How to ensure reasons for termination aren’t seen as pretext for retaliation

School employee alleges discrimination based on race, color, disability

How to ensure reasons for termination aren’t seen as pretext for retaliation

An employer provided legitimate reasons – including an alleged privacy violation, insubordination, and failure to follow official directives – for its decision not to renew a worker’s contract, the Texas Court of Appeals said in a recent case.

The plaintiff was working as an assistant principal at High Point East Middle School for the Harris County Department of Education (HCDE). In May 2017, he had a physical altercation with a student. He alleged that he was injured in the altercation, filed a criminal charge against the student, and asked for workers’ compensation benefits from HCDE.

HCDE denied the requested benefits and assault leave. It disciplined the principal upon finding that he was the one who instigated the altercation.

In June 2017, the assistant principal filed a discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. HCDE committed retaliation when it denied the benefits due to his opposition against the age and disability discrimination that another employee faced, he alleged. There was also racial discrimination when the school principal allowed the investigating officer to have a “false view” that the principal was the one who provoked the altercation, he added.

In October 2017, the principal brought a lawsuit against HCDE. He claimed violations of Texas Labor Code, the Texas Government Code, the Texas Constitution, and the Texas Whistleblower Act. He also filed a discrimination charge with the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC), where he argued that HCDE retaliated against him by denying him benefits under the law, workers’ compensation benefits, and assault leave.

In May 2018, HCDE’s board of trustees informed the assistant principal of its recommendation not to renew his term contract based on his failure to follow his supervisor’s directives.

Read more: Teacher accused of failing to prepare lesson plans, paperwork

In July 2018, the plaintiff filed a second discrimination charge with the TWC. He alleged discrimination based on race, color, and disability and retaliation for his acts of opposing racial and age discrimination against employees, opposing misconduct, making a criminal complaint against the student involved in the altercation, and filing grievances, appeals, and the lawsuit.

In August 2018, HCDE’s decision not to renew the assistant principal’s contract was upheld. HCDE then made a plea arguing that the trial court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction over the case.

Does the court have jurisdiction?

The trial court rejected HCDE’s jurisdictional argument. This prompted HCDE to appeal. It argued that the assistant principal failed to establish that its proffered reasons for his termination were a pretext for retaliation.

In the case of Harris County Department of Education v. Keith Mxontgomery, the Texas Fourteenth Court of Appeals reversed the decision of the trial court and dismissed the plaintiff’s case for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.

The trial court had no subject-matter jurisdiction over the plaintiff’s retaliation claim, the appellate court ruled. Under HCDE’s policy for the non-renewal of term contracts, the reasons for non-renewal included insubordination and failure to comply with official directives.

In this case, HCDE gave legitimate reasons not to renew the assistant principal’s contract, the appellate court held. Specifically, HCDE reasoned that he failed to follow an official directive to respond to certain questions by a specific date, received a reprimand for insubordination, and violated the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act when he disclosed personally-identifiable student information without parental consent.

The plaintiff failed to challenge that the reasons given for not renewing his contract, namely his alleged failure to follow official directives and his insubordination, were a pretext for retaliation, the appellate court noted.

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