Practice What You Teach: Absent Principal has Triable Discrimination Claims

The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee (“the court”) found that a principal, who had rheumatoid arthritis, heart failure, and chronic bladder problems, has triable discrimination claims after being demoted to a physical education teacher, even though he retired two years after the demotion.  After Principal Terry Gannon (“Gannon”) missed 12 days during the 2007-2008 school year, the Cannon County Board of Education (“the Board”) decided not to renew Gannon’s contract and demote him.

The Board claimed it demoted Gannon due to ongoing performance problems, lack of leadership skills, and overall employee dissatisfaction with Gannon.  The Board allegedly received reports that Gannon was often late to school, leaving early to run errands, and leaving in the middle of the day to get coffee. 

Gannon concedes that he missed the 12 days.  However, Gannon claims that almost all of his absences were due to his health problems. Gannon further stated that upon returning to work, he provided the Board with the necessary supporting documentation.  Gannon also claimed that Board member Edd Diden (“Diden”), the sole decision maker, told him that the demotion was due to his health issues and that he should retire.  Three witnesses verified that Diden made the statements.

The Board argued that it had nondiscriminatory reasons for not renewing Gannon’s contract and for demoting him.  The court rejected this argument stating that the witness testimony was direct evidence of discrimination.  As a result, the court said, the burden shifting analysis did not apply.  The court stated a factfinder could determine that discrimination was “at least a motivating factor” in the Board’s decision.  Furthermore, the court found that even under the burden shifting analysis, genuine disputes of material facts exist regarding the Board’s proffered reasons for demoting Gannon.

The court also found that, even though Gannon retired two years after the demotion, his constructive discharge claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) could go to trial.  In allowing this claim to go to trial, the court cited the facts that: the demotion resulted in a 21 percent decrease in salary; Gannon teaching physical education with his medical condition could be found to be too demanding; and the physical education teaching duties could be found to be less than those of the principal position. 

The court further found that Gannon’s claims under the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) could also go to trial.  Gannon argued the demotion and constructive discharge deprived him of his FMLA rights and constituted retaliation.  The court stated that a reasonable factfinder could agree due to Gannon directly telling the Board about his medical conditions, Gannon providing supporting documentation, and witness verification of Diden’s statements to Gannon.  The court stated the statute of limitations for willful violations applied under these circumstances.

Employers concerned about related issues under the FMLA, ADA or state law should seek legal advice.

For more information, please contact Michael Meyer at mmeyer@beneschlaw.com or (216) 363-4439.

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