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Howard v. St. John The Baptist Public School District

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

November 7, 2018


         SECTION “E” (3)



         On October 17, 2018, the Motion for Summary Judgment Pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure [Doc. #24] came on for oral hearing before the undersigned. Present were Clarence Roby on behalf of plaintiff and Kevin Klibert on behalf of defendants. After the oral hearing, the Court took the motion under advisement. Because the parties had scheduled the deposition of Page Eschette - a crucial eyewitness as will be outlined below - on October 23, 2018, the Court ordered plaintiff to file a supplemental memorandum after Eschette's deposition. The Court also allowed defendants to renew any summary judgment motion after the deposition. The parties have now done so, and defendant's Amended Motion for Summary Judgment Pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure [Doc. #32] is also now before the Court. Having reviewed the pleadings and the case law, the Court rules as follows.

         I. Background

         The St. John the Baptist School Board (“defendant” or “the School Board”) hired plaintiff Joann Howard, an African-American female, in November of 2007 as a second grade teacher. [Doc. #24-4 at pp. 8, 15]. Immediately before she returned to Louisiana, plaintiff was employed by the Department of Defense as a victims' advocate, working with military families, victims of sexual assault, and domestic violence. [Id. at pp. 12-13].

         On or about July 23, 2014, plaintiff provided the School Board with a physician's statement that diagnosed her with “major depressive illness and anxiety disorders.” [Doc. #24-5]. As a result of this diagnosis, her treating physician opined that “she is incapacitated by stress and depression” and was thus unable to perform the duties of her profession for 180 days. [Id.]. On July 28, 2014, after receiving plaintiff's request for leave, Page Eschette, defendant in her official capacity and the Director of Human Resources at the time, advised plaintiff that under the School Board's sick leave policy, employees could be required to obtain a second medical opinion with a doctor of the School Board's choice. [Doc. #24-6]. Pursuant to that authority, the School Board asked plaintiff to make an appointment with Dr. Jose Cusco. [Id.]. Plaintiff maintains that requiring her to undergo this second medical opinion was the first instance of racial discrimination against her by the School Board. [Doc. #24-4 at p. 18].

         Cusco examined plaintiff and found that she was “unable to function as a teacher due to emotional/ability” and recommended that she undergo a “formal psychiatric exam prior to resum[ing] teaching duties.” [Doc. #24-7]. As a result of Cusco's medical opinion, Page Eschette, on behalf of Superintendent Kevin George, approved plaintiff's medical sabbatical leave for the Fall 2014 semester. [Doc. #24-8]. Included in the approval was a statement of School Board's policy that “any employee taking sabbatical leave who fails to return to service in this School District upon expiration of the leave as specified above for any reason other than incapacitating illness as certified by two physicians, shall forfeit all salary compensation received during the leave period.” [Id.].

         On December 1, 2014, the School Board extended plaintiff's medical sabbatical to the Spring 2015 semester, and it mailed her another letter in which it detailed the School Board medical sabbatical policy and asked that she follow Cusco's recommendation with respect to obtaining a psychiatric examination prior to returning to work. [Doc. #24-9]. On May 20, 2015, the School Board sent via certified mail an intent to return to work form, which she received the same day. [Doc. #24-10]. Plaintiff testified at her deposition that she did not undergo a psychiatric examination as Cusco suggested at any time between August 2014 and July 2015, nor did she ask her treating physician for a referral for a psychiatrist. [Doc. #24-4 at pp. 40, 42, 45]. Plaintiff also testified at her deposition that it was her belief that she was required to obtain a psychiatric evaluation by Cusco, though no such condition is contained in Cusco's August 12, 2014 recommendation. [Doc. #24-7].

         On June 17, 2015, plaintiff sent an email to the Louisiana Department of Education Accountability Commission Members that she signed “Joann Howard, (Teacher leaving the profession).” [Doc. #24-11; see also Doc. #24-4 at p. 57]. After hearing nothing from plaintiff, including neither her intent to return by filling out the appropriate form nor a psychiatric evaluation medically clearing her to return to duty, the principal at the school to which she was assigned sent her an email asking about her intent to return to work, to which no response was received. [Doc. #24-12]. After plaintiff ultimately failed to report to work or otherwise respond to requests for information, the School Board terminated her pursuant to School Board policy that allows for termination when an employee is absent for ten (10) days without communicating with the School Board. [Doc. #24-13].

         Plaintiff then sued defendants under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title I of the Civil Rights Act of 1991, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).

         II. Law and Analysis

         A. Summary Judgment Standard

         Summary judgment is appropriate when “the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986) (citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)); Little v. Liquid Air Corp., 37 F.3d 1069, 1075 (5th Cir. 1994). When assessing whether a dispute as to any material fact exists, the Court considers “all of the evidence in the record but refrains from making credibility determinations or weighing the evidence.” Delta & Pine Land Co. v. Nationwide Agribusiness Ins. Co., 530 F.3d 395, 398 (5th Cir. 2008).

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c), the moving party bears the initial burden of “informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of [the record] which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. When the moving party has met its Rule 56(c) burden, “[t]he non-movant cannot avoid summary judgment . . . by merely making ‘conclusory allegations' or ‘unsubstantiated assertions.'” Calbillo v. Cavender Oldsmobile, Inc., 288 F.3d 721, 725 (5th Cir. 2002) (quoting Little, 37 F.3d at 1075). “The mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the plaintiff's position will be insufficient; there must be evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the plaintiff.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 253 (1986). All reasonable inferences are drawn in favor of the nonmoving party, but a party cannot defeat summary judgment with conclusory allegations or unsubstantiated assertions. Little, 37 F.3d at 1075. A court ultimately must be satisfied that “a reasonable jury could not return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Delta, 530 F.3d at 399.

         B. The Motion for Summary Judgment

         In McDonnell Douglas Corp., the Supreme Court of the United States “established an allocation of the burden of production and an order for the presentation of proof in Title VII discriminatory-treatment cases.” St. Mary's Honor Ctr. v. Hicks, 509 U.S. 502, 506 (1993). Under this evidentiary framework, the plaintiff must first establish a prima facie case of discrimination. Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Products, Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 142 (2000).

         To establish a prima facie case of discrimination under Title VII, a plaintiff must show by a preponderance of the evidence that she: (1) is a member of a protected class; (2) was qualified for her position; (3) suffered an adverse employment action; and (4) was treated less favorably than a similarly situated employee who was not a member of her protected class. Montgomery-Smith v. Louisiana Dep't of Health & Hosps., No. Civ. A. 08-4737, 2011 WL 3653533, at *3 (E.D. La. Aug. 18, 2011) (citing McDonnell Douglas, 411 U.S. 792, 801 (1973)). And to establish a prima facie case of retaliation under Title VII, a plaintiff must show that: (1) she engaged in a protected activity; (2) she suffered an adverse employment action; and (3) a causal link existed between the protected activity and the adverse action. Aryain v. Wal-Mart ...

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