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Defendants Sufficiently Rebutted a Prima Facia Case of Discrimination

Austin v. Bd. of Ed. Of Howard County
Case No.: ELH-10-1185 (D. Md. December 21, 2011)

by Gregory L. Arbogast, Associate
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (www.semmes.com)

In Austin v. Board of Education of Howard County, Judge Hollander of the United States District Court for the District of Maryland granted summary judgment in favor of Defendants because Defendants established sufficient evidence to rebut a prima facia case of employment discrimination. In employment discrimination cases, if a plaintiff proves a prima facia case of discrimination, the burden of persuasion shifts to the defendant for summary judgment purposes. If, however, the defendant produces evidence that the plaintiff was terminated for a legitimate reason, then the plaintiff’s prima facia case is sufficiently rebutted. In this case, Judge Hollander held that, even assuming Plaintiff established a prima facia case of discrimination, Defendants successfully rebutted that showing. Plaintiff did not produce any rebuttal evidence to show discrimination; and therefore, Judge Hollander granted summary judgment as to Plaintiff’s claims.

Austin arose out of an employment discrimination case that a non-tenured special education teacher filed against the Howard County School Board, the principal of her school, and the assistant principal of her school (“Defendants”). Plaintiff alleges that she was discriminated against on the basis of her race, that Defendants created a hostile work environment, and that Defendants retaliated against her. Plaintiff filed her discrimination claim after her teaching contract was not renewed following the 2008 school year.

According to Defendants, the School Board did not renew Plaintiff’s contract because she was unable to grow as a teacher and improve upon her numerous unsatisfactory performance reviews. Pursuant to policy, Defendants evaluated the performance of teachers each academic year. The evaluations are based on four (4) in-year observations, peer coaching, portfolio, and a cooperative program review. During the 2006–2007 school year, in a mid-year evaluation of Plaintiff, Plaintiff received an unsatisfactory rating. To address her deficiencies, Defendants implemented a Plan of Action. Plaintiff, however, did not successfully meet the objectives of the Plan of Action. Instead, she continued to receive unsatisfactory ratings. Therefore, Defendants implemented a second Plan of Action. The second Plan of Action was likewise unsuccessful, as Plaintiff still received unsatisfactory ratings. Defendants placed Plaintiff on a third Plan of Action, which was also unsuccessful. As a result, after the 2008 school year, Defendants opted not to renew Plaintiff’s teaching contract. Thereafter, Plaintiff filed a discrimination claim, for which Defendants filed a Motion for Summary Judgment.

This case largely turned on which party held the burden of persuasion. While plaintiffs ordinarily hold the burden of persuasion, intentional discrimination cases are different in that objective proof of intentional discrimination is often difficult to obtain. Therefore, where a plaintiff proves a prima facia case of discrimination, the burden of persuasion shifts to the defendant to show that the plaintiff was terminated for legitimate reasons. If the defendant produces evidence to show that the plaintiff was terminated for legitimate reasons, then the plaintiff again bears the burden of persuasion to disprove those legitimate reasons.

In the instant case, Judge Hollander held that Plaintiff’s unsatisfactory performance reviews were sufficient to rebut any claims of discrimination. Ultimately, she held that Plaintiff failed to produce any evidence, which tended to show that she was fired for discriminatory reasons, and that she was not fired for her unsatisfactory reviews. Therefore, the Court granted summary judgment as to all of Plaintiff’s claims.


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