wash., 276 F.3d 754, 759 (5th Cir. 2002); Little v. Liquid Air Corp., 37 F.3d 1069, 1075 (5th Cir. 1994) (en banc); SEC v. Recile, 10 F.3d 1093, 1097 (5th Cir. 1993).

III. Analysis

A. Federal Discrimination Claims

The substantive analysis of Lawson's race-discrimination claims under Title VII, § 1981, and § 1983 is identical. See Lauderdale v. Tex. Dep't of Crim. Justice, 512 F.3d 157, 166 (5th Cir. 2007). But the District's liability under § 1983 must be reviewed in light of Monell v. Department of ...

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