Vincent v. Jefferson County Board of Education et al
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER - For the reasons explained above, the court GRANTS IN PART the Defendants' motions to dismiss Ms. Vincent's amended complaint. The court GRANTS JCBOE's motion to dismiss count two WITH PREJUDICE. The court DENIES the motions to dismiss the remaining claims. Counts one, four, and five will proceed as pleaded. Signed by Judge Annemarie Carney Axon on 1/11/2022. (KEK)
2022 Jan-11 AM 08:56
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
JEFFERSON COUNTY BOARD
OF EDUCATION, et al.,
Case No.: 2:21-cv-00514-ACA
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Before the court are Defendants Jefferson County Board of Education
(“JCBOE”) and ATI Physical Therapy’s (“ATI”) motions to dismiss the amended
complaint. (Docs. 13, 16).
Plaintiff Emily Vincent filed this lawsuit against JCBOE, ATI, Sam Shade,
and Michael Turner alleging Title VII violations and state-law tort claims. (Doc. 7).
Ms. Vincent’s amended complaint asserts the following claims: (1) a Title VII
discrimination claim against JCBOE (“Count One”); (2) a Title IX claim against
JCBOE (“Count Two”); (3) claims for negligent training, supervision, and retention
against JCBOE (“Count Three”); (4) a Title VII discrimination claim against ATI
(“Count Four”); (5) a Title VII retaliation claim against ATI (“Count Five”); (6) a
claim for intentional interference with a business relationship against Coach Shade
(“Count Six”); and (7) a claim for intentional interference with a business
relationship against Principal Turner (“Count Seven”).
Mr. Shade and Mr. Turner have answered Ms. Vincent’s complaint. (Doc.
19). ATI and JCBOE have each filed a motion to dismiss the claims against them.
(Docs. 13, 16). In her response to JCBOE’s motion to dismiss, Ms. Vincent agreed
that Count Three should be dismissed. (Doc. 25 at 20). Accordingly, the court
DISMISSES Count Three of Ms. Vincent’s complaint WITH PREJUDICE. The
court has reviewed Ms. Vincent’s remaining claims and, for the reasons given below,
GRANTS IN PART JCBOE’s motion to dismiss and DENIES ATI’s motion to
At this stage, the court must accept as true the factual allegations in the
complaint and construe them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Butler v.
Sheriff of Palm Beach Cty., 685 F.3d 1261, 1265 (11th Cir. 2012).
Plaintiff Emily Vincent is a female athletic trainer. (Doc. 7 at 5 ¶ 19, 22).
Defendant ATI is a physical therapy company that contracts with the Jefferson
County school system to provide athletic training services at various schools
throughout the district. (Id. at 25 ¶ 152). One such school is Pinson Valley High
School (“PVHS”), where ATI owns and operates a sports medicine department
located on PVHS’s campus. (Id. at 25 ¶ 151). Ms. Vincent worked as an ATI athletic
trainer at PVHS from August 2017 to June 2020. (Id. at 25 ¶¶ 149–51).
While employed with ATI, Ms. Vincent was hired by Defendant JCBOE in
March 2020 to teach health at PVHS for the remainder of the school year. (Id. at 5
¶ 20). In May 2020, JCBOE hired Ms. Vincent as PVHS’s assistant athletic director.
(Doc. 7 at 5–6 ¶¶ 20, 21). Ms. Vincent remained employed as an athletic trainer for
ATI while also performing the jobs of PVHS health teacher and assistant athletic
director. (Id. at 6 ¶¶ 25, 26).
Sam Shade was the athletic director and head football coach at PVHS. (Id. at
8 ¶ 42). Coach Shade had conversations with Ms. Vincent regarding her duties as
assistant athletic director at PVHS. (Id. at 8 ¶ 47). As assistant athletic director, Ms.
Vincent was responsible for managing Dragonfly, the internal system for athletes
(doc. 7 at 8 ¶ 49), ensuring that all athletes had proper physicals and medical
paperwork to ensure eligibility (id. at 9 ¶ 51), ensuring that executed liability forms
were returned by athletes (id. at 9 ¶ 53), making sure that all athletic facilities were
in good repair (id. at 9 ¶ 57), and updating PVHS’s Emergency Action Plan (id. at
10 ¶ 59). In addition, Ms. Vincent was tasked with implementing a COVID-19
safety and guidance plan. (Doc. 7 at 7 ¶ 33). In her capacity as PVHS assistant
athletic director, Ms. Vincent conducted a meeting wherein she outlined the
COVID-19 plan. (Id. at 7 ¶¶ 36–37). Ms. Vincent introduced herself at the meeting
as PVHS’s assistant athletic director without objection from Principal Turner or
Coach Shade. (Id. at 8 ¶¶ 41, 45, 46).
But Ms. Vincent’s stint in her new position was short lived. Just one week
after informing Ms. Vincent she was hired by JCBOE as the assistant athletic
director, Principal Turner informed Ms. Vincent that she no longer held that position.
(Id. at 10 ¶ 61). Ms. Vincent told her coworker Coach Sheppard about her removal
from the position. (Id. at 10–11 ¶¶ 64, 65). In response, Coach Sheppard stated that
Coach Shade had previously expressed discomfort towards Ms. Vincent’s new
position because he thought that working with a female in football was “weird.” (Id.
at 11 ¶ 66).
Just two days later, Coach Shade approached Ms. Vincent in her office and
informed her she was to leave her keys at the end of the day. (Doc. 7 at 11 ¶¶ 67,
68). Ms. Vincent understood that she was terminated but was unaware of any
justification for her termination. (Id. at 12 ¶ 73). According to Ms. Vincent, no one
complained about her performance as an athletic trainer. (Id. at 36 ¶¶ 224, 225).
After Coach Shade terminated Ms. Vincent, she went to her ATI supervisor,
Director of Sports Medicine Jason Pequette, to inform him that she had been
terminated by Coach Shade. (Id. at 12 ¶ 75). Mr. Pequette instructed Ms. Vincent
to “play nice,” and leave her keys as instructed, and he promised to find out more
information. (Id. at 12 ¶ 76). Ms. Vincent relayed Coach Shade’s comment about
feeling weird and uncomfortable working with a female. (Id. at 12 ¶ 79). Mr.
Pequette replied “that’s she said he said, and you can’t prove it.” (Id. at 12 ¶ 80).
At some point, Mr. Pequette instructed Ms. Vincent to take the following
Monday off and not to report to work at PVHS. (Doc. 7 at 12 ¶ 77). Shortly
thereafter, ATI terminated Ms. Vincent’s employment as an athletic trainer at PVHS
and instructed her not to return to work at PVHS or contact PVHS employees. (Id.
at 6–7, 28 ¶¶ 81, 171). Ms. Vincent asked Mr. Pequette why she was terminated
from her positions at PVHS but was not provided an explanation. (Id. at 12 ¶ 78).
On June 11, 2020, ATI informed Ms. Vincent that, to keep her job as an ATI
athletic trainer, she had to accept a lower paying position at another location or a
position that required a three hour commute each day. (Id. at 37 ¶ 234). Ms. Vincent
had until June 15, 2020 to decide before ATI would classify her as having resigned.
(Id. at 37 ¶ 235). In the meantime, ATI hired a male athletic trainer to fill Ms.
Vincent’s spot at PVHS. (Doc. 7 at 29 ¶ 180).
Ms. Vincent’s temporary position as a health teacher was set to expire at the
end of the school year, and she does not challenge JCBOE’s failure to renew that
position. (Doc. 25 at 19). But Ms. Vincent was never given a reason for her
termination from PVHS as an athletic trainer or from JCBOE as the assistant athletic
director and her repeated inquiries went unanswered. (Id. at 27–29 ¶¶ 170, 177,
She alleges that ATI never investigated her complaints of gender
discrimination. (Id. at 28 ¶¶ 172, 175).
In July 2020, Ms. Vincent filed charges of discrimination with the Equal
Employment Opportunity Commission alleging gender discrimination and
retaliation against Defendants JCBOE and ATI. (Doc. 7 at 3–4 ¶ 10, 15). After
properly exhausting her administrative remedies she filed the present suit against
Defendants JCBOE, ATI, Mr. Shade, and Mr. Turner.
In considering a defendant’s motion to dismiss, the court accepts the
plaintiff’s allegations as true and construes the complaint in the plaintiff’s favor.
Butler, 685 F.3d at 1265. “The issue is not whether a plaintiff will ultimately prevail
but whether the claimant is entitled to offer evidence to support the claims.” Scheuer
v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974) (overruled on other grounds in Davis v. Scherer,
468 U.S. 168 (1984)). Therefore, to survive a motion to dismiss, a plaintiff must
plead a claim to relief that is “plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550
U.S. 544, 555 (2007).
A claim is plausible on its face when the “factual
content . . . allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is
liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009).
A. Title VII Claim Against JCBOE
In Count One, Ms. Vincent alleges that JCBOE violated Title VII by
discriminating against her on the basis of sex. (Doc. 7 at 5–15 ¶¶ 18–100). JCBOE
responds that it did not employ Ms. Vincent as an assistant athletic director and that
it took no adverse action with respect to Ms. Vincent’s teaching position. (Doc. 16
at 7, 11). Because Ms. Vincent does not make a claim based on her teaching position
with JCBOE (see doc. 25 at 19), the court’s analysis focuses only on JCBOE’s
argument that it did not employ Ms. Vincent as an assistant athletic director.
Under Title VII, it is unlawful for an employer “to fail or refuse to hire or to
discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with
respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because
of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”
A plaintiff can prove discrimination with either direct or
circumstantial evidence. Crawford v. Carroll, 529 F.3d 961, 975 (11th Cir. 2008).
But a prima facie claim of discrimination is not required at the motion to dismiss
stage. Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A., 534 U.S. 506, 510–15 (2002). A “short and
plain statement” that gives the “defendant fair notice of what the plaintiff’s claim is
and the grounds upon which it rests” will suffice. Id. at 512.
JCBOE argues that Count One should be dismissed because it never employed
Ms. Vincent as assistant athletic director for PVHS. (Doc. 16 at 11). JCBOE
attempts to characterize this dispute as a legal one by citing to Alabama law that sets
forth a procedure for hiring school employees. (Id. at 11–18 ¶ 6). Under Alabama
law, a principal is not entitled to make hiring decisions without Board approval.
(Id.). JCBOE argues that Ms. Vincent’s claim therefore fails as a matter of law
because Principal Turner lacked the authority to hire her as assistant athletic director.
But this argument mischaracterizes Ms. Vincent’s allegations in her
complaint. Ms. Vincent alleges that she “was hired by JCBOE to be Assistant
Athletic Director at PVHS” (doc. 7 at 5 ¶ 21), and that Principal Turner
communicated the hiring to her (id. at 6 ¶ 30).
The court reemphasizes that, at this stage in the proceedings, it accepts the
facts alleged in the complaint as true and views those facts in the light most favorable
to Ms. Vincent. Ms. Vincent alleges that JCBOE hired her as assistant athletic
director and that she performed responsibilities as assistant athletic director that she
would not otherwise have as an ATI employee or PVHS health teacher. (Id. at 8–10
Moreover, Ms. Vincent alleges that she held herself out as assistant
athletic director without objection from Principal Turner, Coach Shade, or JCBOE
superintendent Dr. Gonsoulin. (Id. at 7–8 ¶¶ 36, 37, 41, 45, 46). At this juncture,
JCBOE’s argument about the effects of its hiring procedure asks the court to delve
into a factual dispute that cannot be decided on a motion to dismiss.
Accordingly, the court DENIES Defendant JCBOE’s motion to dismiss
Count One of Ms. Vincent’s amended complaint.
B. Title IX Claim Against JCBOE
In Count Two, Ms. Vincent alleges that JCBOE violated Title IX by
discriminating against her on the basis of sex. (Doc. 7 at 17–21 ¶¶ 101–32). She
relies on the same factual allegations underlying her Title VII claim to support her
Title IX claim. (Id.).
Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 prohibits sex
discrimination in educational programs or activities operated by institutions
receiving federal funds. 20 U.S.C. § 1681. JCBOE argues that Ms. Vincent’s Title
IX claim must fail because Title IX does not provide plaintiffs with a private right
of action for employment discrimination. (Doc. 16 at 19–21 ¶¶ 7, 8). Courts
disagree as to whether an employee of a federally funded educational institution may
sue for employment discrimination under Title IX. Several Circuits have allowed
such suits. See e.g., Preston v. New River Cmty. Coll., 31 F.3d 203, 205–06 (4th Cir.
1994); Lipsett v. Univ. of Puerto Rico, 864 F.2d 881, 896–97 (1st Cir. 1988); Brine
v. Univ. of Iowa, 90 F.3d 271, 276 (8th Cir. 1996). The Fifth and Seventh Circuits
have held to the contrary. See Waid v. Merrill Area Schs, 91 F.3d 857, 861–62 (7th
Cir. 1996) (abrogated on other grounds); Lakoski v. James, 66 F.3d 751, 753 (5th
Cir. 1995) (“Title VII provides the exclusive remedy for individuals alleging
employment discrimination on the basis of sex in federally funded educational
institutions.”). The Eleventh Circuit has not addressed this issue.
In Lakoski, the Fifth Circuit held that “individuals seeking money damages
for employment discrimination on the basis of sex in federally funded educational
institutions may not assert Title IX.” 66 F.3d at 758. In coming to this conclusion,
the court relied on Supreme Court precedent and Congressional intent. The Lakoski
court explained that, although the Supreme Court has not squarely addressed the
relationship between Title IX and Title VII, it has held that Title VII preempts
§ 1985 actions because “[i]f a violation of Title VII could be asserted through
§ 1985(3), a complainant could avoid most if not all of [Title VII’s] detailed and
specific provisions of the law [and] . . . could completely bypass the administrative
process.” Id. at 775 (quoting Great Am. Fed. Savings & Loan Ass’n v. Novotny, 442
U.S. 366, 378 (1979) (internal quotations omitted). The Fifth Circuit also explained
that the Supreme Court has noted “[i]n a variety of contexts . . . that a precisely
drawn, detailed statute pre-empts more general remedies.” Id. (quoting Brown v.
Gen. Servs. Admin., 425 U.S. 820, 835 (1976) (internal quotations omitted).
The Fifth Circuit also examined Title VII’s legislative history and concluded
that “Congress did not intend Title IX to create a mechanism by which individuals
could circumvent . . . pre-existing Title VII remedies.” Id. at 757. Instead, the court
concluded that Congress intended Title IX and Title VII to provide different
remedies for the same right: where Title VII provides individuals with redress for
employment discrimination, Title IX empowers federal agencies to terminate
funding upon a finding of employment discrimination. Id.
Ms. Vincent seeks damages and injunctive relief under Title IX for
employment practices for which Title VII already provides a remedy. The court is
persuaded by the Fifth Circuit’s reasoning that such a scenario renders “a private
right of action under [T]itle IX duplicative” and is not what Congress intended when
it passed the statute. Lowrey v. Tex. A & M Univ. Sys., 117 F.3d 242, 248–49 (5th
Cir. 1997); see also Lakoski, 66 F.3d at 757. Accordingly, this court holds that Title
VII is the exclusive remedy for claims of employment discrimination in federally
funded educational institutions.
Therefore, the court DISMISSES Count Two of Ms. Vincent’s amended
complaint WITH PREJUDICE.
C. Title VII Claim Against ATI
In Count Four, Ms. Vincent alleges that ATI violated Title VII by
discriminating against her on the basis of sex. Specifically, Ms. Vincent alleges that
ATI terminated her position as athletic trainer at its PVHS department, replaced her
with a male athletic trainer, and forced her to accept a position elsewhere with less
pay and less desirable working conditions. (Doc. 7 at 25–33 ¶¶ 147–203). In
response, ATI argues that the court should dismiss Count Four because it was
JCBOE that made the decision to terminate Ms. Vincent’s employment at PVHS.
(Doc. 13 at 6–10).
To be liable for violating Title VII, a defendant must be an “employer” within
the meaning of the Act. McKenzie v. Davenport-Harris Funeral Home, 834 F.2d
930, 932 (11th Cir. 1987). Ms. Vincent alleges that ATI employed her as an athletic
trainer at its sports medicine department located on PVHS’s campus (doc. 7 at 27 ¶
161), and that as her employer, ATI controlled whether she could return to that
location (id. at 28 ¶¶ 171, 176, 180; doc. 25 at 9). According to Ms. Vincent, ATI
made the ultimate decision to remove her from employment at its PVHS location
and replace her with a male athletic trainer. (Doc. 7 at 29 ¶ 180; doc. 25 at 5–6).
ATI concedes its status as Ms. Vincent’s employer but maintains that it cannot
be held liable for her termination. (See doc. 13 at 7; doc. 31 at 2). ATI argues that
Ms. Vincent cannot state a claim against it because only “co-defendants JCBOE,
Shade, and Turner intentionally prevented Vincent from continuing to perform any
athletic training at Pinson Valley” (doc. 13 at 6–7), and that once JCBOE made that
decision, ATI had no choice but to comply (id. at 7–9). To support its argument,
ATI cites to the Eleventh Circuit’s decision in Llampallas v. Mini-Circuits Lab, Inc.,
163 F.3d 1236 (11th Cir. 1998), which stands for the proposition that one entity
cannot be liable for an employment decision made by another. Id. at 1244–45; (Doc.
13 at 8–9).
But Llampallas involved an appeal of a decision following a bench trial and
therefore assumes the existence of facts not currently in evidence in this case.
Ms. Vincent alleges that, after JCBOE removed her from her position as assistant
athletic director, ATI also removed her from her position as athletic trainer at its
PVHS sports medicine department and replaced her with a male employee. (Doc. 7
at 26–27, 29 ¶¶ 156, 161, 180). These facts, which the court must accept as true at
this stage, sufficiently state a claim for employment discrimination, and ATI’s
arguments to the contrary are better suited for a motion for summary judgement.
Accordingly, the court DENIES ATI’s motion to dismiss Count Four.
4. Title VII Retaliation Claim Against ATI
In Count Five, Ms. Vincent alleges that ATI violated Title VII by retaliating
against her for engaging in protected activity. To state a claim for retaliation under
Title VII, Ms. Vincent must plausibly allege that “(1) she engaged in an activity
protected under Title VII; (2) she suffered an adverse employment action; and (3)
there was a causal connection between the protected activity and the adverse
employment action.” Crawford v. Carroll, 529 F.3d 961, 970 (11th Cir. 2008).
Ms. Vincent alleges that after she told her ATI supervisor, Mr. Pequette, about
Coach Shade and Principal Turner’s discriminatory conduct, ATI terminated her
position at PVHS and forced her to accept a position elsewhere with less pay and
less desirable employment conditions. (Doc. 7 at 35–38 ¶¶ 218–38). ATI argues
that Ms. Vincent’s allegations do not state a claim for retaliation because the adverse
employment action she allegedly suffered occurred before she complained of
discrimination to ATI. (Doc. 13 at 10–11; Doc. 31 at 8–9). ATI’s motion to dismiss
ignores Ms. Vincent’s allegations regarding her subsequent reassignment. In its
reply brief, ATI argues that “[f]ar from being adverse acts, ATI’s reassignment
efforts were helpful acts of aid towards Vincent.” (Doc. 31 at 9).
Again, the court emphasizes that it must accept Ms. Vincent’s allegations in
her complaint as true and view those allegations in the light most favorable to her.
Ms. Vincent alleges that six days after telling Mr. Pequette of the alleged
discrimination at PVHS, ATI informed Ms. Vincent that she could not return to
ATI’s sports medicine department located on PVHS’s campus. (Id. at 37 ¶ 234).
Under these facts, ATI independently made the decision to remove Ms. Vincent as
an athletic trainer at its PVHS site after JCBOE made the decision to remove Ms.
Vincent as assistant athletic director at PVHS.
Additionally, the court rejects ATI’s argument that Ms. Vincent’s subsequent
reassignment to a position with less favorable conditions does not constitute
materially adverse employment action. Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision is broad
and prohibits an employer from taking action that “might have dissuaded a
reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.”
Burlington N. & Santa Fe Ry. Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53, 68 (2006). Reassignment
to a position with less pay and/or a longer commute qualifies as materially adverse
under this definition.
The court cannot, on a motion to dismiss, resolve the factual controversy
surrounding ATI’s involvement in terminating Ms. Vincent’s position at PVHS. In
her complaint, Ms. Vincent alleges that, after she complained of sex discrimination
to Mr. Pequette, ATI removed her as athletic trainer at ATI’s PVHS location and
told her she must accept a lower paying position or a position with a much longer
commute in order to maintain employment. (Doc. 7 at 37 ¶ 234). These allegations
sufficiently state a claim for Title VII retaliation.
Accordingly, the court DENIES ATI’s motion to dismiss Count Five.
For the reasons explained above, the court GRANTS IN PART the
Defendants’ motions to dismiss Ms. Vincent’s amended complaint. The court
GRANTS JCBOE’s motion to dismiss count two WITH PREJUDICE. The court
DENIES the motions to dismiss the remaining claims. Counts one, four, and five
will proceed as pleaded.
DONE and ORDERED this January 11, 2022.
ANNEMARIE CARNEY AXON
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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