Nicholas Malfitano Feb. 9, 2016, 1:51pm


PHILADELPHIA – An African-American high school janitor was not fired from his duties on the basis of racial discrimination by the School District of Philadelphia, a federal court has ruled.

Judge Berle M. Schiller of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruled Thursday to grant a motion for summary judgment to the District, in the discrimination case Odell Wray filed against it under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Wray filed suit after he was terminated from his janitorial work at Motivation High School, claiming he was subject to discrimination from Principal Yvonne Jones (also of African-American descent) on the basis of his interracial relationship with a Caucasian teacher at the school.

In his suit, Wray alleged Jones previously told him “jungle fever” was not allowed at school, falsely accused Wray of leaving work during his shift and telling him such confrontations may be avoided if “he stuck to his own kind.”

On Nov. 28, 2011, Wray entered the school building with a female companion named Cassandra Hendricks, whom Philadelphia Police Officers Glenn Fedon and Maribelle Quiles recognized as a local prostitute. When Wray and Hendricks exited the building about 25 minutes later, Officers Fedon and Quiles stopped them for questioning.

Wray told the officers he had returned to the school to retrieve his debit card and to allow Hendricks to use the bathroom. When questioned separately, Hendricks allegedly admitted a sexual liaison took place between her and Wray inside the school building and it was not an isolated occurrence. However, Wray disputed Hendricks’s account and maintained that he was just driving her home.

The following day, on Nov. 29, 2011, Officers Fedon and Quiles returned to the school to inform Jones about Wray’s actions. During the subsequent disciplinary process and related series of hearings conducted by the School Reform Commission (SRC), the District claimed Wray’s file showed a record of “continuous insubordinate and disrespectful behavior.”

As a result, the SRC fired Wray on April 18, 2013, after nearly 21 years of employment.

After Wray filed suit, the District filed a response motion for summary judgment, arguing Wray could not establish “proximate cause” between Jones’s alleged animus and his termination.

Though Jones did not herself decide to terminate Wray, Wray alleges Jones’s discrimination claim under the “cat’s paw” theory of liability, which permits an employee to “hold his employer liable for the animus of a supervisor who was not charged with making the ultimate employment decision.”

Necessary for this theory are two elements, according to Schiller: “A supervisor who is not the ultimate decision-maker must perform an act motivated by discriminatory animus that is intended to cause an adverse employment action, and that act must be a proximate cause of the ultimate employment action.”

It is on the second element, proximate cause, where Schiller believed Wray’s complaint fails.

“The School District commissioned an independent investigation of the Nov. 28, 2011 events and held three hearings conducted by three different hearing officers at which Wray was present and Jones was absent,” Schiller said. “The written findings of fact adopted by the SRC did not mention Jones.”

Schiller explained Wray admitted he violated District policy by permitting an unauthorized guest to enter the school building and was unable to provide identifying details about Hendricks despite claiming to be her friend, in addition to the District’s consideration of Wray’s prior disciplinary history – which included two suspensions.

In one such incident, Wray was suspended for 10 days for being in a physical altercation with a student that reached a point where both parties required medical attention afterwards.

Schiller concluded it was “sufficient that the School District reached its decision on the basis of an investigation and series of hearings independent from any supervisor with a discriminatory animus”, and granted the District’s motion for summary judgment.

The plaintiff is represented by David M. Koller of Koller Law, in Philadelphia.

The defendant is represented by Ronak Ramesh Chokshi and Talib Nadir Ellison of the District’s Office of General Counsel, plus David S. Fryman and Katherine Joanna Atkinson of Ballard Spahr, all also in Philadelphia.

U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania case 2:14-cv-05886

From the Pennsylvania Record: Reach Courts Reporter Nicholas Malfitano at nickpennrecord@gmail.com

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