Claims of racial discrimination brought by one of two black teachers in the Boyertown Area School District have survived a motion to dismiss in federal court.
Although the school district had tried to have the case dismissed on procedural grounds, first arguing that it was time-barred, U.S. District Judge Lawrence F. Stengel of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania held that equitable tolling would preserve the teacher’s claims since she had filed a request to proceed in forma pauperis within the specified timeframe.
Stengel rejected that request and the teacher filed her complaint, with the filing fee, shortly afterward.
The question over whether the application to proceed in forma pauperis would serve to qualify the case to be tolled appeared to be an open one, Stengel said, explaining, “I have found no precedent that speaks directly to this point,” later noting that equitable tolling is to be applied in only rare circumstances.
This one, he decided, would qualify.
“It is reasonable for her to think that she should have to file her IFP petition and receive a decision on that petition before filing her complaint,” Stengel said.
Brenda Fortes, who has been an English teacher at the Boyertown High School since 1993, filed a claim first with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission in 2011. She had 90 days to file her civil action from the time that the EEOC gave her a right-to-sue letter, which meant that she had to file by Oct. 18, 2012. Her complaint was filed almost a month later, on Nov. 13.
“However, she did file her in forma pauperis (IFP) application on Oct. 18, 2012,” Stengel said. “She did not attach her complaint to the IFP application, as pro se litigants often do. She, instead, waited to hear whether her IFP petition was approved or denied. After she learned it was denied, she submitted her complaint with the filing fee within 30 days, as instructed by her IFP denial.”
Moving to the substance of Fortes’ racial discrimination claim, Stengel found that she had “established a prima facie case of racial discrimination under Title VII. She is a member of a protected class as an African-American.”
The judge laid out the elements a plaintiff must prove to prove a case under Title VII, including being a member of a protected class, that she is qualified for her position, that she suffered an adverse employment action, and that her employer treated similarly situated workers in a different class more favorably.
Stengel noted that Fortes has a master’s degree and more than 20 years of teaching experience.
“Ms. Fortes alleges that she was subjected to several adverse actions as a result of the racial discrimination: (1) she was not allowed to communicate with the parents of her students; (2) she was offered a ‘Transition and Separation and Release Agreement’ though she informed the defendant she planned to work for several more years before retiring; and (3) she was reassigned to the role of library research coordinator after she refused to sign the agreement,” Stengel said.
The underpinning for the suit started in 2004, when Fortes was injured while breaking up a fight between two students.
“As a result of that incident, Ms. Fortes suffered injury to her head, neck, and hip and experienced trauma to her head,” Stengel said, explaining that she now suffers from post-concussive syndrome.
She told the district that she would need accommodations for that disability in the school year starting in 2010, according to the opinion.
“Both her primary care doctor and her neurologist recommended that, among other things, the plaintiff be given a room with balanced artificial and natural light, allowed extended preparation time, and excused from non-essential large gatherings,” according to the opinion.
In September 2010, Fortes was told by school administrators that she wouldn’t be allowed to communicate with the parents of her students.
In October, she “intercepted a note being passed between two students, in which she was referred to as a ‘damn nigger.’ The students received a couple of days of in-school suspension. Ms. Fortes was not permitted to communicate with their parents about the incident,” according to the opinion.
In December, Fortes was asked to resign and given a “transition and separation and release agreement,” which she refused.
In January, she was reassigned from being an English teacher to being a “library research coordinator.”
“Ms. Fortes claims that this action was adverse because it was isolating and ‘demeaning,’ caused her to lose her classroom and be moved into a ‘cramped space without natural lighting and with constant large gatherings,’ and caused her to be ‘treated as if [she did] not exist.’ Ms. Fortes claims that this action was taken in retaliation for her not accepting the separation and release agreement and for her opposition to how the defendant handled students who were aggressive towards her,” Stengel said.
Fortes’ initial complaint to the EEOC followed in March.
Fortes “has provided enough to overcome a motion to dismiss her race/color discrimination claims,” Stengel said, adding in a footnote that the school district didn’t address the merits of the claims, but instead focused on dismissal on procedural grounds.
Allison Petersen of the Levin Legal Group in Huntingdon Valley, Pa., represented the district and couldn’t be reached for comment.
Fortes represented herself.
Saranac Hale Spencer can be contacted at 215-557-2449 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @SSpencerTLI.
(Copies of the 29-page opinion in Fortes v. Boyertown Area School District, PICS No. 14-1138, are available from The Legal Intelligencer. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information. Account holders camn use the online form to order.) •