The Eleventh Circuit Rejects Head Football Coach’s Claim of Racial Discrimination

In Flowers v. Troup County School District, No. 14–11498, 2015 WL 6081186 (11 Cir. Oct. 16, 2015), the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia’s grant of summary judgment for the defendants, rejecting the plaintiff’s claims of discrimination. The plaintiff, the first African-American head football coach in Troup County since desegregation, filed suit alleging that the defendants, the Troup County School District and various school officials, terminated him based on his race in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e–2000e-17 (2012), the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981, 1983 (2012).

The plaintiff brought suit alleging that he was discriminated against when terminated as Troup High School’s head football coach based on his race. In contrast, the defendants contended the plaintiff was terminated because the plaintiff had allegedly committed recruiting violations. The district court referred the case to a magistrate judge, who concluded that the plaintiff failed to prove that the defendants’ reason for termination was pretext for racial discrimination. In agreement with the judge, the district court granted summary judgment for the defendants. The plaintiff appealed.

On review, the Eleventh Circuit first found that the School Board member-defendants had qualified immunity from the plaintiff’s claims. Addressing the remaining defendants, the issue before the court was whether the plaintiff had met his burden of producing enough evidence of pretext for racial discrimination. Addressing this issue de novo, the court analyzed the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework because direct evidence of unlawful discrimination was not produced by the plaintiff to satisfy Title VII. McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973). To establish discrimination under this framework, a plaintiff must first make a prima facie case by showing that the plaintiff belongs to a protected racial class, qualified for the employment position, experienced an unfavorable employment action, and either received poor treatment in comparison to a similarly situated person not belonging to the same protected class or was replaced by someone not belonging to the same protected class. Once established, the burden then shifts to the employer, who must produce a nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse treatment of the plaintiff. Once produced, the plaintiff carries the burden of ultimately proving that the defendant’s reasoning is pretext for racial discrimination.

On appeal, the plaintiff produced three arguments to show pretext: (1) the recruiting violations did not occur and the investigation into his conduct was pretext since the defendants were aware of his innocence; (2) the defendants’ inconsistent reasoning for his termination implies pretext; and (3) the similar comparators provided by the plaintiff were sufficient to prove pretext. First, the Eleventh Circuit found that the evidence provided by the plaintiff did not support the inference that the investigation into his conduct was pretext because there was no causal connection shown between his race and his termination, only mere suspicion. Secondly, the court held that contradicting the defendants’ reason alone does not support an inference of racial discrimination without additional evidence to suggest discrimination. Lastly, in rejecting the plaintiff’s third argument, the court found that the plaintiff’s comparators (other coaches who violated recruiting guidelines) differed too greatly in the amount of monetary value involved, the likelihood of successful recruiting and violations going undetected, and the frequency and intensity of the recruiting violation allegations to support pretext. Thus, because the plaintiff failed to meet his burden of showing pretext, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment for the defendants.

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