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Alfonso v. Pueblo School District No. 60

United States District Court, D. Colorado

May 4, 2016



R. Brooke Jackson United States District Judge

This matter is before the Court on defendant’s motion for summary judgment [ECF No. 18]. For the reasons described below, the motion is granted in part and denied in part.


Plaintiff Pamela Alfonso is an employee of defendant Pueblo School District No. 60 (the District). ECF No. 18 at 2. Alfonso was born on November 8, 1964 and was over 40 years old during all relevant times. ECF No. 19 at ¶ 1. She is of Hispanic national origin. Id. at ¶ 2.

Alfonso began working for the District in 1989, and she has taught vocal and instrumental music at various District schools. Id. at ¶ 3. From August 2007 to May 2012 Alfonso was a vocal music teacher at Hellbeck Elementary School (Hellbeck). ECF No. 18 at 3. In January 2012 the District closed Hellbeck because of a decline in enrollment. Id. at 3-4. The closure eliminated Alfonso’s teaching position, rendering her a “displaced teacher.” Id. at 4.

As a displaced teacher, the District placed Alfonso in a priority hiring pool. Id. When a displaced teacher applies for an open position in the District, she is given a “mutual consent” interview before the consideration of non-priority candidates.[1] Id. The school’s principal and hiring committee conduct the mutual consent interview. Id. If a displaced teacher cannot secure a job through the mutual consent process, a school district can either administratively place her in a job for one year or give her one year of paid leave. Id. at 2. At the end of that year, if the teacher still has not found a mutual consent position, she must take unpaid leave but remains on the priority list for open positions. Id.

In May and June 2012 Alfonso had mutual consent interviews for vocal music teaching jobs at four schools in the District. ECF No. 19 at ¶ 7. None of these hiring committees offered Alfonso a job. Id. As a result, the District administratively placed Alfonso in a music teaching position at Roncalli Science Technology Engineering and Math Academy (Roncalli) for the 2012-2013 school year. Id. at ¶ 8. The District informed Alfonso that if she did not secure a mutual consent position within 12 months, she would need to take an unpaid leave of absence. Id.

Beginning in May 2013 Alfonso interviewed at the following eight schools for jobs during the 2013-2014 school year: (1) Fountain International Magnet School (Fountain International); (2) Beulah Heights Elementary School (Beulah); (3) Morton Elementary School (Morton); (4) Pitts Middle School (Pitts); (5) Minnequa Elementary School (Minnequa); (6) Columbian Elementary School (Columbian); (7) Centennial High School (Centennial); and (8) Somerlid/Heroes K-8 Academy (Heroes). She did not receive a job at any one of these schools. See ECF No. 19 at ¶¶ 9-37. After a year of unpaid leave, the District’s Bradford Elementary School (Bradford) hired Alfonso through the mutual consent process in August 2014. Id. at ¶ 40. She remains a teacher at Bradford. Id.

As a result of her lost income during the 2013-2014 school year, Alfonso asserts two claims: (1) age discrimination in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq. (ADEA) and (2) national origin discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (Title VII). See ECF No. 1.


I. Standard of Review.

The Court may grant summary judgment if “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A fact is material “if under the substantive law it is essential to the proper disposition of the claim.” Adler v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 144 F.3d 664, 670 (10th Cir. 1998) (internal quotations and citations omitted). A material fact is genuine if “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). The moving party has the burden to show that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party’s case. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325 (1986). The nonmoving party must “designate ‘specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.’” Id. at 324.

II. Plaintiff’s Failure-to-Hire Claims.

Plaintiff claims that the District discriminated against her on the basis of age and/or national origin when it did not hire her for the eight positions she applied for during the 2013- 2014 school year. ECF No. 19 at 1. Despite alleging age discrimination at all eight schools in her Complaint, plaintiff has since clarified that she is not alleging age discrimination at Minnequa or Centennial. ECF No. 18-11 at 2-3. She alleges national origin discrimination at all eight schools. ECF No. 1 at ¶ 40.

Where the plaintiff relies on circumstantial evidence of discrimination, as Alfonso does, the Court applies the burden-shifting framework of McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973). Jones v. Unisys Corp., 54 F.3d 624, 630 (10th Cir. 1995) (internal citations omitted) (this scheme is the “indirect method of proof developed in Title VII cases, ” but the Tenth Circuit also applies it for ADEA cases). Under the McDonnell Douglas analysis, the plaintiff must first prove a prima facie case of discriminatory failure to hire. Id. The plaintiff must show that “(1) [she] belongs to a protected class; (2) [she] applied and was qualified for a job for which the employer was seeking applicants; (3) [she] was rejected for that job; and (4) following [her] rejection, the job remained open and defendant continued to seek applicants from persons with plaintiff’s qualifications.” Gonzales v. Comcast of Colorado IX, LLC, 2010 WL 4156521, at *2 (D. Colo. 2010) (internal citations omitted). If the plaintiff satisfies the prima facie test, the employer must “produce a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the adverse employment action.” Jones, 54 F.3d at 630. If the employer does so, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff “to show that there is a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether [defendant’s] proffered reason for the challenged action is pretextual-i.e., unworthy of belief.” Eke v. CaridianBCT, Inc., 490 Fed.Appx. 156, 160, 2012 WL 3089714, at *3 (10th Cir. 2012) (internal citation omitted).

The Tenth Circuit has recognized that “[p]retext can be shown in a variety of ways, and there is no one specific mode of evidence required to establish the discriminatory inference.” Conroy v. Vilsack, 707 F.3d 1163, 1172 (10th Cir. 2013) (internal quotations and citation omitted). An employee generally establishes pretext “by showing the defendant’s proffered non- discriminatory explanations for its actions are so incoherent, weak, inconsistent, or contradictory that a rational factfinder could conclude [they are] unworthy of belief.” E.E.O.C. v. C.R. England, Inc., 644 F.3d 1028, 1038-39 (10th Cir. 2011) (internal quotations and citation omitted) (alteration in original). “The employer is entitled to summary judgment if the employee could not offer evidence tending to show the defendant’s innocent explanation for [its] employment decision was false.” Trujillo v. Univ. of Colorado Health Scis. Ctr., 157 F.3d 1211, 1215 (10th Cir. 1998) (internal quotations and citation omitted). Courts do not ask “whether the employer’s proffered reasons were wise, fair or correct, but whether [the employer] honestly believed those reasons and acted in good faith upon those beliefs.” Kaiser v. Colorado Department of Corrections, 504 Fed.Appx. 739, 740, 2012 WL 6032265, at *1 (10th Cir. 2012) (internal citation omitted) (alteration in original). “The reason for this rule is plain: [the Court’s] role is to prevent intentional discriminatory hiring practices, not to act as a ‘super personnel department, ’ second guessing employers’ honestly held (even if erroneous) business judgments.” Id. (internal citation omitted).

A. Age Discrimination.

Under the ADEA, a plaintiff must prove that her age was a “determinative factor” in the employer’s action toward her. E.E.O.C. v. Sperry Corp., 852 F.2d 503, 507 (10th Cir. 1988). “Age need not be the sole reason for the employer’s acts, but plaintiff must show that age ‘made a difference’ in the employer’s decision.” Perrell v. FinanceAmerica Corp., 726 F.2d 654, 656 (10th Cir. 1984) (emphasis in original). The ADEA seeks to protect employees “who are at least 40 years of age.” 29 U.S.C. § 621(a). The statute “was passed ‘to promote employment of older persons based on their ability rather than age’ and ‘to prohibit arbitrary age discrimination in employment.’” MacKenzie v. City and County of Denver, 414 F.3d 1266, 1276 (10th Cir. 2005) (quoting 29 U.S.C. § 621(b)).

1. Prima Facie Case.

The District concedes that Alfonso establishes a prima facie case for age discrimination at all six schools. ECF No. 18 at 8. Therefore, the Court need not analyze Alfonso’s prima facie evidence. See, e.g., Kerr v. Valdez, 55 Fed.Appx. 491, 495 (10th Cir. 2002) (unpublished). However, defendant moves for summary judgment on the grounds that it had legitimate non-discriminatory reasons for its hiring decisions, and that Alfonso “has no evidence” that these proffered explanations “were pre-textual.” ECF No. 18 at 12-13.

2. Legitimate, Non-Discriminatory Reasons and Pretext.

As discussed in more detail below, defendant’s explanations for not hiring Alfonso include (1) that she did not perform as well in her interviews as the chosen candidates; (2) the hiring committees had concerns about her answers to interview questions; (3) the other candidates were a “better fit, ” and (4) in one instance the school was in the process of eliminating the open music position. See ECF No. 18 at 8-12. Alfonso does not dispute that these explanations satisfy defendant’s burden to produce legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for ...

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