Thursday, March 4, 2021

Educator made valid racial discrimination claim


A three-judge panel on the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has ruled that a former school administrator in Chicago had a valid cause of action under Title VII and ยง1983 for discrimination based on race after she was fired by the nation’s third-largest school district.

The facts of the case are as follows: Joyce Hutchens, the plaintiff in this suit charging racial discrimination in employment in violation of federal law, is a black woman. A large-scale layoff in the Chicago Public Schools’ Professional Development Unit, where she worked, required the unit to decide whether to retain her or a white woman, Deborah Glowacki, who Hutchens argues was less qualified than she and was retained in place of her only because the unit’s director at the time, defendant Amanda Rivera, preferred whites to blacks.

The PDU’s mission was to help CPS teachers obtain National Board certification and distinguish themselves “as an accomplished, effective teacher who has met the highest standards in the profession,” the opinion stated.

After the PDU was reorganized, Hutchens was designated a “curriculum facilitator.” She continued to assist candidates for National Board certification, even though the certification subunit had been abolished in the reorganization. But now she also assisted inexperienced teachers. Her supervisor after the reorganization was Karen Cushing.

Glowacki was hired to be another curriculum facilitator in the PDU. Her duties were similar to Hutchens’s. The two women have basically similar educational backgrounds, but somewhat different vocational backgrounds.

During a deposition, Cushing testified that Hutchens exhibited poor “interpersonal skills,” was “pretty withdrawn from working,” wasn’t interested in working “with other people,” and “should have known” more than she did but “appeared to not be interested in learning how to do more things.” Cushing also testified that Hutchens had “poor tech skills” and that her work “needed more editing” than Glowacki’s did. In evaluating the performance of the two in 2009, Cushing had rated Hutchens as having “partially met expectations” but Glowacki as having “met and exceeded” expectations.

Presumably the performance evaluations were written, yet no written evaluations were submitted in discovery, despite which the district judge referred to Glowacki’s “comparatively superior performance evaluations.” Cushing thought the evaluations had been destroyed. Hutchens in her deposition denied having seen an evaluation of herself in 2009 and stated that she was not aware of having been formally evaluated.

Despite the fact that Hutchens couldn’t remember being evaluated, the district court wrote, “What is clear is that [school district officials] honestly believed that Glowacki was the better employee.” On appeal, however, the Seventh Circuit found reason to doubt the validity of evidence presented to support the honesty of the district’s beliefs. After reviewing Hutchens’s and Glowacki’s qualifications, the court found that the district had acted “on incomplete information” in deciding to retain Glowacki. It also asserted that the district court’s reliance on evidence of Hutchens’s “performance problems” was misplaced because “the evidence that she had such problems was weak, heavily contested, and possibly fabricated.”

In any event, a “reasonable jury could credit Hutchens’s evidence while rejecting” the district’s evidence, “and impressed by [Hutchens’s] credentials, … could conclude that she was better qualified for the job than Glowacki.” That is, there was more than enough evidence of racial bias for a jury to conclude that Hutchens had been the victim of racial discrimination when she, rather than Glowacki, had been laid off.

The Seventh Circuit therefore reversed the summary judgment of the district court and remanded the case to the lower court for further consideration.

Having hired Glowacki, Rivera [the district’s human resources officer] had to choose between the black woman she had hired and the white woman she had hired and she may have picked the white woman on racial grounds in the face of that woman’s seemingly inferior credentials. The question is whether a reasonable jury could so find on the basis of the evidence submitted in pretrial discovery. If so, summary judgment should not have been granted in favor of the defendants [the school district].

Still, the court stressed that even if the jury found that all of the facts favored Hutchens, it could still decide that “Hutchens [was] a victim not of racism but of error, ineptitude, carelessness, or personal like or dislike, unrelated to race” — i.e., just a beastly boss, not a racist one.

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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