Paraprofessional sues district, claims dismissal was in… | TCTA
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Paraprofessional sues district, claims dismissal was in retaliation for complaint

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A paraprofessional sued a school district after his contract was terminated, alleging that the district had discriminated against him based on sex and that he had been fired in retaliation for complaining about the discrimination.

The paraprofessional sent a letter to HR in August, stating that he "would like to personally file a grievance" against the principal of his school and asserting that he was a victim of retaliation by the principal and his staff. He stated that he feared that he would be wrongly terminated, had been subjected to workplace bullying and had been discouraged from contacting HR to discuss his concerns. However, he did not claim that he had been discriminated against based on his sex or on the basis of any other protected characteristic.

In February, the principal informed HR that the paraprofessional had been accused of yelling at a fifth grade student, pushing the student and repeatedly making minor unnecessary physical contact with the student. HR investigated the allegation by interviewing the paraprofessional, reviewing witness statements and viewing a video of the incident. At the conclusion of the investigation, a decision was made to terminate the paraprofessional's employment with the district. He was given an opportunity to resign, which he refused. He was terminated for "inappropriate physical contact with a student" and then filed a lawsuit alleging discrimination and retaliation.

The school district filed a request to dismiss the lawsuit, which was denied. The school district appealed this denial to the court of appeals, arguing that there were not sufficient facts at issue to establish a claim of discrimination. The court of appeals examined this argument by noting that in discrimination claims, an employee must show that 1) he was a member of a protected class, 2) he was qualified for his position, 3) he was terminated; and 4) he was treated less favorably than other similarly situated members outside of the protected class. Once the employee has established these components, the burden then shifts to the employee to show that there was a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the termination.

In this case, the paraprofessional claimed that he was treated less favorably than two other staff members. In one case he claimed that the staff member was not disciplined even though she repeatedly verbally assaulted multiple students and another was not disciplined after scratching a student on the neck while breaking up a fight in the hallway. The court of appeals disagreed that these cases were similar to the paraprofessional's case, because in one instance there was no physical contact with a student and in the other, the physical contact was unintentional. The paraprofessional's situation was different because he had engaged in deliberate physical contact with a student. Therefore, the court of appeals rejected the paraprofessional's claim that he had established an initial claim to support discrimination.

The court of appeals then turned its attention to whether the district had a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for firing the paraprofessional. In this case, the paraprofessional claimed that the district's stated reason for firing him was false because it collected some witness statements after his termination and likewise did not issue a formal report with investigative findings until after he was fired. The court noted that failure to conduct an investigation could be problematic for the district; however in this case at the time it made the decision to fire the paraprofessional, the HR investigator had gathered and viewed a video of the incident, reviewed some witness statements and interviewed the paraprofessional. The fact that the final investigative report was not issued until after he was fired did not mean the district did not have a valid basis for firing him.

Based on these findings, the court of appeals concluded that the district court erred in ruling that the case should proceed and ordered that it be dismissed.