Hetzel v. Bibb County, Alabama Board of Education
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Magistrate Judge Staci G Cornelius on 9/30/2016. (MSN)
2016 Sep-30 PM 07:59
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
CARRIE M. HETZEL,
BIBB COUNTY, ALABAMA BOARD OF
Case No.: 7:14-cv-00292-SGC
Plaintiff Carrie M. Hetzel (“Plaintiff” or “Hetzel”) brings this action against the Bibb
County, Alabama Board of Education (“Defendant” or the “Board”), alleging the Board
discriminated and later retaliated against her in its hiring decisions. (Doc. 1). Hetzel claims the
actions of the Board constitute violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e
et seq. (“Title VII”), the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12111 et seq. (as
amended) (“ADA”), and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (as amended), partially
codified at 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq. (“ADEA”). (Id. at 5-8).
Plaintiff contends she was discriminated against on the basis of her disability in violation
of the ADA, when she applied for two positions she was qualified to hold but was passed over in
favor of less qualified candidates who were not disabled. (Doc. 1 at ¶¶ 26-31). She also claims
the same conduct constituted discrimination against her on the basis of her age in violation of the
ADEA. (Doc. 1 at ¶¶ 37-41). Hetzel claims she was discriminated against on the basis of her
gender in violation of Title VII, when the Assistant Principal position at Brent Elementary was
awarded to a lesser qualified male. (Doc. 1 at ¶¶ 32-36).1 Finally, she asserts a claim for
“retaliatory discrimination in violation of federal law.” (Doc. 1 at ¶¶ 42-47). The basis for her
retaliation claim is the Board’s failure to hire her as an Assistant Principal at West Blocton High
School (Doc. 1 at ¶ 45); its failure to hire her as Assistant Principal at Bibb County High School
(Id.; Doc. 16 at 22); and its failure to appoint her as an interim special education coordinator at
Bibb County High School. (Doc. 1 at ¶ 45). Plaintiff also claims retaliation on the basis of a
hostile work environment at Brent Elementary. (Id. at ¶ 46).
The Board has moved for summary judgment on the grounds that it has not discriminated
or retaliated against Hetzel and she has failed to proffer sufficient evidence to meet her burden of
proof. (Doc. 15). The motion is fully briefed and ripe for review. (See Docs. 15, 16, and 17).
This court has jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), 1331, and 1367. 2
For the reasons stated below, the Board’s motion for summary judgment will be
STANDARD OF REVIEW
Under Rule 56(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment is
appropriate “if the movant shows there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the
movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” “Rule 56(c) mandates the entry of 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).
Plaintiff asserts a Title VII violation for discrimination on the basis of her gender but not on the
basis of any other classification.
In accordance with the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure
73, the parties have voluntarily consented to have a United States Magistrate Judge conduct any
and all proceedings, including trial and the entry of final judgment. (Doc. 20).
The party moving for summary judgment always bears the initial burden of proving the absence
of a genuine issue of material fact. Id. at 323.
Once the moving party has met its burden, then the non-moving party must “go beyond
the pleadings” and point to specific facts in the record to show there is a genuine issue for trial.
Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324 (citation omitted). A dispute is genuine “if the evidence is such that a
reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby,
Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986).
“[A] ‘judge’s function’ at summary judgment is not ‘to weigh the evidence and determine
the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial.’” Tolan v.
Cotton, 134 S.Ct. 1861, 1866 (2014) (per curiam) (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249). The
court must “examine the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party,” drawing
all inferences in favor of such party. Earl Mervyns, Inc., 207 F.3d 1361, 1365 (11th Cir. 2000).
Any factual disputes will be resolved in the non-moving party’s favor when sufficient competent
evidence supports the party’s version of the disputed facts. See Pace v. Capobianco, 283 F.3d
1275, 1276-78 (11th Cir. 2002) (a court is not required to resolve disputes in the non-moving
party’s favor when that party’s version of the events is supported by insufficient evidence.).
However, “mere conclusions and unsupported factual allegations are legally insufficient to defeat
a summary judgment motion.” Ellis v. England, 432 F.3d 1321, 1326 (11th Cir. 2005) (per
curiam) (citation omitted).
RELEVANT FACTUAL BACKGROUND
Plaintiff is a female over the age of forty who is employed by the Bibb County, Alabama
Board of Education. (Doc. 1 at ¶ 8). Hetzel is dyslexic. (Doc. 1 at ¶ 5). But there is a dispute,
discussed below, as to whether this was known to the Board or any of its other employees during
the timeframe in question.
Plaintiff is certified as a K-12 teacher in reading and in special education. (Doc. 1 at ¶ 5).
She has worked for the Board since 1998. (Id. at ¶ 6). She has spent most of that time as a
special education teacher at the K-4 level. (Doc. 16-1 at 26). For the last several years,
however, she has worked at Bibb County High School. (Id.). In addition to being an
experienced special education teacher, she has helped to administer Bibb County’s after school
program, the Centreville After School Team (“CAST”). (Doc. 1 at ¶¶ 10-11). Her
responsibilities at CAST included budgeting and management, as well as seeking grant funding,
which she did successfully. (Id. at ¶¶ 12-13).
When the events giving rise to this litigation began, Hetzel taught special education at
Brent Elementary. (Doc. 16-1 at 22). Between July 2012 and June 2014, Hetzel applied for four
positions with the Board which were ultimately filled by other applicants. (Doc. 16-5 at 16-17).
A. Brent Elementary
In the 2011-2012 school year, Brent Elementary School Assistant Principal Jay Austin
was transferred to Bibb County High School (Doc. 15-1 at 8), leaving an opening for an
Assistant Principal at Brent Elementary. Dr. Mechelle Hollifield, the Principal at Brent
Elementary, chose to split the position into two part-time Assistant Principal positions. (Doc.
15-3 at 92). Hollifield conducted the interviews of the applicants, including Hetzel and Jason
Leach, who was a third grade teacher at the time he applied to be Assistant Principal. (Id. at 92,
94). After reviewing the applicants, Hollifield determined no single applicant would have been
satisfactory as a full-time Assistant Principal, so she sought and received approval from the
Board to split the position into two part-time positions. (Id. at 92). After posting and reviewing
applicants for the two positions, Hetzel and Leach were selected as the Brent Elementary
Assistant Principals. (Id.). Hetzel claims the treatment of the two was unequal from the time
they were hired. (Doc. 16 at ¶ 18). She testified that she was given a former storage closet as an
office, while Leach was given the Assistant Principal’s office, and that while he had a nameplate,
she never received one. (Doc. 16-1 at 24-25). The Board contends Hetzel was not treated
unequally, the offices were substantially the same size, and they ordered Hetzel a nameplate that
was illegible when it arrived so they had to order another one, which did eventually arrive. (Id.);
(Doc. 15-3 at 97-98). The Board also notes a new desk was purchased for Hetzel’s office
because there had not been one in it before she moved in. (Doc. 15-3 at 97).
At the end of the 2011-2012 school year, Hollifield sought and received permission to
review the decision to split the Assistant Principal position. The Superintendent, Greg Blake,
testified he had heard complaints from parents about the split position and he instructed her to
consider that in deciding how to proceed. (Doc. 15-6 at 9-10). Hollifield chose to conduct a
survey of the faculty, something she had not done in the previous round of decisions about this
same position. (Doc. 15-3 at 87). Hollifield testified she was instructed to complete the survey
by Blake, but Blake denies having been aware of the survey or its contents before its results were
revealed. (Doc. 15-3 at 87; Doc. 15-6 at 9-10). The faculty survey, which was anonymous,
revealed that the faculty and staff who responded overwhelmingly favored consolidating the
position. (Doc. 16-9). Several indicated a preference for Leach. (Id.). Some made comments
about needing a “male role model” or otherwise stated a preference; the parties disagree about
whether this information was dispositive in Hollifield’s decision. (Id.). Hollifield sought
permission to consolidate the positions, which was granted, and after a round of interviews she
recommended Leach be hired as Assistant Principal, which he was. (Doc. 15 at ¶¶ 48-55).
Hetzel asserts she suffered various forms of retaliation at Brent following Leach’s hiring
as full-time Assistant Principal, chief among which was that she was stripped of committee
positions. (Doc. 16 at ¶ 49). But she acknowledges she was reinstated to certain committees and
other responsibilities (Id.); the parties dispute the reasons for this.
B. First EEOC Charge
At some point in the summer after the 2011-2012 school year, Hetzel discussed her
career options with Dr. James Gray (Doc. 16 at ¶¶ 45-48), whom she describes as a “board-level
employee.” (Id. at p. 26). Hetzel discussed with Gray the possibility that she would file a
lawsuit or a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
(“EEOC”). (Id.). She later claimed to have also discussed this possibility with another Board
employee, Dr. Alesha Judd. (Doc. 16 at 28).
On December 20, 2012, Plaintiff filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. (Doc.
1-1). She charged discrimination on the basis of her sex, age, and disability. This complaint was
based on the fact that she “applied and was qualified for the position of Assistant Principal with
Brent Elementary School, but the position was given to a lesser qualified, younger male, who
does not have a disability.” (Id.). Hetzel would later file a second charge of discrimination with
the EEOC in July 2013, discussed below.
C. West Blocton High School & Second EEOC Charge
In June 2013, Hetzel applied to be Assistant Principal of West Blocton High School.
(Doc. 1 at ¶ 25). The job posting listed a Master’s degree and “valid certification in teaching and
school administration,” as well as “[v]erified proof of three (3) years’ successful experience as a
teacher” among the minimum requirements for the position. (Doc. 15-2 at 16-17). Principal
Lawley conducted the hiring process for the Board and consulted with Superintendent Gray. For
funding reasons, the two agreed Lawley would need to hire someone who could teach at the high
school level in addition to serving as Assistant Principal. (Id. at 13). To make sure whoever was
hired would be ready to teach at the high school, Lawley only considered candidates who had
secondary teaching experience, notwithstanding the broader “minimum requirements” of the job
posting published by the Board. (Id. at 13-14).
The Board hired David Steele, a younger male without a disability, instead of Hetzel on
July 1, 2013. (Doc. 15-2). Following the decision to hire Steele, Plaintiff filed a second charge
of discrimination against the Board in July 2013. (Doc. 1-3). In addition to charging
discrimination in its decision to hire Steele, Hetzel complained the Board’s decision to hire
Steele over Hetzel was in retaliation for her threat (made to Gray and Judd) of filing the first
EEOC charge. (Id.). Both EEOC charges were dismissed on November 25, 2013, and Plaintiff
was given notice of her right to sue. (Docs. 1-2, 1-4).
D. Bibb County High School
After the dismissal of her EEOC charges, Plaintiff applied for two positions at Bibb
County High School. In December 2013, a woman named Evon Blake was appointed Interim
Special Education Coordinator at Bibb County High School. (Doc. 15-6 at 61). Following the
2013-2014 school year, the Board posted conducted a search for a permanent Special Education
Coordinator at Bibb County High School. Plaintiff applied for the permanent position but it was
awarded to Evon Blake. (Id.).
Next, Plaintiff applied to be Assistant Principal of Bibb County High School in the
Summer of 2014. (Doc. 15-6 at 72, 77). Hetzel was interviewed but was not selected; a man
named John Hooper was hired instead. (Id.).
Plaintiff states a claim for retaliation in the Board’s failure to hire her as Principal at Bibb
County High School following her EEOC complaints. (Doc. 1 at ¶ 45). But there is no evidence
in the record whatsoever that Hetzel ever applied to be Principal at Bibb County High School.
Jay Alston was hired as Principal of Bibb County High School in 2012 after serving as a
“turnaround specialist” for a year while the previous Principal was on administrative leave.
(Doc. 15-6 at 38). He still held that position at the time this case was filed. (Id.).
Hetzel claims the Board discriminated against her on the basis of her gender, age, and
disability and that it retaliated against her when she engaged in the protected activity of
attempting to assert her civil rights by charging discrimination with the EEOC. (Docs. 1, 16).
She bears the ultimate burden of proving her claims of discrimination. See, e.g., Brooks v. Cnty.
Comm’n of Jefferson Cnty., Ala., 446 F.3d 1160, 1162 (11th Cir. 2006) (“[T]he ultimate burden
of persuading the trier of fact that the employer intentionally discriminated against the employee
remains at all times with the plaintiff.”) (citation omitted); Walker v. Nations Bank of Florida
N.A., 53 F.3d 1548, 1555 (11th Cir. 1995).
Hetzel may avoid summary judgment in one of two ways. She may rely on the traditional
framework and use direct evidence to create a triable issue on whether she was fired or treated
less favorably based on impermissible discrimination. See Morris v. Emory Clinic, Inc., 402
F.3d 1076, 1081 (11th Cir. 2005) (per curiam). Alternatively, Hetzel may use circumstantial
evidence and rely on the “McDonnell Douglas” framework to create a triable issue. Id.; see
generally McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802 (1973).3
The McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework applies to ADA and ADEA employment
discrimination cases, as well as to cases brought under Title VII. See Cleveland v. Home
Shopping Network, Inc., 369 F.3d 1189, 1193 (11th Cir. 2004) (framework applies to ADA
1. Direct evidence
The Eleventh Circuit defines direct evidence in the employment context as, “evidence
that, if believed, proves the fact of discriminatory animus without inference or presumption.”
Kilpatrick v. Tyson Foods, Inc., 268 Fed. Appx. 860, 861–862 (11th Cir. 2008) (internal citations
and quotations omitted). Under this definition “only the most blatant remarks, whose intent
could be nothing other than to discriminate on the basis of a protected classification, constitute
direct evidence.” Id. To qualify, such direct evidence must reflect “‘a discriminatory ... attitude
correlating to the discrimination ... complained of by the employee,’ and must indicate that the
adverse employment decision was motivated by the decision-maker's intent to discriminate.”
Lawson v. Plantation General Hospital, 704 F. Supp. 2d 1254, 1267, n.9 (S.D. Fla.2010)
(internal citations and quotations omitted); see also Jones v. Bessemer, 151 F.3d 1321, 1323 n.11
(11th Cir. 1998) (noting that the 11th Circuit has severely limited what statements constitute
direct evidence) (citing Evans v. McClain of Georgia, Inc., 131 F.3d 957, 962 (11th Cir.1997)).
“[R]emarks by non-decisionmakers or remarks unrelated to the decisionmaking process itself are
not direct evidence of discrimination.” Standard v. A.B.E.L. Services, Inc., 161 F.3d 1318, 1330
(11th Cir. 1998).
Plaintiff cites no direct evidence of discrimination. (See Doc. 16 at 20-21). Defendant
made note of this in its briefing. (Doc. 15-7 at 16) (“In the case at bar, Plaintiff’s claim is based
on circumstantial evidence, as no direct evidence of discrimination exists.”). Plaintiff does not
address this argument and has not described any evidence as being direct. Her arguments go
directly to addressing the elements of the burden-shifting framework (described below) which
case); Chapman v. AI Transport, 229 F.3d 1012 (11th Cir. 2000) (framework applies to ADEA
courts apply to circumstantial evidence. (Doc. 16 at 20-30). The court sees no direct evidence of
discrimination or retaliation, and therefore the analysis will proceed to considering the
2. The McDonnell-Douglas burden-shifting framework
With no direct evidence of discrimination, Hetzel must rely on circumstantial evidence to
establish her claim, employing the burden-shifting framework established by McDonnellDouglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973). This requires a plaintiff to first establish a prima
facie case of discrimination by showing “(1) he is a member of a protected class; (2) he was
qualified and applied for the promotion; (3) he was rejected despite his qualifications; and (4) the
position was filled by an individual outside the protected class.” (Holmes v. Alabama Bd. Of
Pardons & Paroles, 591 Fed. Appx. 737, 742 (11th Cir. 2014) (citing Walker v. Mortham, 158
F.3d 1177, 1186, 1193 (11th Cir. 1998). If Hetzel establishes a prima facie case, the burden
shifts to her employer “to articulate a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the promotion
decision.” Id. (citing Kidd v. Mando Am. Corp., 731 F.3d 1196, 1205 (11th Cir. 2013)).
Because the Board must only produce, not prove, a non-discriminatory reason for its action, the
Board’s burden is “exceedingly light.” Nations Bank, 53 F.3d at 1556. Once the employer
meets its burden of production, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to show the employer’s
proffered reason is just pretext for discrimination. Holmes, 591 Fed. Appx. at 742 (citing
Springer v. Convergys Customer Mgmt. Group, Inc., 509 F.3d 1344, 1347 (11th Cir. 2007)).
a. Brent Elementary
i. Prima facie case
For purposes of summary judgment, the court finds Plaintiff has stated a prima facie case
with regard to her claims of disability, age, and gender discrimination in the hiring process for a
full-time Assistant Principal at Brent Elementary.
Plaintiff claims she was discriminated against by the Board when a younger, lesser
qualified male without a disability was hired instead of her to fill the Assistant Principal position
at Brent. (Doc. 1 at ¶¶ 37-41). Jason Leach is a male with no disability who was thirty-eight
years old at the time of these events. (Doc. 16-1 at 22). Hetzel is a woman over the age of forty,
who claims she has dyslexia. (Id.). The Board concedes she is able to make a prima facie case
as to her claims based on age and gender. (Doc. 15-7 at 19). But the parties dispute whether she
has met her burden with respect to disability.
The ADA states that, with respect to an individual, disability means “(A) a physical or
mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such [an]
individual; (B) a record of such an impairment; or (C) being regarded as having such an
impairment....” 42 U.S.C. § 12102(1). A mental impairment is defined, in part, as “[a]ny mental
or psychological disorder . . . and specific learning disabilities . . . .” 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(h)(2).
Reading, among other things, is a “major life activity” under the ADA. See 42 U.S.C. §
Plaintiff argues she needs nothing more than her own assertion that her disability was
substantial. (Doc. 16 at 21). She accurately quotes Supreme Court precedent as follows: “[T]he
ADA requires those ‘claiming the Act’s protection … to prove a disability by offering evidence
that the extent of the limitation … in terms of their own experience … is substantial.’” (Id.)
(quoting Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc. v. Williams, 534 U.S. 184, 198 (2002)
(quoting Albertson’s, Inc., v. Kirkingburg, 527 U.S. 555, 567 (1999)).
These cases were overruled and superseded by statute upon passage of the ADA
Amendments Act of 2008, Pub. L. 110-325, 122 Stat. 3553 (“ADAAA”), such that disability is
intended to be read much more broadly than it was before the statute was passed. With the
passage of the ADAAA, Congress specifically removed the stringent standards previously used
to determine whether an individual was a “qualified individual with a disability.” The new
The primary purpose of the ADAAA is to make it easier for people
with disabilities to obtain protection under the ADA. Consistent
with the Amendments Act's purpose of reinstating a broad scope of
protection under the ADA, the definition of ‘disability’ in this part
shall be construed broadly in favor of expansive coverage to the
maximum extent permitted by the terms of the ADA.
29 C.F.R. § 1630.1(c)(4).
The court finds, for purposes of summary judgment, that Hetzel has created an issue of
material fact as to whether she is dyslexic. Although her self-serving testimony in this regard is
completely uncorroborated by any other evidence in the record, the court is not permitted at this
stage to make any credibility determination as to Hetzel’s claim. See Reid v. Secretary, Florida
Dep’t of Corrections, 486 Fed. Appx. 848, 852 (11th Cir. 2012) (self-serving statements, though
unsupported by medical record, were nevertheless sufficient to create a conflict in the evidence
sufficient to withstand summary judgment).
For the foregoing reasons, Plaintiff has established a prima facie case as to her claims of
discrimination in the hiring of an Assistant Principal at Brent Elementary.
ii. Defendant’s stated reasons for its decisions
Hollifield stated the following reasons for her recommendation to the Board that it hire
Leach as Assistant Principal at Brent Elementary:
In arriving at my decision to recommend Jason Leach over Carrie
Hetzel, I considered the results of my [evaluation summary report]
of each, the results of the [annual] performance surveys of the
faculty and staff at Brent Elementary School, the daily
observations of each while they were performing assistant
principal duties in the prior 2011-2012 school year, and the general
consensus from the [position-specific] teacher/staff surveys that
Jason Leach was the preferred person for the full-time job. One
thing I did not consider from these surveys was the occasional
reference to the school needing a male figure in the assistant
principal position. The bottom line reason for my decision was
that Jason Leach demonstrated better leadership skills, including
his ability to manage situations with parents, students behaviors
and staff problems. The results from the first 5-6 months of this
2012-2013 school year have reconfirmed that my decision was
(Doc. 15-2 at 8). Plaintiff complains that the survey responses upon which Hollifield relied are
subjective and are self-reported without oversight. (Doc. 16 at 12). But the Board’s burden is
“exceedingly light” with respect to this prong of the McDonnell Douglas analysis, and Hetzel
has not pointed to any authority to support her contention that the stated reasons are insufficient.
See Nations Bank, 53 F.3d at 1556; (see also Doc. 16 at 11). The court finds each of the above
reasons is a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the Board’s decision.
iii. Plaintiff’s showing of pretext
By presenting legitimate reasons for its decision, the Board has rebutted the presumption
of discriminatory intent. Standard, 161 F.3d at 1322. Hetzel now has the burden of providing
sufficient evidence to allow a reasonable fact finder to conclude that the reasons the Board gave
were not actually the reasons for its decision. Id. To prove pretext, Hetzel “must meet the
[Board’s proffered reasons] ‘head on and rebut [them]’” by showing “both that the reason[s]
[were] false and that discrimination was the real reason” for the Board’s decision. Holmes, 591
Fed. Appx. at 743 (quoting Chapman, 229 F.3d at 1030; citing Brooks, 446 F.3d at 1163).
Hetzel may establish pretext by showing “such weaknesses, implausibilities, inconsistencies,
incoherencies, or contradictions in the employer’s proffered legitimate reasons for its action that
a reasonable factfinder could find them unworthy of credence.’” Rioux v. City of Atlanta, Ga.,
520 F.3d 1269, 1275 (11th Cir. 2008) (quoting Combs v. Plantation Patterns, 106 F.3d 1519,
1538 (11th Cir. 1997)).
Regarding the Brent Elementary hiring, Plaintiff asserts that by undermining the
credibility of Hollifield’s stated reasons for recommending Leach over Hetzel, she will have
adduced sufficient evidence to create a material question of fact. (Doc. 16 at 24). She points to
conflicts between Hollifield’s testimony and other portions of the record as evidence Hollifield’s
assertions are “unworthy of credence.”
First, Hetzel emphasizes that she and Leach were treated differently during the year they
shared the Assistant Principal position in that Leach was given a better office and a nameplate.
(Doc. 16 at 25). The record reveals there were not two offices which had previously been
designated as “Assistant Principal” offices; therefore someone had to occupy a space which had
not previously been designated as such. Hollifield’s stated reason for assigning the offices as she
did is that the Assistant Principal’s office housed the computer server used for the lunch program
and Leach was responsible for that program as part of his duties. (Doc. 17-1 at 6). Regarding
the nameplate, Hetzel concedes a nameplate was ordered for her, and the school ordered her a
new desk for her office. (Doc. 15-1 at 26). Nothing in this testimony demonstrates a
contradiction or inconsistency in Hollifield’s testimony so great it would require the court to
deem her stated reasons for hiring Leach to be unworthy of belief.
Next, Plaintiff points out that Hollifield testified she relied on information in the faculty
survey responses that were mentioned several times. (Doc. 16 at 25). Because several survey
responses indicated a belief on the part of certain faculty members that a male role model would
be beneficial in a leadership position at the school, where all other administrators were female,
Hetzel urges Hollifield must have made her decision on the basis of gender. Hollifield did send
out a survey to gauge teachers’ feelings about the split position, and some of the responses
indicated a preference for a male to occupy the open leadership position at the school. (See
generally Doc. 16-9). For example, the following excerpts were drawn from the survey
(1) I really believe that a male role model would greatly enhance our
schools [sic] best interest. Many of our students do not have a male
role model to look up too [sic] and immolate [sic] and I believe
this would help meet some of our students need [sic]. (Doc. 16-9
(2) I think that the students that we have need a male authority figure
in our school. (Doc. 16-9 at 9).
(3) Only have one assistant principal. Jason Leach is the best choice
for the position. He has performed so well in this position and
deserves the job. Also, a mostly female faculty, I feel it is very
important to have a male in this position. (Doc. 16-9 at 14).
(4) I think our school, students, teachers and parents need only ONE
assistant principal next year. I also feel that it needs to be a
positive male role model for these kids. (Doc. 16-9 at 19).
(5) I believe that one should be chosen. The students require male
leadership and I feel that Mr. Leach is a positive role model for the
students. No offense should be taken towards Mrs. Hetzel but
students of your socio-economic backgrounds [sic] need a male
role model. (Doc. 16-9 at 24).
(6) I feel that it is extremely important to have a male presence in that
position. (Doc. 16-9 at 26).
Plaintiff contends that “[o]f the approximately forty-one surveys returned to Hollifield by
her staff, eleven of the anonymous responses specifically favored Leach as the next solo assistant
principal, and in the eight of those which gave a reason for that choice, it was his gender each
time.” (Doc. 16 at 10). But the survey excerpts themselves were not as clear-cut as Plaintiff
would have the court understand. Hetzel testified that by her count, eleven responses explicitly
favored consolidating the position and awarding it to Mr. Leach. (Doc. 16-4 at 22). Of those
eleven responses advocating for Leach, eight recommended him on the basis of his gender. (Id.)
(“[T]he ones that did mention him mentioned him because he was male.”). The court notes
many of the responses made no comment at all about the assistant principal position, choosing
instead to focus on other subjects such as discipline, bullying, and the need to provide assistance
for the overworked janitor. (See, e.g., Doc. 16-9 at 4, 5, 10). Other responses did state it would
be best to consolidate the position but do not suggest a preference. (Doc. 16-9 at 11) (“I mean
you never know who to go to and one or the other think they are in more control.”). Some
examples offered by Hetzel are less stark when considered in their entirety. For example, the
response found quoted above as item (2), says the following:
I really like Mrs. Hetzel and Mr. Leach. I think that they both
handle their specific responsibilities very well; but, I have to say
that I have been much more impressed with the way that Mr.
Leach has handled things. He keeps his composure, solves
problems, takes initiative to take care of things, and has been very
helpful when matters of discipline are involved. I think that he
trusts us (teachers) and does not micromanage us. I think that the
students that we have need a male authority figure in our school.
Honestly, I wish that Mrs. Hetzel had a position at the Board of
Education as a grant writer. That is a phenomenal gift that she has
that I wish our school system could tap into. I wish that our full
time assistant principal next year would be Mr. Leach.
(Doc. 16-9 at 9).
Hollifield did say, with regard to the surveys and her reliance on their contents, “If I saw
it over and over, then I – then I looked at it and paid closer attention to it.” (Doc. 16-3 at 29).
“Paying closer attention” to the opinions of others is not the same as adopting those opinions as
one’s rationale for taking action. Furthermore, the record makes clear this comment was not
about the gender-based content of the responses at all. Hollifield was asked about the decision to
consolidate the split position, and it is the repeated survey comments on that subject she was
discussing in her deposition testimony. (Id.). In order for the survey responses to constitute
direct evidence of gender bias in the decision-making process, the court would have to draw an
unsupported inference that Hollifield exclusively relied on comments about gender in making her
choices. No evidence supports such a conclusion.
Third, Hetzel urges the court to find Hollifield’s stated reasons for choosing Leach to be
“unworthy of belief” because Hollifield claims she was told to conduct the teacher survey when
in fact she was not. (Doc. 16 at 25). Again, Plaintiff is stretching the testimony. Hollifield said
she conducted the survey at Blake’s request and he wanted the responses. (Doc. 16-3 at 22).
Blake did not recall instructing Hollifield to send out the “particular document” she used, but he
also pointed out that he encourages administrators to seek feedback. As he said, “they are always
encouraged to do survey[s], they get feedback on problems, SurveyMonkey, and things like that
to get the gist of what’s going on.” (Doc. 15-6 at 10).
In terms of how to handle the staffing situation at Brent Elementary, Blake said, “I told
Hollifield that the community has displayed – expressed – some concern about the split principal
position. She needs to take that into consideration and look at if it was working out, if there
needed to be changes or modifications.” (Id.). The court agrees the testimony contradicts
Hollifield’s assertion that Blake instructed her to conduct a survey specifically on this occasion.
But it is clear he encouraged surveys generally and instructed her to collect feedback on the
specific topics addressed in the survey she sent out. The court sees no incoherence in the
testimony on this issue.
Finally, Plaintiff states Hollifield contradicted herself by claiming to have been unaware
of Hetzel’s disability since she later stated she understood Hetzel had a learning disability as a
child. (Id.). Hollifield has readily acknowledged she sat in at least one meeting in which Hetzel
discussed having had a learning disability as a child. (Doc. 16-3 at 25). But Hollifield states she
was unclear about the nature of the disability and, in any event, Hetzel’s reason for discussing it
in the first place was to emphasize it was a challenge she had overcome. (Id.).
Plaintiff has failed to show “such weaknesses, implausibilities, inconsistencies,
incoherencies, or contradictions in the employer’s proffered legitimate reasons for its action that
a reasonable factfinder could find them unworthy of credence.” Rioux, 520 F.3d at 1275. She
has not attacked Leach’s qualifications head on, and she fails to demonstrate fatal inconsistencies
in the testimony.
b. West Blocton High School
i. Prima facie case
Plaintiff complains she was discriminated against when the Board hired David Steele, a
younger male without a disability, to fill the position of Assistant Principal at West Blocton High
School. (Doc. 1 at ¶ 25).4 For the same reasons discussed above, Plaintiff has satisfied the first
element of the prima facie case analysis by showing she is a member of the protected classes in
Count III of the complaint only refers to a single “Assistant Principal” position as the basis for
Plaintiff’s ADEA claim. (Doc. 1 at ¶¶ 37-41). Because Hetzel applied for several Assistant
Principal positions, it is unclear which position is the basis of her claim for age discrimination.
But elsewhere in the complaint, she alleges the age of both Jason Leach (the incumbent in the
Brent Elementary Assistant Principal hiring process) and David Steele (the incumbent at West
Blocton). (Doc. 1 at ¶¶ 15, 25). Because the parties have offered evidence relating to both
positions and have argued both, the court will address the merits of Plaintiff’s claim as to both
Defendant attempts to defeat Plaintiff’s claim by stating she has failed to establish the
second element of a prima facie case – that she was qualified for the position. The record is
unequivocal that the Principal at West Blocton, Terry Lawley, discussed the opening with the
superintendent, Greg Blake, before posting the opening; they agreed that whoever was hired
would have to be able to teach at the secondary level and should be qualified to do so. (Doc. 152 at 13-14). The Board asserts Hetzel’s application to be the Assistant Principal at West Blocton
High School was rejected out of hand because it was clear from the face of her application she
was not qualified to hold the position. (Doc. 15 at ¶¶ 74, 76-77).
The Board says Hetzel had no secondary teaching experience, while Hetzel asserts she
did. (Doc. 16-1 at 5; Doc. 15-7 at ¶ 78) (“Because Plaintiff did not have any secondary teaching
experience, she was eliminated from consideration without an interview.”). The parties agree
Hetzel was certified to teach secondary education. Certification or experience is all that Lawley
claims to have required. (Doc. 15-2 at 13) (“Mr. Blake told me that for funding reasons I needed
to consider hiring a person who would be qualified to teach at the secondary level.”); (Id. at 14)
(“I would have eliminated any applicant who did not have proper administrative certification or
secondary teaching experience.”).
According to Lawley, he rejected her application out of hand, as he did with dozens of
others, because her application did not state she had secondary teaching experience. Hetzel
asserts she had secondary teaching experience based on a position she held in Hale County in
1996-1997. (Doc. 16-1 at 5). The court notes Hetzel’s application, in which she lists the Hale
County position – not under “teaching experience” but elsewhere under “general experience” –
and it in no way indicates that job was a secondary level educational position. (Doc. 15-2 at 4759). In the position she refers to, Hetzel worked for the Juvenile Detention Center in Hale
County. She described this in her deposition testimony as a “high school setting,” which was
supported by the HERO Foundation and overseen by a local judge. (Doc. 16-1 at 5). When
asked whether that position was part of the public school system, Hetzel responded, “[w]ell, yes,
my check did come from HERO. It was grant money from HERO, so yes, I guess I was not
technically employed by Hale County.” (Id. at 6).
For purposes of Hetzel’s establishment of a prima facie case, the court finds she was
qualified to occupy the position of Assistant Principal at West Blocton High School according to
the Board’s own description of the position.
ii. Defendant’s stated reasons for its decision
Hetzel has established she was qualified for the position of Assistant Principal at West
Blocton. But the Board articulated a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for its decision in that
Lawley only considered applications which indicated secondary level teaching experience.
Hetzel was qualified for the job in the sense that she met the Board’s stated minimum
qualifications of being certified at the secondary level or having experience as a secondary
school teacher. The parties do not dispute whether Hetzel was certified, but her experience as a
secondary school teacher was not in any way clear from her application. Although she has
shown through testimony that a position she held in 1996-97 involved teaching experience at the
secondary level, nothing in her application indicates this was the case. Therefore, Lawley had a
legitimate reason for discarding her application – one of over sixty applications for the job in
question – as he screened them for relevant experience.
In addition to the legitimate reason cited for eliminating Hetzel as a candidate for the
West Blocton Assistant Principal position, it is clear the Board had legitimate reasons for
selecting David Steele. Lawley provided a list of seven finalists who were interviewed. (Doc.
15-2 at 14). Of the interviewed finalists, two were over forty years of age, and five were under
forty years of age. (Id.). Five were male, and two were female. (Id.). Lawley states he and
another administrator narrowed the list of seven finalists to two candidates; Lawley selected
Steele because in addition to his secondary education experience and scores in the personal
interview, he was a local member of the community and had children in the local school system.
(Doc. 15-2 at 15). These are legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for the Board’s decision to
hire Steele—reasons which would have applied even if the Board had not eliminated Hetzel’s
application for a legitimate (though perhaps mistaken) reason.
iii. Plaintiff’s Showing Of Pretext
Plaintiff’s argument regarding pretext contains no discussion of the West Blocton
Assistant Principal hiring process. (Doc. 16 at 22-26). She makes no mention of the Board’s
rationale for hiring Steele and offers no basis for finding those stated reasons were pretextual.
The Board made note of this in its reply brief. (Doc. 17 at 8). No sur-reply was filed by
Plaintiff, and no request has been made for leave to amend her pleadings on this issue. Plaintiff
asserts she was qualified for the position, which the court has accepted at face value. But since
the Board offers a legitimate reason for its decision, the burden shifts to Plaintiff to show the
offered reasons were false and that discrimination was the real reason she was not hired.
Chapman, 229 F.3d at 1030. Having offered nothing whatsoever in rebuttal on that point, the
court finds Plaintiff has failed to meet her burden and summary judgment is due to be granted in
favor of the Board as to her claims of discrimination in the West Blocton High School hiring
Plaintiff does not specify, either in her complaint or in her brief opposing the motion for
summary judgment, what law she travels under in claiming retaliation. (Doc. 1 at 7-8) (charging
simply “retaliatory discrimination in violation of federal law”). Where a plaintiff has been
refused a promotion, the Eleventh Circuit recognizes a cause of action for a retaliatory hostile
work environment under Title VII, the ADA, and the ADEA; the elements under each are the
same. See Gowski v. Peake, 682 F.3d 1299, 1311-1312 (11th Cir. 2012) (Title VII); Rocky v.
Columbia Lawnwood Regional Medical Center, 54 F. Supp. 2d 1159, 1169 (11th Cir. 1999)
(citing Standard, 161 F.3d at 1328) (ADA); Weeks v. Harden Mfg. Corp., 291 F.3d 1307, 1311
(11th Cir. 2002) (ADEA). To prevail, Hetzel must prove each of the following elements: (1) that
she engaged in statutorily protected activity; (2) that she suffered an adverse employment action;
and (3) that a causal link exists between the protected activity and the adverse employment
action. The same burden-shifting analysis applies to retaliation claims as it does to other
discriminatory conduct. See Ellison v. City of Birmingham, 2016 WL 1554927 (N.D. Ala., April
Plaintiff claims she was retaliated against in two ways: first, she suffered a hostile work
environment at Brent Elementary after she was passed over for the position of Assistant Principal
in favor of Jason Leach. (Doc. 16 at 26-27). Next, she claims she was subject to retaliation
when the Board refused to hire her at West Blocton High School and later as a special education
coordinator at Bibb County High School. (Id. at 25-27).
1. Hostile work environment at Brent
Plaintiff claims she was subject to a hostile (or “toxic”) work environment at Brent
Elementary after disclosing to Dr. James Gray, a board-level employee, that she intended to file a
charge of discrimination. (Doc. 16 at 26). She bases this charge on three allegations. First, she
says she was removed from all the committees on which she previously served. (Id.). Next, she
says she was stripped of her position as “Grade Level Chair” for special education. (Id.). Third,
Hetzel inserts a nineteen-line block quote excerpted from her own deposition to establish her
general discomfort at Brent because of the alleged hostility. (Id. at 27).
Plaintiff has established she announced to Gray in the summer of 2012 that she was
contemplating a lawsuit or EEOC charge. (Doc. 16-4 at 12). That EEOC charge was filed in
December 2012, meaning that the conversation with Gray is the only basis upon which her Brent
Elementary retaliation claims can rest. Hetzel has offered no evidence that her conversation with
Gray was known to anyone else. She does not allege he told Hollifield that Hetzel
threatened to file a charge. Therefore, she has not established that any of the conduct she
complains of was connected to that conversation.
With respect to her committee assignments, the Board has explained Hetzel was removed
from those positions because she was no longer an administrator but was reinstated to other
committees. (Doc. 17-1 at 7). Regarding the second claim, they respond that the “Grade Level
Chair” position is an IT designation which is not under the control of Hollifield, and as such, her
removal from that position cannot be causally connected to the alleged hostility of Hollifield
toward Hetzel. (Doc. 17 at 11). Finally, the Board asserts the deposition testimony from Hetzel,
which serves as the third factual basis for retaliation at Brent Elementary, fails to prove her claim
on this point. (Id.).
The statement from Hetzel’s deposition is simply a report of Plaintiff’s own feelings in
the aftermath of the decision to hire Leach as Assistant Principal. (See Doc. 16 at 26). It states
almost no specific conduct on the part of anyone. (Id.). The closest Plaintiff comes to alleging
specific retaliatory conduct on the part of the Board is to say, “there were some things that
happened the first couple of days of that school year that basically communicated to the staff
very clearly that I, in some way, was damaged goods.” (Id.). If Plaintiff is referring to the
committee assignments, the Board has offered a legitimate, non-discriminatory, non-retaliatory
explanation which Plaintiff has failed to rebut or show is pretextual. Beyond that, the deposition
testimony Plaintiff relies on is rambling, vague, and reports almost nothing except her own sense
of disappointment, woundedness, and resentment at having been denied the promotion she
sought. It suggests Hetzel felt her colleagues had been given the impression she was “damaged
goods,” but it does not state anything specific that other teachers, or anyone at the school, did to
act on this perceived hostility. Further, the contents of this testimony are not explained or
argued. Without more, a reasonable factfinder would be unable to conclude from this statement
that Plaintiff was subjected to a hostile work environment in retaliation for protected conduct.
Plaintiff has failed to rebut the Board’s legitimate reasons for its decisions at Brent or to
demonstrate the allegedly hostile conduct was connected to her protected activity of informing
Gray she intended to file a charge of discrimination. Therefore, the court finds Hetzel is unable
to meet her burden of establishing the alleged conduct amounts to a hostile work environment or
is causally connected to her conversation at all.
2. Retaliation in the Board’s hiring decisions
a. West Blocton High School
Plaintiff has established she filed her first EEOC complaint in December 2012 and was
denied the Assistant Principal position at West Blocton High School for which she applied in
June 2013, when David Steele was hired instead. It is undisputed that Terry Lawley made the
decision to disregard Plaintiff’s application for the job at West Blocton. Plaintiff has offered no
evidence to show Lawley knew an EEOC charge had been filed at the time he eliminated
Plaintiff as a candidate for Assistant Principal. Plaintiff asserts it is a “reasonable inference”
Lawley knew about the EEOC charges since Hetzel told others she was considering filing a
charge. (Doc. 16 at 28). The court does not find it reasonable to make such an inference.
Plaintiff told Gray she was upset and was considering filing a charge when they spoke in the
summer of 2012. Plaintiff filed her EEOC complaint in December 2012. Lawley testified he
had no knowledge about the charge. Plaintiff has offered no evidence to show otherwise, stating
only that “[w]hile the particulars were not discussed” when she spoke with James Gray and
Alesha Judd, “the fact of the matter was common knowledge.” (Id.).
Having offered no actual proof to counter Lawley’s testimony, Plaintiff has failed to
show he had knowledge of her protected activity. In fact, Hetzel is unable to show Lawley or
any other decision-maker with respect to this position knew she had filed an EEOC claim.
Plaintiff has failed to establish a link between the adverse employment decision and her
protected activity. Thus, her retaliation claim fails as to the employment decision at West
Blocton High School.
b. Bibb County High School
i. Assistant Principal 5
Plaintiff’s complaint charges retaliation in the Board’s failure to hire Hetzel as “Principal” at
Bibb County High School, but she did not apply for this position. (Doc. 1 at ¶ 45). Plaintiff
insists this was a scrivener’s error and requested leave to amend her complaint to allege the
Board’s failure to hire her as Assistant Principal at Bibb County High School. (See Doc. 16 at
26; Doc 16-4 at 8). But as the record makes clear, the complaint was filed in Febraury, 2014,
and the Assistant Principal position was not open or filled until summer of 2014. (Docs. 1, 16-5
at 16). It cannot be that Plaintiff intended to refer to the Assistant Principal position even though
her complaint says “Principal.” Nonetheless, the court notes the parties were on notice of
Plaintiff’s assertion, and Defendant has sufficiently responded to the issues for the court to
address the merits of this claim. (See Doc. 17 at 15-16 (arguing the legitimate reasons for the
Board’s decision not to hire Hetzel as Assistant Principal at Bibb County High School); Doc. 15
at ¶¶ 103-108 (providing sufficient information, taken with the evidence submitted, for the court
Plaintiff applied to be Assistant Principal at Bibb County High School for the 2013-2014
school year. (Doc. 16-4 at 8). She was not selected; John Hooper was hired instead. Plaintiff
argues she was more qualified that Hooper to hold the position and that members of the Board
were aware she filed an EEOC complaint. But she has failed to establish any causal link
between this adverse employment decision and her protected activity. Even if Hetzel had
presented a prima facie case of retaliation in the hiring of Hooper as Assistant Principal at Bibb
County High School, the Board has offered a legitimate reason for choosing him, which Plaintiff
has failed to rebut.
The Board states Hooper was hired because he was more experienced as a high school
teacher and had completed a leadership program sponsored by the State Department of
Education “designed to prepare teachers for administrative positions in schools by giving them
hands on administrative experience while under the supervision of an administrator in a school.”
(Doc. 15 at ¶ 108). These are legitimate, non-retaliatory reasons for hiring Hooper over Hetzel.
Plaintiff argues she was qualified since she had “bolstered her already impressive resume
with a year of experience as assistant principal,” referring to the Brent Elementary split position
she shared with Jason Leach, by the time she applied for the Bibb County High School position.
(Doc. 16 at 28). Plaintiff asserts that because “she has better qualifications for the position” and
members of the committee which screened applicants must have been aware of the EEOC
complaints, she has created a question of fact regarding retaliation. But the record does not
support Hetzel’s claim that she was more qualified. Even if it did, the Board’s burden with
regard to showing a legitimate reason for its decision is “exceedingly light.” Nations Bank, 53
to adjudicate the claim)). Therefore, the court will GRANT Plaintiff’s request to amend her
pleadings and address the merits of the claim.
F.3d at 1556. And in order to demonstrate pretext, which Plaintiff does not argue in her
opposition brief, she would have to show “the disparities between the successful applicant’s and
[her] own qualifications were ‘of such weight and significance that no reasonable person, in the
exercise of impartial judgement, could have chosen the candidate selected over the plaintiff.’”
Brooks, 446 F.3d at 1163 (quoting Cooper v. Southern Company, 390 F.3d 695, 732 (11th Cir.
2004)). Because she fails to do this, summary judgment is due to be entered in favor of the
Board on Plaintiff’s retaliation claim for failure to hire her as Assistant Principal at Bibb County
ii. Interim Special Education Coordinator
Plaintiff complains she was retaliated against when the Board appointed Evon Blake to
be Interim Special Education Coordinator at Bibb County High School and later hired Ms. Blake
as the permanent Special Education Coordinator. Plaintiff has offered nothing establish any
causal connection between the Board’s decision for this position and Plaintiff’s protected
activity. Even if she were able to show a prima facie case with regard to this claim, the Board
has offered legitimate reasons for hiring Blake. (Doc. 15-7 at 28-29). Blake was able to fill two
positions: the job she already held as a homebound teacher, as well as the interim special
education position. (Doc. 15-6 at 61-62). Blake also had more experience than Hetzel as an
educator. (Doc. 15-6 at 67, ¶ 6). Plaintiff has not responded in any way to rebut Defendant’s
legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons. Therefore, she has failed to show the Board’s asserted
reasons for its decision were pretextual. Thus, judgment is due to be entered in favor of the
Board on this claim.
The defendant has offered legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for its hiring decisions
at Brent Elementary and West Blocton High School, which the plaintiff has failed to rebut. The
plaintiff has also failed to rebut the Board’s legitimate reasons for the hiring decisions on which
she bases her claims of retaliation. Finally, she has failed to meet her burden of demonstrating a
hostile work environment at Brent Elementary. Therefore, the Board’s motion for summary
judgment will be granted in favor of Defendant as to all claims. A separate order will be entered.
DONE this 30th day of September, 2016.
STACI G. CORNELIUS
U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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