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Irvin v. Ascension Parish School Board

United States District Court, M.D. Louisiana

January 24, 2017

SHELIA A. IRVIN
v.
ASCENSION PARISH SCHOOL BOARD

          RULING AND ORDER

          JOHN W. deGRAVELLES JUDGE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT

         This matter comes before the Court on the Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 16) filed by Defendant Ascension Parish School Board (“Defendant”). The Plaintiff Shelia A. Irvin (“Irvin” or “Plaintiff”) opposes the motion. (Doc. 18.) Oral argument is not necessary. Having carefully considered the law, the record, and the arguments of the parties, the motion is denied.

         I. Introduction

         Plaintiff Shelia A. Irvin works for the Defendant Ascension Parish School Board as the Transportation Secretary. She has worked in that position for about sixteen years and for the Defendant for nearly forty years.

         In the fall of 2014, Plaintiff applied for the position of Coordinator of Transportation. Her supervisor, Larry Grant, testified that she has already performed the Coordinator job, that she trains Coordinators, and that she in fact trained him for his job as Supervisor of Transportation.

         Nevertheless, Plaintiff did not receive the position. Mr. Aubrey Yates did. The week after being passed over for the new job, Plaintiff was told by the Assistant Superintendent, who was the highest-ranking member of the committee interviewing applicants, that “this was a position that [she] expected the person to work in for at least [ten] or more years.”

         Plaintiff was born in August 1955, and she was, at the time the job became available, fifty-nine years old. Yates was born in December 1963 and was fifty years old when he was hired. Their age difference is approximately eight and one quarter years.

         Plaintiff now brings this suit alleging that the Defendant discriminated against her on the basis of her age in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq. (“ADEA”). Specifically, Plaintiff claims discrimination for failure to promote.

         The Court has carefully reviewed the law and the record as a whole and finds that the Defendant's motion should be denied. First, Plaintiff has made a prima facie case of discrimination. Though the person who ultimately got the job was over the age of forty, Supreme Court and Fifth Circuit precedent hold that this does not prevent a plaintiff from proving a prima facie case. As long as the person who received the job was “substantially younger” than the Plaintiff, she has met her burden. The Court finds that the eight and one quarter year difference between Plaintiff and Yates satisfies this standard.

         Though the Defendant has articulated a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the decision (namely, that Yates had better qualifications), the Court finds that the Plaintiff has created an issue of fact as to whether this reason was a pretext for discrimination. Drawing all inferences in the Plaintiff's favor, a reasonable juror could find that age discrimination was the but-for cause of the Defendant's employment decision. The Court bases this decision on the following: (1) the Plaintiff's prima facie case, (2) the fact that she was “clearly better qualified” than Yates (that is, a jury could conclude that no reasonable person, in the exercise of impartial judgment, could have chosen Yates over the Plaintiff for the Coordinator position); and (3) the above comment by her supervisor about expecting the person who got the job to work for the next ten years, which a reasonable juror could find was made with discriminatory animus on the part of a person who is either primarily responsible for the challenged employment action or by a person with influence or leverage over the relevant decisionmakers.

         Contrary to Defendant's argument, this holding is not in conflict with Hazen Paper Co. v. Biggins, 507 U.S. 604, 113 S.Ct. 1701, 123 L.Ed.2d 338 (1993). Hazen found that there is no disparate treatment under the ADEA when the factor motivating the employer is some feature other than the employee's age. Conversely, here the Court finds that a reasonable juror could conclude that the Plaintiff was not promoted because of her age (that is, that age was the but-for cause of the Defendant's employment action) . Accordingly, the Defendant's motion is denied.

         II. Relevant Factual Background

         A. Plaintiff's Background

         Plaintiff is an employee with the Ascension Parish School Board and has been since 1976. (Doc. 18-2 at 2.) She began as a library clerk. (Id.) She was also a head secretary at East Ascension High School for ten years. (Doc. 18-2 at 3.) From 1999 to the present, the Plaintiff has been the Transportation Secretary. (Doc. 16-5 at 9.)

         When Plaintiff first got the Transportation Secretary job in 1999-2000, her duties included “taking care of the bus drivers and their substitutes.” (Doc. 16-5 at 4.) During this time, she also did the state-mandated reports, figured out the bus drivers' routes, and assisted the Transportation Supervisor with the routes. (Doc. 18-2 at 5.) At that time in the department, there was only a Supervisor of Transportation and a Transportation Secretary. (Doc. 18-2 at 6.)

         B. Position of Coordinator of Transportation

         In 2008, the position of Coordinator of Transportation was created. (Doc. 18-2 at 6-7.) The hierarchy was Supervisor of Transportation, then Coordinator of Transportation, and then Secretary of Transportation. (Doc. 18-2 at 7.) To this day, these are the only positions in the department. (Doc. 18-2 at 7.)

         Even after the position of Coordinator of Transportation was created, Plaintiff still reported directly to the Supervisor of Transportation. (Doc. 18-2 at 8.) Plaintiff did not report to the Coordinator. (Doc. 18-2 at 8.)

         With respect to the Coordinator's job duties in 2008, Plaintiff testified that “[t]hey took my duties and created that job description for the Coordinator. So he got some of my duties[, ] . . . [such as] [r]eports, taking care of the bus driver [sic], absences, scheduling. I stopped doing it and gave it to him.” (Doc. 18-2 at 9.) The job description of the Coordinator included responsibility for assisting with scheduling bus routes, for helping bus drivers find substitutes when they couldn't find one, ” and preparing all state reports. (Doc. 18-2 at 9.) Plaintiff was still responsible for assisting with routes. (Doc. 18-2 at 9.)

         Plaintiff saw the job description for Coordinator because she applied for the position in 2008. (Doc. 18-2 at 10-11.) She did not get the job; Kennie Ridgdell did. (Doc. 18-2 at 8, 11.)

         Larry Grant was Supervisor of Transportation and had been since 2003. (Doc. 18-2 at 6- 7, 25.) He said that the position of Coordinator was created because there was too much to do in the Transportation Department, because they wanted to disperse the work, and because they wanted someone at the office at all times. (Doc. 18-2 at 26.) They wanted to take some of Grant's duties and some of Plaintiff's duties and give them to a new person. (Doc. 18-2 at 26- 27.) Grant testified that, though Plaintiff did not get the Coordinator job in 2008, she was capable of doing the job at that time. (Doc. 18-2 at 27.)

         C. The Plaintiff Applies for the Coordinator Position in 2014

         When Ridgdell left the job in 2014, a vacancy was created for the Coordinator position, and the Plaintiff applied again. (Doc. 18-2 at 11, 28.) At the time the job became available, Plaintiff was fifty-nine years old. (Doc. 16-5 at 4.)

         The position was a twelve-month job. (Doc. 18-2 at 20.) Four individuals were interviewed for the Coordinator position: Mr. Aubrey Yates, Ms. Irvin, Mr. Clark Sanchez (a person from ETEL), and Chad Burke (from Associated Grocers). (Doc. 18-2 at 11, 28-29, 43.)

         D. Mr. Yates Was Selected for the Job

         Of the four people interviewed, Mr. Yates was chosen for the job. (Doc. 18-2 at 11, 45.) Yates was born in December of 1963 and was fifty years old at the time he was hired. (Doc. 16-5 at 2; Doc. 18-2 at 39-40.)

         Yates worked in real estate from 1991 until “the crash, ” after which he became a substitute teacher in Ascension Parish, and then he was a paraprofessional at Dutchtown Middle School for four or five years. (Doc. 18-2 at 34-35.) From there, he went to being a truancy interventionist. Yates said that he was trained for the Coordinator position by Mr. Grant, but the “job mainly consists of problem solving, and those skills come naturally as you work.” (Doc. 18-2 at 37.) Yates said that his truancy position prepared him for that “as far as dealing with irate parents, administrators, [and] things of that nature:”

Q: Give me an example of problems you would solve in the truancy department.
A: Okay. You got three drivers at a school with no way to get them home, so you have got to get them home, so you have got to figure out where you got a driver that can make an emergency route there and bring in that driver.
Q: Or ten people calling in sick on the same day?
A: That's correct. You have got to get subs and take care of that. There's a lot of hats to wear in this department.

(Doc. 18-2 at 37.)

         Yates said that, since becoming Coordinator, the Plaintiff helps him with “procedures that go[] on in the department when [he] need[s] something[, ]” but Yates does the “problem solving” on his own. (Doc. 18-2 at 38.) Yates will use the Plaintiff for “specific transportation issues, like what form do we use for this or for a sub or something like that, but as far as policy stuff, ” he relies on Grant or Chad Lynch, the Director of Planning and Construction. (Doc. 18-2 at 12- 13, 38-39, 42.) Yates said his other main duties that he performs regularly are: “Going to accidents, making sure the kids are safe, getting the correct information to report to the insurance company and to Ms. Peraza's office about what happened, taking pictures. Dealing with principals as far as problems at their school or student problems they may have problems with.” (Doc. 18-2 at 40.)

         E. The Hiring Committee, The Interviews, and The Stated Reasons for Selecting Mr. Yates

         Four different people performed all the interviews for the Coordinator position: Denise Graves, Chad Lynch, Larry Grant, and Randy Watts. (Doc. 18-2 at 19.) Denise Graves is the Assistant Superintendent. (Doc. 18-2 at 12.) As stated above, Chad Lynch's title was the Director of Planning and Construction, but he was also director over transportation and maintenance. (Doc. 18-2 at 12-13, 42.) Larry Grant, the Supervisor of Transportation, was on the committee as well. (Doc. 18-2 at 6-7, 25.) He reports to Mr. Lynch. (Doc. 18-2 at 7.) Randy Watts is the Director of Human Resources. (Doc. 18-2 at 17.) Ms. Graves had authority over the other individuals on this hiring committee. (See Doc. 18-2 at 15-16, 19, 23.)

         At the interview, the applicants were given an opportunity to give an opening statement, then the four interviewers asked questions. (Doc. 18-2 at 19.) Mr. Lynch had a list of questions generated and given to the interviewers, which they could ask if they so chose. (Doc. 18-2 at 19.) “The four of us would actively ask the applicant questions based upon their experience and expectations and abilities, and then we would close with them having the opportunity to give a closing statement.” (Doc. 18-2 at 19.) Watts would also give details of the job. (Doc. 18-2 at 19.)

         Yates said he did not recall Denise Graves telling him in the job interview that she would expect him to stay in that job for at least ten years. (Doc. 18-2 at 39.) Similarly, Lynch testified that he did not recall Ms. Graves saying during the interview with Plaintiff that whoever was hired would be expected to work in the job at least ten years or more. (Doc. 18-2 at 43.)

         Graves was asked, “What particular attributes did Mr. Yates bring to the table, if you recall, ” and Graves responded:

His experience, first of all, being a current employee. He worked as a truancy interventionist, so he had good skills in working with the school administrators. We needed that feedback we had gotten over time with the difficult situations that he dealt with, that he had a good rapport with administrators that he spoke to them appropriately.
They were pleased with his handling of documents.
Also, because he was a truancy interventionist, he was very familiar with all of the nooks and crannies of the district, so if we asked him to go drive the Buzzard route, he would know where that would be. He was very familiar with the entire district, which would be a determining factor. And just the people skills he had been demonstrating as a truancy interventionist.

(Doc. 16-5 at 11-12.) Yates' bachelor's degree did not “play into it.” (Doc. 16-5 at 12; see also Doc. 16-5 at 14-15.) Conversely, Ms. Irvin got an interview because: “She worked for Mr. Grant. She worked in the Transportation Department, she had been a longtime, good employee with us.” (Doc. 16-5 at 12.)

         Larry Grant testified that, in his opinion as direct supervisor of the Coordinator job, Irvin “possess[ed] all of the attributes needed in order to assume the position” and was “absolutely” qualified for the job. (Doc. 18-2 at 29.) Grant also testified that he preferred Ms. Irvin for the position:

A: It goes back to my statement earlier, and this is no offense to other applicants, but prior to me getting there, Ms. Irvin was in the chair, so she was basically coordinating and doing secretarial work before any of us got to that department. She had the experience, the professionalism, the organizational skills. I am who I am right now in that department not because I get all of my information from the State Department or some other agency, it came directly from Ms. Irvin. She has been the trainer for myself, and she is the trainer now for any Coordinator that comes into that office.
So with all of that longevity that she has as a Secretary and all of the duties that go along with being a Coordinator, she was doing all of those particulars prior to any of us getting there, so she had that, she possessed those qualities.
Q: Would the title “Secretary” be a misnomer as far as what Ms. Irvin has done over the years in the department?
A; Absolutely.

(Doc. 16-5 at 17.) Grant further testified that, when the Coordinator job came into existence, Plaintiff's duties were shifted and given to Mr. Ridgdell. (Doc. 16-5 at 17-18.) Grant testified:

Q: And so it was-you wanted her to show him how to do what she had previously been doing?
A: Absolutely.
Q: And the same would be true with Mr. Yates?
A: Absolutely.

(Doc. 16-5 at 18.)

         Grant said that Ms. Graves “took the lead for Mr. Yates.” (Doc. 16-5 at 18.) Grant testified that the final decision came about as follows:

Discussions at the table about qualifications and abilities and the what-ifs and all those things, so everybody was throwing their pieces in the pot.
Again, I will say Ms. Graves was in Mr. Yates' corner, and that is no offense to her. I was standing on my convictions, and eventually, we had to make concessions. We were at a stalemate, for lack of a better word. I am a team player. Ms. Graves is over all of us that was at that table, including Mr. Lynch, so eventually we all decided that we will go in the direction of Mr. Yates.

(Doc. 16-5 at 22-23.) Grant was asked if he “basically . . . conceded to Ms. Graves' position, ” and he replied, “Absolutely.” (Doc. 16-5 at 23.) When asked if Grant would speak for her again, he stated:

Unless somebody brings something really outstanding beyond the shadow of a doubt. Again, you know, when you sit at a table to interview people, it is a process. It is yes, this is who I think is a great person based upon what I know about her, and you can say something different about another person. At some point, you have to come together.

(Doc. 18-2 at 32.)

         Grant testified that age was never a consideration in making the decision of who to hire, including Ms. Irvin's age. (Doc. 16-5 at 21.) Grant said that he could not speak for anyone else. (Doc. 16-5 at 22.) However, he did not “recall age being discussed in the general conversation. Like, you are too old or you have got too many - no. That conversation was not had openly at that table.” (Doc. 16-5 at 23.)

         Chad Lynch testified that Ms. Irvin had the following strengths or good ...


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