The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed the ruling of a lower court and found that a school district articulated legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for not hiring a female plaintiff for one of its head football coach positions.
By way of background, the court noted that Sue Ann Easterling received a Bachelor of Science in Health and Physical Education from the University of Southern Mississippi, graduating with highest honors. In 2013, she received an M.S. in Secondary Education with a concentration in Athletic Administration and Coaching. She has completed 150 training courses on matters ranging from sports injury to motivation tactics. She is also state-certified to teach physical education. Despite these credentials, Easterling has unsuccessfully sought teaching and coaching positions within the Tensas Parish School Board (TPSB) since 2006.
Over the last decade, Easterling has coached high-school-aged children in gymnastics, softball, basketball, volleyball, and track and field, according to the court. However, she has no experience coaching school-sponsored athletic teams and no experience coaching football at any level.
In 2010, shortly before the football season began, Tensas High School’s head football coach resigned with little or no notice. The principal recommended that Rex McCarthy, an existing employee in the district, be appointed interim head football coach. After the season, Superintendent Carol Johnson opened up the position to other candidates.
Easterling applied, but was not interviewed. Johnson sought Brad Bradshaw, a successful football coach in a neighboring parish, as the permanent coach. But after applying, he withdrew his application. “Tensas hired McCarthy in an effort to promote continuity and save money,” Johnson said in a deposition. McCarthy was hired even though he was not a certified teacher. He ultimately resigned during the 2012-13 school year. Easterling did not reapply for the position, but she asked that her application remain active. However, at the time of the 2012-13 vacancy, Tensas sought an applicant who could serve as a head coach, athletic director, and math teacher. Tensas hired Noah Johnson, a certified math teacher who had previously coached football within Tensas Parish, thereby meeting the requirements of the position.
Tensas also had a vacancy for an “adapted physical education” instructor for the 2012-13 school year. Again, however, Tensas did not interview Easterling despite a previous assurance from Johnson that she would be interviewed for the next available certified teacher position.
Plaintiff Alleges Violations of Title VII
This led to Easterling filing a charge of discrimination and retaliation with the EEOC based on alleged violations of Title VII. Tensas told the EEOC that it did not hire Easterling for the open positions because it would cost more to bring her on as a new employee than to promote from within. The EEOC found no evidence of discrimination or retaliation.
On Feb. 28, 2014, Easterling filed a lawsuit, claiming that Tensas discriminated against her because of her gender and retaliated against her for engaging in protected activity. Specifically, she claimed the district violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq. and Louisiana state law. On May 11, 2015, Tensas moved for summary judgment.
In considering the arguments, the district court considered the burden-shifting framework established in McDonnell Douglas Corp v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802-04, 93 S. Ct. 1817, 36 L. Ed. 2d 668 (1973). Under that framework, the plaintiff must first create a presumption of discrimination by making out a prima facie case. The burden then shifts to the defendant to produce evidence that the decision was made for “a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason.” Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 142, 120 S. Ct. 2097, 147 L. Ed. 2d 105. Then the plaintiff must show that the defendant’s rationale was mere pretext.
“The district court ruled that Easterling’s evidence established a prima facie case of sex discrimination, but that TPSB had proffered legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for declining to hire her, and Easterling could not establish a genuine issue of material fact whether each of those reasons was pretextual or that her sex was a motivating factor,” wrote the appeals court.
Sue Ann Easterling v. Tensas Parish School Board; 5th Cir.; No. 16-30532, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 4949; 3/20/17
Attorneys of Record: (for plaintiff) Gregory J. Miller, Miller, Hampton, & Hilgendorf, Baton Rouge, LA. (for defendant) Jon Keith Guice, Linda K Ewbank, Hammonds Sills et al, Monroe, LA.