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Ferrill v. Oak Creek-Franklin Joint School District

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

June 19, 2017

Pamela D. Ferrill, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
Oak Creek-Franklin Joint School District and Oak Creek-Franklin Joint School District Board of Education, Defendants-Appellees.

          Argued June 2, 2016

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin. No. 13-cv-0858 - Lynn Adelman, Judge.

          Before POSNER and Sykes, Circuit Judges, and Yandle, District Judge[*]

          Sykes, Circuit Judge.

         Pamela Ferrill was hired as the principal of Edgewood Elementary School in the Oak Creek-Franklin Joint School District for an initial two-year term with an automatic third-year rollover unless the Board of Education opted out. Ferrill is black; the school district serves two predominantly white suburbs on the southern edge of Milwaukee County. During her tenure as principal, the Edgewood staff had exceedingly low morale, and Ferrill was plagued with multiple performance complaints. Staff described her as confrontational, inconsistent in her treatment of her subordinates, and quick to accuse others of racism. The superintendent of schools hired a consultant to help improve Ferrill's performance, but that effort failed and the consultant bluntly recommended that Ferrill be removed.

         When the time came to review the rollover of Ferrill's contract, the superindent recommended that the Board opt out. The Board accepted that recommendation. Ferrill found a new job, which the Board treated as a functional resignation of her position. She then sued the Board alleging claims of racial discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 42 U.S.C. § 1981, and retaliation in violation of her rights under Title VII and the First Amendment. The district judge granted summary judgment for the Board on some of these claims. Other claims were tried to a jury, which found for the Board after less than a half-hour of deliberation.

         Ferrill concentrates her appeal on the judge's summary-judgment ruling rejecting her discrimination and retaliation claims related to the Board's decision to opt out of the third-year contract rollover. The judge's ruling was sound. Ferrill's shortcomings as Edgewood's principal were well documented and confirmed by an independent consultant, so she has not shown that she was meeting the Board's legitimate performance expectations and thus has not established a prima facie case of discrimination. The retaliation claim fails for lack of evidence connecting the Board's decision to activity protected by Title VII.

         I. Background

         Edgewood Elementary School serves students in grades K-5 in the Oak Creek-Franklin Joint School District. In July 2008 Dr. Sara Burmeister, the district superintendent, hired Ferrill as Edgewood's principal for an initial term of two years. The contract contained an automatic rollover for an additional year unless the Board of Education opted out before January 31, 2010.

         Ferrill's tenure as principal was turbulent. Edgewood was consistently plagued with low morale, the responsibility for which Ferrill attributes to others. Because we're reviewing a summary-judgment ruling, we describe the key events drawing reasonable inferences in Ferrill's favor.

         In her first few months on the job, Ferrill learned that some of Edgewood's students-and even some parents- were referring to the bus that served a low-income neighborhood as the "ghetto bus." She also learned that some white students were calling black students derogatory names. Ferrill addressed these problems at an October staff meeting and urged the teachers to be proactive about addressing racial issues with their students.

         In early November two fifth-grade students, one of whom is black, started spreading a false story that certain teachers were having sex in the faculty lounge. Ferrill reprimanded the students, spoke with their parents, and then discussed the matter with the two teachers at the center of the rumormongering. The black student had confided to Ferrill that he was afraid his misbehavior would mean he would no longer be called on in class. When Ferrill brought this concern to the attention of one of the wrongly accused teachers, the teacher interpreted her comment as an unwarranted accusation of racism.

         Later that same month, Dr. Burmeister met with Ferrill to discuss the issues we've just recounted and also to address the rapidly deteriorating morale at the school and numerous complaints from teachers about Ferrill's management style. In brief, Ferrill was described as confrontational, inconsistent in her treatment of the staff, and quick to suggest that others were either racist or culturally insensitive. Teachers lodged similar complaints about Ferrill with Katie Kelso, the teacher's union representative, and in December she too spoke with Ferrill about the growing problems stemming from her discordant leadership style.

         An incident in January 2009 continued this trend. A black student accused a teacher of hitting her, and the school district launched an investigation into the incident. Although the matter was being handled at the district level, Ferrill conducted her own independent investigation, which upset the teachers and staff, who thought that Ferrill was conducting her own investigation only because the student was ...


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