Judge Grants Summary Judgement in Case Involving Racial Discrimination, Harassment, and Retaliation Claims Made by High School Coach — Part 1

Nov 5, 2021

By Rachel S. Silverman, MS

Mark Johnson, a high school basketball coach and physical education teacher, claimed that he was forced to resign from the South Bend Community School Corporation (SBCSC) due to racial discrimination, harassment, and retaliation from the parents and employees of the school. He insisted that because he was white, the black parents and employees interfered with and criticized his coaching and that the school ignored his reports of racial harassment. The principal, Francois Bayingana, who is black, received complaints from parents about Johnson’s negative coaching style and favoritism towards certain students. The criticisms were not received well by Johnson, and he complained to Principal Bayingana that he was “sick and tired” of the parents. He felt that the parents of a black player, Derrick Sr. and Leslie Wesley, were “badmouthing” him on Facebook. Despite their disagreements with the coach, the Wesleys made donations and volunteered their time to assist the team. The Wesleys and Johnson had multiple disagreements about the basketball team, coaching, team events, and parent involvement during the years that Derrick Wesley Jr. was on the team.

There was only one formal human resources complaint filed by Johnson in November 2016. He filed a complaint about Principal Bayingana directing him to keep a certain player on the team and about Leslie Wesley, but no further action was taken. There were numerous emails exchanged between Johnson, the Wesleys, Principal Bayingana, and other school employees, but only one email mentioned race. Charan Richards, the guidance director and sister of Leslie Wesley, emailed Johnson “[Y]ou have done African American males (team players) wrong,” and Johnson used this email as evidence for his case of racial harassment.

When Johnson retired in March of 2017 after the basketball season concluded, he was replaced by another white male coach. When media outlets interviewed Johnson about his retirement, he leaked unredacted SBCSC emails to the media. Johnson admitted to leaking the emails to the South Bend Tribune, and he was not allowed to teach summer school after that, but the school still paid him his summer school salary. Johnson alleged that Leslie Wesley accused him of “hidden racism” in a comment on the Tribune’s Facebook page, but Wesley claimed the “hidden racism” comment was aimed at the Tribune and not Johnson directly.

Summary judgment is a decision made by a judge based on the evidence without going to trial. The purpose of summary judgment is to avoid unnecessary trials. Summary judgment is granted when there is no conflict in the evidence and the judge decides that there is not enough evidence to show a genuine issue for a trial. In the Johnson case, the judge granted summary judgment due to a lack of evidence.

Race Discrimination

Title VII prohibits employers from racial discrimination. The court must decide whether Johnson would have kept his job were he not white and everything else in the situation had been the same. Johnson failed to provide enough evidence that SBCSC discriminated against him based on race. Additionally, there was no record of SBCSC discriminating against other white employees. Even though Johnson described how the comments from Leslie Wesley and Charan Richards made him feel, the only actual evidence presented related to race was one email from Richards and a Facebook comment from Wesley. Both pieces of evidence do not have to do with Johnson’s race, but instead deal with concerns over Johnson’s treatment of black athletes. The actions and comments from Wesley and Richards did not have any impact on Johnson’s employment. Johnson’s subjective interpretation of the events were not sufficient evidence for a racial discrimination claim.

Johnson’s claims made against Principal Bayingana were also found to not have any evidence to support a racial discrimination claim. The principal may have inappropriately meddled by voicing his opinion on the team rosters, but it was not based on Johnson’s race. Johnson voluntarily retired in March 2017, even though he claims that he was forced to due to the hostile work environment. The principal encouraged Johnson to reconsider retirement and continue to coach and teach, which showed he was not forced to retire. After retiring from coaching, Johnson was supposed to teach summer school, but the school chose not to allow him to teach summer school, because he leaked internal emails to the Tribune, which is against school policy. However, Johnson was still paid his full summer school salary. Johnson was not allowed to teach summer school due to his own mistakes, not due to racial discrimination by the principal or school employees. After Johnson retired, he was replaced by another white male coach and there was no evidence that the school has treated Johnson or any employees with racial discrimination.

Racial Harassment

Johnson claimed that SBCSC was a hostile work environment due to Principal Bayingana, Leslie Wesley, and Charan Richards. Racial harassment is an independent Title VII claim, but there was not enough evidence to support Johnson’s claim that the hostile work environment was due to race. The evidence he provided from emails by Richards, Wesley’s involvement with the basketball team events, and Principal Bayingana’s influence on the team’s roster did not show any harassment based on race. The evidence showed that there were concerns about Johnson’s coaching style, especially towards black athletes, but there was no evidence of a hostile work environment due to Johnson’s race.

Retaliation

Johnson claimed that the SBCSC retaliated against him for his complaints about reverse racial discrimination. His claim was based on the SBCSC not allowing him to teach summer school after his retirement. However as seen above, SBCSC did not allow him to teach summer school due to his wrongdoing in leaking internal emails. SBCSC still paid him his summer school salary, even though he did not teach. There was no connection between Johnson not being allowed to teach summer school and his complains about racial discrimination. Johnson even admitted the superintendent that he leaked the emails to the Tribune, which violated SBCSC’s policies. The adverse action that Johnson claimed was due to his violation of SBCSC’s policies and not due to racial discrimination.

Conclusion

South Bend Community Schools Corporation’s motion for summary judgment was granted on all three claims (racial discrimination, racial harassment, and retaliation) and the case was closed on May 6, 2021 by Philip P. Simon, judge for the United States District Court.

References

Johnson v. S. Bend Cmty. Sch. Corp. 2021 WL 1812721(not reported in Fed. Supp.)

Rachel Silverman is a Sport Management doctoral student at Troy University. She has her master’s degree in Kinesiology and Sport Management from the University of South Dakota and her bachelor’s degree in Studio Art and Art History with a minor in Journalism from Brandeis University. She is an adjunct faculty member in the Physical Education Department at Fullerton College in Fullerton, California. Her research interests are sport law and risk management in sport and recreation. She lives in Anaheim, CA.

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