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Helland v. South Bend Community School Corp.

August 15, 1996




Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, South Bend Division. No. 94 C 852 Robert L. Miller, Jr., Judge.

Before BAUER, ROVNER, and DIANE P. WOOD, Circuit Judges.

BAUER, Circuit Judge.



The South Bend Community School Corporation removed Peter Helland from its list of substitute teachers because he failed to follow lesson plans, failed to control his students, and improperly interjected religion into his classrooms. Helland believes that the School Corporation unlawfully dismissed him because of his religious beliefs, so he sued under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. sec. 2000e et seq., 42 U.S.C. sec. 1983, and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act ("RFRA"), 42 U.S.C. sec. 2000bb. The district court granted the School Corporation's motion for summary judgment, and we affirm.


Helland's Christian and Gideon beliefs require that he carry and read the Bible. From May 1979 to June 1980, and again from August 1985 to November 1993, Helland worked as a substitute teacher for the South Bend Community School Corporation. During that time, several principals and teachers for whom he had substituted submitted negative evaluations of Helland's performance and requested that he not return to their schools or classrooms. The evaluations indicated that Helland failed to follow lesson plans left for him by the teachers for whom he substituted and that he failed to maintain control of his classes. One teacher complained that Helland drank a non-alcoholic beer in class, and that the students believed it was alcoholic. Two teachers commented on Helland's lack of understanding of high school students, noting an incident where Helland gave his car keys to a student who had been suspended from school grounds. In addition, several teachers complained that Helland proselytized in his classes by reading the Bible aloud to middle and high school students, distributing Biblical pamphlets, and professing his belief in the Biblical version of creation in a fifth grade science class. After the latter incident, Helland agreed not to give the students an assignment if they agreed not to tell anyone about the discussion.

The School Corporation warned Helland numerous times that his poor performance as a substitute and his improper interjection of religion into the classroom were grounds for removing him from the substitute teacher list. Finally, in November 1993, it notified Helland that it no longer would hire him as a substitute teacher because he did "not follow[] lesson plans, [had] problems with classroom management and on some occasions . . . interjected . . . religious-oriented materials into portions of your classroom presentation."

Helland filed a discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") within 180 days of his removal from the School Corporation's substitute teacher list. 42 U.S.C. sec. 2000e-5(e)(1). The EEOC declined to bring an action on Helland's behalf. Helland then commenced this lawsuit in federal court, alleging that the School Corporation discriminated against him because of his religion in violation of Title VII, sec. 1983, and RFRA.

I. Title VII and sec. 1983 Claims

The district court granted the School Corporation's motion for summary judgment on Helland's Title VII and sec. 1983 claims because it concluded that Helland had not responded to the motion with evidence sufficient to allow a factfinder to conclude that the School Corporation dismissed him because of his religion. Helland can prevail on his Title VII and sec. 1983 claims in one of two ways. He can offer direct proof of discriminatory intent, Sample v. Aldi Inc., 61 F.3d 544, 547 (7th Cir. 1995), or he can rely on the indirect, burden-shifting approach of McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973). Bruno v. City of Crown Point, Ind., 950 F.2d 355, 361 (7th Cir. 1991), cert. denied, 505 U.S. 1207 (1992). Under the McDonnell Douglas framework, the plaintiff first must establish by a preponderance of the evidence a prima facie case of discrimination, which creates a presumption that the employer unlawfully discriminated against the plaintiff. The burden then shifts to the employer to produce evidence which, if taken as true, would permit the conclusion that it had a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for its challenged employment action. St. Mary's Honor Ctr. v. Hicks, 509 U.S. 502, 507 (1993). If the employer meets this burden, the plaintiff then must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that "the legitimate reasons offered by the defendant were not its true reasons, but were a pretext for discrimination." Texas Dep't of Community Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 253 (1981).

Here, Helland had no direct evidence of intentional discrimination, and therefore opted for the second approach. Assuming, as did the district court, that Helland established a prima facie case of religious discrimination, the burden then shifted to the School Corporation to articulate a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for removing Helland's name from the substitute teacher list. Collier v. Budd Co., 66 F.3d 886, 889 (7th Cir. 1995). The School Corporation presented two such reasons to justify its actions. First, it stated that it removed Helland from the substitute teacher list because his job performance had not been satisfactory. In support of this contention, the School Corporation offered negative evaluations submitted by a number of teachers who criticized Helland's failure to follow the lesson plans the teachers left for him, and some of whom specifically requested that Helland not substitute for them again. Second, the School Corporation stated that it had dismissed Helland because he defied repeated warnings against interjecting his religious beliefs into the classrooms. Both of these are legitimate non-discriminatory reasons for dismissing him. See Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 619 (1971) (public schools must make certain that "subsidized teachers do not inculcate religion"); Russell v. Acme-Evans Co., 51 F.3d 64, 69 (7th Cir. 1995) (poor job performance).

Once the School Corporation proffered these legitimate non-discriminatory reasons for its actions, Helland had to present evidence that those reasons were a pretext for discrimination. Because a Title VII claim requires intentional discrimination, the pretext inquiry focuses on whether the employer's stated reason was honest, not whether it was accurate. "Pretext . . . means a lie, specifically a phony reason for some action." Russell, 51 F.3d at 68. "If the only reason an employer offers for [its challenged action] is a lie, the inference that the real reason was a forbidden one . . . may rationally be drawn . . . and there must be a trial." Anderson v. Baxter Healthcare Corp., 13 F.3d 1120, 1124 (7th Cir. 1994).

Here, Helland failed to produce evidence from which a rational factfinder could infer the School Corporation lied, and so the district court properly granted summary judgment for the School Corporation. See Shager v. Upjohn Co., 913 F.2d 398, 401 (7th Cir. 1990). Helland points to evidence showing that some teachers were pleased with his performance as a substitute. He also alleges that some of the reports upon which the Corporation relied in deciding to remove him from the substitute list misinterpreted certain events. But that misses the point. What matters here is not whether there is evidence contrary to that relied on by the School Corporation in deciding to remove Helland from the substitute list, but whether the School Corporation believed the information was correct. See Billups v. Methodist Hosp. of Chicago, 922 F.2d 1300, 1304 (7th Cir. 1991). We think that it did. The administrator who reviewed Helland's personnel file saw: numerous negative evaluations complaining about the quality of Helland's teaching, his inability to control his classes, and his failure to follow lesson plans; numerous requests that Helland not substitute for various teachers at several schools; and documentation of numerous admonitions to Helland that he stop interjecting religion into the classrooms. The reports provide sufficient non-discriminatory ...

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