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Johnson v. South Bend Community School Corp.

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division

May 22, 2018

MARK JOHNSON, Plaintiff,
v.
SOUTH BEND COMMUNITY SCHOOL CORPORATION, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          PHILIP P. SIMON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Mark Johnson, a Caucasian teacher and basketball coach at South Bend Riley High School, brings three claims against his former employer, the South Bend Community School Corporation, based upon allegations that African American employees interfered with and criticized his coaching because of his race, and the school failed to respond to his reports of racial harassment. There are two federal claims: Count I is a race discrimination disparate treatment claim and Count II is a claim that Johnson was retaliated against for complaining about the discrimination. There is also a state law claim alleged in Count III of the Amended Complaint. That claim is for negligent failure to supervise and failure to train employees against committing racial discrimination. SBCSC seeks dismissal of the Amended Complaint on the grounds that it fails to state a claim. [DE 20.] For the reasons detailed below, the motion will be DENIED as to Count I (race discrimination) and Count II (retaliation) because the Amended Complaint states plausible claims for relief on these claims. The Motion will be GRANTED as to Count III (negligent failure to supervise) because this count fails to state a claim. But Johnson will be granted leave to re-file and cure the pleading deficiencies.

         Factual Background

         Let's start with the facts as they are alleged in the Amended Complaint which I accept as true for present purposes. Johnson was a teacher and boys' basketball coach at South Bend Riley High School for 15 years. [Am. Compl. ¶¶ 11, 14.] Prior to the start of the 2016-2017 basketball season, Principal Francois Bayingana (who is African American) did something unusual; he directed Johnson to keep a certain number of players on the boys' basketball teams. [Id. at ¶¶ 18, 20.] Leslie Wesley is an African American member of the school board, and Johnson was also specifically instructed by Principal Bayingana to keep Wesley's son on the varsity basketball team. [Id. at ¶¶ 16, 21.] Against his own wishes, Johnson complied with the instructions. [Id. at ¶ 24.] This was new to Johnson; he had never before been told that he had to keep a certain amount of players or a specific player on his teams. [Id. at ¶ 22.] South Bend Community School Corporation has four high schools (Adams, Clay, Riley and Washington), and Johnson is not aware of any other basketball coach in SBCSC that received similar directions. [Id. at ¶ 23.]

         During the season, Ms. Wesley, the School Board member, tried to interfere with Johnson's coaching authority. For example, she made negative comments about him in the community and complained to the Indiana High School Athletic Association about Johnson's qualifications. [Id. at ¶¶ 25-26.] In addition, Johnson claims that Wesley went public with the complaints about him and his coaching. In particular, she went on Facebook and publicly accused him of hidden racism. [Id. at ¶ 27.]

         Wesley wasn't the only one harassing Johnson. As luck would have it, Wesley's sister, Charan Richards, is the head guidance counselor at South Bend Riley. According to Johnson, in the midst of the basketball season, Richards started to do Wesley's bidding. On February 12, 2017, Richards sent an email to Johnson, carbon copying Principal Bayingana and the athletic director, saying “Mark, from [South Bend] LaSalle to [South Bend] Riley you have done African American males (team players) wrong” and “I'm on to you Mark . . . .” [Id. at ¶ 28.] The message even had the whiff of a threat to it; Richards told Johnson that “I am watching you this year . . . .” Id.

         According to Johnson, throughout the school year, he sought guidance and help from his superiors in dealing with the alleged harassment. [Id. at ¶ 29.] For example, on the day he received the email described above, he immediately reported the harassment to Principal Bayingana and the South Bend Riley athletic director telling them that he believed Richards' and Wesley's actions constituted harassment. [Id. at ¶30.] Pursuant to the SBCSC Anti-Harassment policy, Johnson asked for a meeting with his building administrator - Principal Bayingana - to discuss his complaints of unlawful harassment. [Id.] However, for reasons that are unclear, the Principal did not meet with Johnson. [Id. at ¶ 31.] Dr. Kenneth Spells, the Superintendent for the SBCSC, also knew of Johnson's complaints but failed to investigate the harassment allegations. [Id. at ¶ 33.] Johnson alleges that SBCSC failed to follow its own Anti-Harassment policies. [Id. at ¶ 34.]

         After Bayingana and Dr. Spells failed to investigate his harassment complaints, Johnson “did not believe he had the support of his administration and he did not believe he could remain an effective teacher and coach since he is a Caucasian male in a school with a large minority student, teacher, and administrative population.” [Id. at ¶ 36.] So Johnson retired from his teaching and coaching position. [Id. at ¶ 35.]

         Post retirement, Johnson agreed to teach summer school during the summer of 2017 at SBCSC. [Id. at ¶ 37.] However, following the June 5, 2017 school board meeting, Johnson was the only teacher not approved for summer school. [Id. at ¶ 38.] Johnson alleges he was singled out and not hired to teach summer school because he publicly complained about the harassment. [Id. at ¶ 39.] His allegations received media attention by various South Bend media outlets, including TV stations and the South Bend Tribune. [Id. at ¶ 40.]

         As noted above, the Amended Complaint asserts three claims against SBCSC: Count I is for race discrimination in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et. seq. based upon a hostile work environment which Johnson says led to his constructive discharge; Count II is for retaliation based upon Johnson not getting hired to teach summer school after he complained of racial harassment in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et. seq.; and Count III is for negligent failure to supervise and train in violation of Indiana state law.

         Discussion

         SBCSC has moved to dismiss the Amended Complaint in its entirety under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). In order to survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted); accord Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). While I must accept all factual allegations as true and draw all reasonable inferences in the complainant's favor, I don't need to accept threadbare legal conclusions supported by purely conclusory statements. See Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. Johnson must allege “more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. Making the plausibility determination is “a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679.

         Count I - Race Discrimination

         To survive a motion to dismiss a claim for race discrimination, Johnson “need only aver that the employer instituted a (specified) adverse employment action against [him] on the basis of [his race].” Tamayo v. Blagojevich, 526 F.3d 1074, 1084 (2008). Because Johnson is not a racial minority, in a case of reverse discrimination like this one, he ultimately bears the burden of showing that SBCSC had a reason or inclination to discriminate against white men or that there is something fishy about the facts at hand. ...


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