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Patton v. Indianapolis Public School Board

January 04, 2002

LINDA PATTON AND SANDRA BRANCH, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
v.
INDIANAPOLIS PUBLIC SCHOOL BOARD, SHIRL E. GILBERT, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS THE FORMER SUPERINTENDENT OF THE INDIANAPOLIS PUBLIC SCHOOLS, AND ESPERANZA ZENDEJAS, AS THE SUPERINTENDENT OF THE INDIANAPOLIS PUBLIC SCHOOLS, DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES.



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division. No. IP 96-1515-C (M/S)--Larry J. McKinney, Chief Judge.

Before Posner, Easterbrook, and Diane P. Wood, Circuit Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Diane P. Wood, Circuit Judge.

Argued May 10, 2001

Chaos reigned in the pupil transportation system of the Indianapolis public schools as the 1993-94 school year opened: children were left standing on the streets, some buses arrived hours late, and some children were delivered to the wrong places. In time, the failure caused heads to roll. Linda Patton and Sandra Branch were among those who felt the consequences: both were demoted from their positions in the school system's Transportation Department. Believing that they had been singled out because of their race and gender and for their communication with a member of the School Board, rather than for permissible reasons, the two women sued the Board and its former and current superintendents. The district court granted summary judgment for the defendants, holding that the plaintiffs had not provided any evidence that other similarly situated employees were treated more favorably or that their contact with the Board member was constitutionally protected. We agree that the defendants were entitled to prevail, and we thus affirm the district court's judgment.

I.

Both Patton and Branch are African-Americans, and both had a long and successful history with the Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS). Patton began working for IPS as a bus driver in 1973. She was promoted several times and in 1992 became Operations Manager. When the Director of Transportation took an indefinite medical leave of absence in July 1993, Patton was appointed the Acting Director of Transportation. As Acting Director, Patton was the head of the IPS Transportation Department (the Department). Branch began working for IPS in 1984 as a bus attendant. She too was promoted through the management ranks over the next several years, ultimately to the position of Base Supervisor. In July 1993, when Patton was promoted to Acting Director, she chose Branch to serve as the Acting Operations Manager.

Upon assuming their new positions, the plaintiffs analyzed the Department's readiness for the start of the 1993-94 school year. Effective that year, IPS had enacted a new "Select Schools Plan" ("the Plan"), which allowed parents to choose which school their children would attend. The Plan was expected to have (and had) a substantial impact on the Department because students would no longer necessarily attend the school closest to their home. The Department was assigned the difficult responsibility of designing and administering new bus routes and schedules.

As the beginning of the school year neared, the plaintiffs, fearing that the Department was unprepared, privately notified Board Member Hazel Stewart of the impending crisis. They acted in secret because (they claimed in affidavits) Stewart had told Patton that there was a policy against employees speaking with Board members. The plaintiffs discussed with Stewart the various problems they foresaw with the new transportation system and also shared their fears that, if and when the system failed, then-IPS Superintendent Shirl Gilbert was going to blame them.

Unfortunately for all concerned, Patton and Branch's concerns proved to be justified. When the first days of school arrived, the new routes and schedules failed miserably. Bus routes were not properly developed, drivers did not know their routes, and buses did not arrive at their designated spots at the correct times. Bus drivers also were not given current route sheets, and the information necessary to update those sheets was not communicated within the Department. As a result, thousands of children throughout Indianapolis missed school, were stranded at bus stops waiting for buses that never came, or were dropped off at the wrong places at the end of the school day.

Serious problems require serious measures. In this case, Superintendent Gilbert (also an African-American) took personal charge of the "bus crisis," stationing himself at the central transportation office. During this period of time, Gilbert had an opportunity to observe Patton and Branch. He quickly developed the impression that they were unable to fix the mess themselves. This led him in September to tap the Director of Facilities Management, Donald Coleman (yet another African-American), to handle the burgeoning crisis. Gilbert also hired consultants from Mayflower Contract Services, Inc. (an IPS contractor) to help IPS identify the problems, reconfigure the bus routes, and recommend action.

The Mayflower consultants and Coleman told Gilbert that Patton and Branch were "in over their heads" and were incapable of solving the crisis. They stated that Patton and Branch had failed to organize the staff, had failed to ensure proper communication between the various subdepartments, and had resisted working with the consultants. As a result of these recommendations, Gilbert transferred Patton to the position of Base Supervisor and Branch to a Route Manager job. Both of those changes were demotions.

By late September and early October, IPS had ironed out most of its transportation problems. As a result of the crisis, however, the Mayflower consultants recommended that the Department be reorganized. Based on the recommendations and concerns of Coleman and the consultants, Gilbert decided that the plaintiffs' demotions should be made per manent. He communicated this decision to them in letters dated March 4, 1994, which formally notified them of their demotions and specified the reasons for the unfavorable actions. Branch and Patton fought back with an appeal to the School Board, but it rejected their arguments and adopted Gilbert's recommendations on March 22. Six other employees in the Department also lost their jobs, were demoted, or were moved to positions of less responsibility.

On June 7, 1994, the plaintiffs filed charges with the EEOC, and, after receiving the obligatory right-to-sueletter, they filed a complaint against the School Board, Gilbert, and the current superintendent, alleging race and sex discrimination in violation of 42 U.S.C. sec.sec. 1981 and 1983 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. sec. 2000(e) et seq. Specifically, they alleged that they had been demoted from their positions, refused promotions to higher positions, and reprimanded and harassed because of their race and sex. They also alleged that the demotions were made in retaliation for exercising their First Amendment right to speak with Stewart.

Defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing that the undisputed facts showed that all of the actions taken against the plaintiffs were done for legitimate nondiscriminatory reasons. The district court agreed, granting summary judgment for the defendants ...


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