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Weinerth v. Martinsville City School Board

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Danville Division

May 20, 2019



          Hon. Michael F. Urbanski Chief United States District Judge

         In this employment action, plaintiff Angela L. G. Weinerth ("Weinerth") claims that she was removed from her position as principal of Martinsville High School and reassigned as assistant principal at Martinsville Middle School because of her race, sex, and age, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), 42 U.S.C. § 2OOOe et secu, and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 ("ADEA"), 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seg. Currently pending before the court is the Martinsville City School Board's ("School Board") motion for summary judgment. In that motion, the School Board presents substantial evidence that Weinerth was reassigned from the high school to the middle school for legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons. The matter has been fully briefed, and the court heard oral argument on March 11, 2019. After review of the entire record, the court concludes that, in the face of the evidence of nondiscriminatory motives adduced by the School Board, Weinerth has wholly failed to present evidence sufficient to establish a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the School Board's asserted reasons for reassigning Weinerth were a pretext for unlawful discrimination. As such, the School Board's summary judgment motion is GRANTED and this case dismissed.


         The following facts taken from the summary, judgment record are either undisputed or presented in the light most favorable to Weinerth, the nonmoving party. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby. Inc. 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986).

         Weinerth is a white female over the age of 60. Weinerth Decl. ¶ 3, ECF No. 102-1. She has over 40 years of experience as a teacher and administrator in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Id. at ¶ 6. Weinerth has worked for the Martinsville City Public Schools ("School System") since 2005, when she was hired to teach in the scholars' program at Martinsville Middle School. Id. at ¶ 7.

         In 2012, Weinerth was appointed to the position of assistant principal at Martinsville High School. Id. at ¶ 8. At that time, Pamela Heath ("Heath") was the superintendent of the School System and Ajamu Dixon ("Dixon") was the principal of the high school. Ld at ¶¶ 8, 9. Dixon, a black male under the age of 40, had served as principal since 2011. Id. at ¶¶ 4, 9.

         According to Weinerth's allegations, at the time she started at the high school, the students there were falling behind academically and scoring poorly on the state's Standards of Learning ("SOL") tests. Id. at¶ 10. On more than one occasion, Weinerth voiced concerns to Dixon regarding the students' declining academic performance. Id. at ¶ 11. Dixon did not respond favorably to Weinerth's suggestions and instructed her to "back off." Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). The high school ultimately lost its full-accreditation rating from the state.

         At the conclusion of 2012-2013 school year, Heath completed a "Principal Summative Performance Report" for Dixon, in which she rated Dixon's performance as "Unacceptable" in the following six categories: instructional leadership, school climate, human resources management, organizational management, professionalism, and student academic progress. Pl.'s Ex. D, ECF No. 102-4, at 3-10. Heath noted, among other deficiencies, that Dixon demonstrated "[e]xtreme inconsistencies in modeling mutual respect, concern, and empathy for students, parents, and staff; that he did "not inspire an environment of trust"; that he was "inconsistent in addressing student and staff discipline"; and that he did not adequately "planQ for increased student academic progress." RL at 4, 9. Heath recommended that the School Board not renew Dixon's contract for the position of principal. Id. at 10.[1]

         The record indicates that the School Board followed Heath's recommendation. By letter dated June 11, 2013, Heath advised Dixon that his contract for the principal position would not be renewed by the School Board for the 2013-2014 school year. Id. at 2. He was subsequently reassigned to an administrative position within the School System's central office. Weinerth Decl. ¶ 15.

         With the approval of the School Board, Heath promoted Weinerth to the position of principal for the 2013-2014 school year. Heath Decl. ¶ 8, ECF No. 102-2. Weinerth faced several challenges upon assuming her new position, including more rigorous SOL benchmarks imposed by the state, severe budget cuts, and disciplinary problems. Weinerth Decl. ¶ 17; Heath Decl. ¶ 11. Weinerth maintains that she made it her "mission" to address each of these challenges. Weinerth Decl. ¶ 18.

         Weinerth ultimately served as principal of the high school for three years. At the conclusion of the 2015-2016 school year, Heath commended Weinerth's "efforts and advancements in improving the school," and "congratulated her on achieving continuing contract status as a principal as of June 15, 2016."[2] Heath Decl. ¶ 27.

         It is undisputed that standardized test scores improved during Weinerth's tenure as principal. However, the parties disagree as to whether Weinerth effectively addressed the school's disciplinary problems. Although Heath's declaration indicates that "student behavior improve [d]" during Weinerth's tenure as principal, Heath Dec. ¶ 24, the affidavits presented by the School Board paint a very different picture. See, e.g., Aff. of Karen Sawyer, ECF No. 100-9, at 1 (describing students as "rowdy and somewhat out of control" during Weinerth's tenure as principal); Aff. of Gerald Kidd, ECF No. 100-12, at 1 (emphasizing that "[t]here were at least 46 reported fights between students during Mrs. Weinerth's first year as principal," and that "[s]tudents were frequently not in class, skipped their classes completely, or left school early").

         Heath suddenly retired from the School System on July 14, 2016. Weinerth Decl. ¶ 25. Two days later, on July 16, 2016, Dr. Zebedee Talley, Jr. ("Talley"), a black male, was named interim superintendent. Talley had served as principal of Patrick Henry Elementary School ("Patrick Henry") in the City of Martinsville since July 1, 2012. Id. At the time of Talley's promotion to Superintendent in July 2016, none of the schools in the School System were fully accredited by die state. Id.

         On July 23, 2016, the local newspaper published an article tided, "School board wants a more diverse staff." Pl.'s Ex. C, ECF No. 102-3, at 2. After noting that more than 70 percent of the School System's staff members were white, the article reported that "the superintendent and the school board . . . believe a more diverse staff could "improve the district's performance." Id. at 4. Talley was quoted as saying that "'[m]inority students do better and do well when they have people in authority who look like them, "' and that '"it's good to have a classroom and a school that represents the demographics of our [area].'" Id. (alteration in original). The article attributed similar comments to School Board member Victor Correa ("Correa"): .

"I think this community has a very large Africa [n] American community, and there has been a large request from parents for more African American teachers. In order for the students to have a more comfortable learning environment, I think it's important to the students to have a teacher that looks like them, Correa said. It's not just a Martinsville thing, it's a nationwide issue."
Specifically, Correa said he'd like to see more black male teachers in the district, hoping they can serve as positive role models for students in their classes.

Id. at 5. At the time the statements were made, "the majority of the Martinsville High School student population was black and male." Weinerth Decl. ¶ 29.[3]

         The day before the article was published, Talley called Weinerth while she was on vacation and inquired as to how many black teachers were employed at the high school.[4] Id. at ¶ 32. Weinerth informed Talley that she "was out of town, on vacation, and did not know the answer to his question, off the top of [her] head." Id. Weinerth also advised Talley that "performance was [her] top consideration" and that she did not recommend hiring teachers based on race or sex. Id. at ¶ 33. Talley asked Weinerth to count the number of teachers by race and report back to him with the information. Id. Weinerth did as she was instructed. Id.

         A few days later, on July 26, 2016, Talley met with Weinerth and advised her that he was demoting her to the position of assistant principal at Martinsville Middle School.[5] Id. at ¶ 34. When Weinerth asked why she was being demoted, Talley allegedly "stated 'the community has spoken"' and "refused to elaborate." Id. ¶ at 36. At the time of the decision, Talley had not visited the high school during the school day or "discussed any aspect of [the high school's] operations or performance" with Weinerth. Id. at ¶ 39.

         Talley maintains that his decision to remove Weinerth from the position of principal was motivated by "issues of safety and discipline at the high school." Talley Aff. at 3. In his affidavit, Talley acknowledges that the high school experienced "some academic progress" under Weinerth's leadership. Id. However, Talley emphasizes that "other concerns about the environment for learning ... overshadowed [Weinerth's] achievements." Id. In particular, Talley indicates that resource officers at the high school, as well as parents of high school students, "had expressed concerns about ...

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