Pennsylvania Record

Friday, April 3, 2020

Fired Friends' Central teachers can pursue some claims, but not for religious and sex discrimination

Federal Court

By Charmaine Little | Aug 21, 2019

Friends' Central

PHILADELPHIA - A judge allowed an employment discrimination lawsuit filed by two former teachers against Friends’ Central School Corp. and others to partially continue in a ruling issued in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania on Aug. 2.

Ex-FCS teachers Ariel Eure, a gay African-American woman, and Layla Helwa, a gay Egyptian and Puerto Rican woman who is also a Muslim, sued Quaker-based school FCS, Craig Sellers (head of FCS School), Phillip Scott and board members identified as John and Jane Does No. 1-29. 

The teachers said they were victims of employment discrimination when they were suspended, then terminated by FCS. They sued after filing with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission.

The court determined that the plaintiffs properly pleaded claims for hostile work environment, discrimination and retaliation for race - but not for religion, sex or sexual orientation.

On May 4, 2016, a handful of students wanted to meet about starting a group that would later be called the “Peace and Equality for Palestine” club. Helwa pointed to Dr. Sa’ed Atshan, a Quaker professor at Swarthmore College, as a potential speaker for the group. 

FCS approved it, and the teachers' supervisor, Art Hall, gave Eure the green light to promote the event. 

Some students, parents and faculty complained about the event being ant-Semitic. The school decided to cancel it on Feb. 7, 2017. The next day, Eure, Helwa, at least three other teachers and 65 students staged a protest in response.

Students also organized a discussion scheduled for the time Athsan was supposed to speak. The teachers informed Hall and the assistant head of school diversity, Mariama Richards, about the discussion. Hall and Richards told them not to attend, stating that it would be a bad look for them “as teachers of color,” according to the lawsuit. 

The teachers attended anyway.

Later, they were asked to meet with Sellers individually, then were put on administrative leave and were told they’d be reinstated the next spring. 

Eure and Halwe complained to the board on Feb. 14, 2017. That same day, Sellers told the board that “two teachers were given explicit directives which they ignored,” said court documents. 

The board made a statement on April 7, 2017, that the allegations of the investigation were unproven. 

Sellers terminated the plaintiffs through a letter, and didn’t detail why. FCS released another statement about the termination on May 10, 2017. The plaintiffs responded with the lawsuit.

The court, in allowing the teachers' claims of racial discrimination to proceed, pointed to the plaintiffs’ allegations that their white counterparts also ignored instructions and directives, like not attending mandatory meetings, but were never punished. 

“Plaintiffs have seemingly been disciplined more harshly than were white coworkers,” said the court, noting claims that another minority coworker was also punished. It added that respondeat superior is a factor considering both sides can agree that Sellers was the plaintiffs’ supervisor and that he had the position to take employment actions against them.

The plaintiffs also properly pleaded that their termination could have been discriminatory as they pointed to white colleagues who had questionable conduct, including one asking a dyslexic student if she was ill, but faced little to no consequence, the court ruled. The retaliation portion of the lawsuit was also continued as the plaintiffs showed that Sellers knew about their complaint against him to the board as well as their complaint to the EEOC, the court ruled.

They also properly pleaded post-employment retaliation, the court ruled.

"Defendants released several statements to FCS, families, alumni, and various news outlets concerning plaintiffs, plaintiffs’ claims of discrimination against FCS, and their suspension and subsequent firing,” the ruling read.

The court also noted that the plaintiffs had a protected activity (filing a complaint with the board), that possibly caused the defendants to take adverse actions (communicating with FCS families and the media about the plaintiffs’ suspension and firing).

The teachers' defamation claim was allowed to continue, as the court said some of the communications sent out about them weren’t necessary privileged, considering the media and community didn’t have to be privy to everything concerning the plaintiffs that FCS communicated. The court also agreed that the plaintiffs properly claimed they were painted in a false light, the court added. Before the dispute, the defendants praised the two teachers consistently, but following the dispute, they were called out in the media and ultimately fired, the court said.

However, the court determined the plaintiffs failed to claim discrimination and a hostile work environment because of their religion or gender. The court noted that the scenarios that the plaintiffs used to prove racial discrimination included white coworkers who were both male and female, and therefore failing to indicate that gender discrimination is a pattern or happened to other workers.

The court also dismissed the negligence claims.

“Plaintiffs’ PHRA and negligent supervision claims arise from the same set of facts, namely that defendants discriminated against plaintiffs, both collectively and individually by and through defendant Sellers," the ruling read. "Plaintiffs’ negligent supervision claim arises out of this alleged discrimination. Accordingly, plaintiffs’ negligent supervision claim is preempted by the PHRA and is, therefore, dismissed.”

U.S. District Judge Petrese B. Tucker ruled on the case.

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U.S. District Court of Eastern District of Pennsylvania