By Rachel S. Silverman
Ashley Bush, (“Plaintiff”), filed a lawsuit against Frederick County Public Schools (FCPS) (“Defendant”) after being terminated from her head coaching position at Frederick High School (FHS). Plaintiff also filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on December 1, 2020, in which she claimed she was discriminated against based on race and sex and was subject to retaliation. The EEOC issued the Notice of the Charge of Discrimination to the Defendant and the Right to Sue Letter to Plaintiff on February 24, 2021. On May 14, 2021, Plaintiff filed a Complaint alleging discrimination based on race and sex. It included nine counts: Race Discrimination in Violation of Title VII, Sex Discrimination in Violation of Title VII, Breach of Written Employment Agreement, Wrongful Termination, Defamation, Hostile Work Environment as a Result of Race and Sex Discrimination, Violation of Maryland Fair Employment Practices Act, and Retaliation in Violation of Title VII.
By way of background, Plaintiff was hired in 2015 to serve as the head coach of the girls’ basketball team at FHS. This was a temporary, at-will employment position. Plaintiff signed the Assignment-Acknowledgment accepting the job and the Coach Acknowledgment, which states the head coach must comply with the Board of Education policies and FCPS regulations related to employment. Coaching job responsibilities and conduct expectations were clearly stated in the FCPS Athletic Handbook.
After a game in 2018 at another high school, Plaintiff and other members of the FCPS community complained to FCPS about the game environment. They complained that spectators of the opposing team were yelling at the student-athletes and Plaintiff. FCPS Supervisor of Athletics and Extracurricular Activities and FCPS Director of High Schools investigated accusations of racial slurs, gestures, and physical contact between Plaintiff and the opposing head coach. After the investigation and report, FCPS implemented strategies to prevent these issues from occurring again at future basketball games. Some of the plans included meetings, neutral locations for playoff games, cultural proficiency training for coaches, amending the code of standards, reporting, and discipline, written mandatory reporting procedures, requiring the superintendent to attend all coach meetings the following year to explain FCPS expectations of coaches reporting and addressing racial or derogatory slurs, and issued a letter to the spectator that approached Plaintiff after the game explaining that the behavior was inappropriate and banning him from FHS games for the remainder of the season. The principles of both schools addressed the sportsmanship issues with the coaches from both schools. No demotions, suspensions, or wage-related penalties were issued.
The following year, in 2019, at a basketball game at a different school, Plaintiff verbally exchanged with game officials after one of her players was fouled by a player from the opposing team. Plaintiff accused the game officials of being racially biased against her players. A game official complained to FHS about Plaintiff’s behavior at the game. Plaintiff discussed her issues with the FHS Athletic Director, who discussed the problems with the contractor used for game officials. After the contractor responded, the FHS Athletic Director issued a “Letter of Concern” to Plaintiff. However, Plaintiff was not suspended or demoted and did not have any reductions in pay.
Then, Plaintiff and an assistant coach created a Facebook page titled “FGB Power.” FGB stands for Frederick Girls Basketball. Plaintiff made a post sharing a news article from the Frederick News Post that named an FHS player and a player from another school as FCPS “Co-Player of the Year.” FHS administration decided that the post was inappropriate and violated the FCPS social media policy. FHS Athletic Director asked Plaintiff to remove the post on social media. After a few days, the post was still not removed. The athletic director made multiple requests via email, and the post was still not removed. After an email from the principal giving a specific day and time the post must be removed, it was taken down. FHS principal sent Plaintiff a “Letter of Reprimand.” The letter explained why Plaintiff was being suspended from the first game of the 2020 basketball season. Plaintiff had 30 days to appeal her suspension. Plaintiff submitted an Appeal Information Form six months after the Letter of Reprimand was issued. The Superintendent agreed to hear the appeal, but Plaintiff did not attend the hearing. FCPS took no other actions, and Plaintiff did not lose any portion of her stipend. Plaintiff was brought back to coach after the suspension.
Three senior basketball players quit the varsity team in February 2020. On that same day, Plaintiff canceled practice and held a team meeting in a classroom. Plaintiff claimed the meeting was intended for the athletes to speak openly and honestly about their feelings and discuss their concerns about handling issues with the media and community. FHS administration received complaints from players and parents about Plaintiff’s behavior towards students. They described her coaching style as emotionally and mentally abusive. Two other players quit the team shortly after the first three quit. The FHS principal tasked the assistant principals with investigating the complaints about Plaintiff. Following the investigation, the principal and assistant principals decided there was insufficient evidence to constitute abuse. However, they were still concerned about Plaintiff’s professionalism since there were complaints from students and parents.
A few weeks later, the FHS administration became aware of a recording of Plaintiff’s voice circulating on Facebook. The recording included the phrase, “fuck white people.” The administrators met with Plaintiff to determine if it was her voice making the statements on the recording. Plaintiff said it sounded like her, but she did not recall saying the exact words on the recording. After further discussion, Plaintiff did give the context of the statements in the recording. Based on her comments, the principal believed the recording to be her and suspended her pending investigation. After further investigation, the principal, assistant principals, and athletic director met with Plaintiff and her attorney to give her a copy of her termination letter.
Title VII Claims
Defendant argued that Plaintiff’s claims for race and sex discrimination in Counts I, II, VII, VIII, and IX are prohibited by the statute of limitations. The defendants asked the court only to consider allegations related to Plaintiff’s termination. The statute of limitations period is 180 days, and Plaintiff failed to provide any evidence of discriminatory acts that occurred within 180 days of the Charge. Since Plaintiff was terminated on February 18, 2020, Plaintiff only had until August 17, 2020, to file a charge with the EEOC to complain of discrimination. Plaintiff filed her charge with the EEOC on December 14, 2020. If the court had not examined the statute of limitations, Defendant would still have been granted summary judgment because Plaintiff failed to provide evidence of a hostile work environment or that she was fired due to discrimination. Therefore, the motion for summary judgment was granted for Counts I, II, VII, VII, and IX.
Breach of Written Employment Agreement
Defendant argued it was entitled to summary judgment for Count III because Plaintiff’s breach of contract claim was inaccurate. Plaintiff was an at-will employee. Nowhere in any of the contracts does it state that the at-will relationship would convert to an implied contract for continued employment. The court agreed that Plaintiff is an at-will employee as stated in the Assignment-Acknowledgments Plaintiff signed and, therefore, could be terminated at any time. The court granted summary judgment for Count III, the breach of contract claim.
Plaintiff claimed she was wrongfully terminated based on race and sex discrimination. Since no discrimination was found in the Title VII claims, summary judgment was granted for Count IV.
Violation of Maryland’s Wiretap Statute
Defendant argued it was entitled to summary judgment on Plaintiff’s wiretap claim because Plaintiff maintained it was not her on the recording, the recording was not part of a private conversation, and Defendant lawfully accessed the recording after it was published on Facebook. Summary judgment was granted for Count V, violating Maryland’s wiretap statute.
Defendant argued Plaintiff’s defamation claim was barred by the statute of limitations. In Maryland, the action for assault, libel, or slander must be filed within one year from the date it occurred. Since the defamation claim occurred between February 14 and February 18, 2020, and Plaintiff did not assert her claim until May 14, 2021, the claim is time-barred. Summary judgment was granted for Defendant.
The court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants, Frederick County Public Schools, for all nine counts.
Bush v. Frederick Cnty. Pub. Sch., 2023 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 6641