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When Retaliation and Pretext Are Not Enough

The First Circuit Court of Appeals rejected an appeal by a teacher who could show retaliation and pretext but could not establish discriminatory animus to the satisfaction of the court.
Charlene Richard had an excellent record as a kindergarten teacher in her seven years of teaching. In 2014, she had some kids with special needs in her classroom, including two kids identified as engaging in bullying, and sometimes violent, behavior. She reached out to get support from the administration and a behavioral specialist. Ultimately, a parent complained to the superintendent of the school district about the classroom. This superintendent confronted Ms. Richard; he was described by her as accusatory, derogatory, and unprofessional. He called her “pathetic,” accused her of breaching student confidentiality with parents, and claimed that she was the problem. A memo was placed in her personnel file advising her of the district’s expectation that she control her classroom. The classroom behavior did not change.  She kept trying to get support and asserted that the administration refused to acknowledge the bullying behavior going on. Ms. Richard was transferred and placed on a performance improvement plan.
Both the federal district court and First Circuit Court of Appeals seemingly believed Ms. Richard’s outline of the events. However, they did not believe she successfully proved that the reason these actions were taken was that she had advocated on behalf of her disabled students. It was unlikely that the superintendent knew of her efforts on the kids’ behalf prior to the parent’s complaint and seeking special education services for the students was not likely to lead to serious budgetary concerns. The dissent vehemently disagreed, arguing it was clear that the more she sought help, the more pressure administrators placed on her instead of providing the aid that she requested.