District settles teacher lawsuit

Former teacher contested firing from BCSC job

The Bartholomew Consolidated School Board has approved a settlement for a lawsuit filed against the school district after a former employee said he was wrongfully terminated because of his race and disability.

In 2012, former Columbus Signature Academy – Fodrea campus fifth grade teacher Terrence Preddie filed suit against BCSC on the basis that the district unfairly chose not to renew his contract in 2011.

A settlement in the suit was reached in the Southern Indiana U.S. District Court on Aug. 16, and the settlement was unanimously approved at Monday night’s school board meeting. However, both BCSC superintendent Jim Roberts and school board president Jill Shedd declined to reveal the details of the settlement, citing a non-disclosure agreement.

Multiple calls to the attorneys listed for both sides of the case were not returned, and Preddie could not be reached.

The settlement comes after the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned one aspect of an earlier summary judgment made in favor of BCSC.

The summary judgment, which was handed down by Judge Tanya Walton Pratt in the Southern Indiana U.S. District Court on Aug. 27, 2014, ruled in favor of BCSC on all aspects of a lawsuit filed by Preddie.

According to appellate court documents, Preddie, who is black and diabetic, made five allegations against the district, including:

  • Discrimination and retaliation on the basis of race in violation of Title VII
  • Failure to accommodate his disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act
  • Failure to provide leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA
  • Retaliation for trying to exercise rights under FMLA
  • Racial discrimination in violation of the Civil Rights Act

Preddie filed the suit on June 6, 2012, after the BCSC board did not renew his contract after two years of teaching with the school district.

During his second year, Preddie missed 23 teaching days, and most of those absences due to his hospitalization for diabetes or his son’s hospitalization for sickle cell anemia.

The board listed eight reasons for not renewing Preddie’s contract, including his attendance record. The board said his frequent absences were negatively affecting student progress.

But the former teacher claimed that he was unfairly fired because of illness-related absences and that he was treated differently than other employees because of his race.

Appeals court decision

Although the appellate court upheld the majority of the district court’s summary judgment in favor of BCSC, the 7th Circuit Court did overturn the judgment on Preddie’s accusations of FMLA violations when it handed down its opinion on Aug. 24, 2015.

In reaching the summary judgment, Pratt’s ruling was based on the assumption that Preddie would not be able to prove before a jury that BCSC had interfered with his rights to a personal leave under FMLA or that the school district had retaliated against him for trying to invoke those rights.

But in its opinion, the appellate court wrote that although Preddie had never officially filed for FMLA leave — as he was advised to do by former CSA – Fodrea principal Diane Clancy — he gave the school district enough information and notice for district leaders to understand that his situation qualified him to take a leave from his job through the federal act.

“An employee need not expressly mention the FMLA in his leave request or otherwise invoke any of its provisions,” the court wrote in its 2015 opinion.

In overturning the summary judgment on the FMLA violation accusations, the 7th Circuit Court cited exchanges between Preddie, his wife and Clancy.

Preddie testified that following a two-day absence in November 2010 because of his son’s hospitalization due to sickle cell anemia, Clancy told the former teacher, “You’ve missed a lot of school for yourself. You can’t take off. Is there anybody that can go pick up your son or anybody that can take care of your son, ’cause you’ve already missed enough days for yourself?”

Following that conversation, court documents show that Preddie sent a follow-up email to Clancy to explain the severity of sickle cell anemia and the extent of his son’s treatment.

Similarly, when Preddie himself was hospitalized in November 2010, his wife emailed Clancy and informed her that Preddie was in the hospital for an illness that was “affecting his diabetes in a bad way.”

Both of these instances prove that the district had been given sufficient notice of of Preddie’s FMLA-qualifying leave, the appeals court wrote.

The former teacher made two claims regarding his FMLA leave — that BCSC had interfered with his rights to medical leave and that the district had retaliated against him for trying to exercise those rights.

In choosing to overturn the summary judgment on the interference claim, the appellate court once again pointed to the exchange between Clancy and Preddie.

Clancy’s statement, “You can’t take off,” during her November 2010 conversation with her former employee could be reason enough for a jury to believe that the school district interfered with Preddie’s FMLA rights by discouraging him from using the leave, the court wrote.

Further, Preddie testified that when his son was hospitalized again later in the school year, he called his wife to take care of him because he was afraid he would face repercussions for taking additional leave.

Based on that testimony, a jury could find that Preddie intentionally chose not to take his FMLA-qualified leave because of Clancy’s implications that further absences would have a negative effect on his employment, the court wrote.

Additionally, the school board cited Preddie’s repeated absences as a reason that his contract was not renewed, even though most of those absences appeared to qualify for FMLA leave. That fact could be used by a jury as evidence that the district interfered with Preddie’s FMLA rights by using his medical leave as a negative factor in employment actions, the court wrote.

Similarly, the appellate court said the school district’s decision not to renew Preddie’s contract partly because of his repeated absences could also be used as evidence to support his claim of retaliation against him for taking FMLA leave. For that reason, the 7th Circuit Court also overturned that aspect of the summary judgment.

All other aspects of Pratt’s 2014 summary judgment in favor of BCSC were upheld by the U.S. appellate court, including her findings against Preddie’s allegations of racial discrimination.

The former teacher argued that white teachers routinely were granted medical-related leave — the same type of leave that, in part, cost him his job.

However, the appellate court wrote that the performance reviews Clancy gave Preddie in November 2010 and March 2011 indicated that he was not meeting the school’s teacher performance expectations. In the March evaluation, Clancy wrote that Preddie needed improvement in all teacher evaluation categories.

The court had no record of the performance reviews given to the white teachers who also claimed similar medical leave. That fact, coupled with Preddie’s poor classroom performance as documented by administrators, led to the appellate court’s decision to affirm the district court’s summary judgment in favor of BCSC.

What's next

A settlement in the case of Preddie v. Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. was reached in the Southern Indiana U.S. District Court on Aug. 16 with Magistrate Judge Debra McVicker Lynch presiding. The settlement agreement calls for Preddie and his counsel to file a motion to dismiss the lawsuit within 30 days of the settlement agreement.

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Olivia Covington is a reporter for The Republic. She can be reached at ocovington@therepublic.com or 812-379-5712.