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Lovelace v. Dallas Independent School District

Court of Appeals of Texas, Fifth District, Dallas

July 1, 2019

JACQUELINE LOVELACE, Appellant
v.
DALLAS INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT, Appellee

          On Appeal from the 298th Judicial District Court Dallas County, Texas Trial Court Cause No. DC-15-05007

          Before Justices Myers, Osborne, and Nowell

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          ERIN A. NOWELL JUSTICE

         Jacqueline Lovelace appeals an order granting Dallas Independent School District's plea to the jurisdiction and dismissing her claim for retaliation under the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act (TCHRA). Lovelace sued DISD for retaliation under the TCHRA, alleging DISD terminated her employment in retaliation for her expressing opposition to discrimination. DISD filed a plea to the jurisdiction raising its governmental immunity from suit and challenged the existence of jurisdictional facts necessary to establish a waiver of immunity under the TCHRA. The trial court granted the plea and dismissed Lovelace's lawsuit. Lovelace argues on appeal that the record shows she engaged in a protected activity under the TCHRA and there is evidence of a causal connection between the protected activity and the adverse employment actions. We conclude Lovelace failed to produce evidence raising a fact question under the burden-shifting framework applicable to retaliation claims based on circumstantial evidence. Therefore, she failed to establish a waiver of governmental immunity under the TCHRA. We affirm the trial court's order.

         Background

         Lovelace is African American. She was hired by DISD as an Executive Director in 2012. Executive Directors are responsible for the schools within their feeder system and the principals of those schools report directly to their Executive Director. Assistant Superintendents supervise the Executive Directors. Dr. Josie Hernandez-Gutierrez was the Assistant Superintendent for Lovelace's division. Dr. Karon Cofield took over Gutierrez's position after she resigned. The Assistant Superintendents are supervised by Dr. Sylvia Reyna, Chief of School Leadership.

         Lovelace was responsible for thirteen schools, including Spruce High School and its feeder schools. Lovelace's responsibilities included supervising the principals of those schools. In July 2013, DISD gave Lovelace an excellent performance review for the 2012-2013 school year, stating she exceeded expectations in several categories.

         In the summer of 2013, parents of Hispanic students at one of Lovelace's feeder schools, Burleson Elementary, complained they felt unwelcome at the school and ignored by the African-American principal, Yolanda Knight. On August 14, 2013, Lovelace sent an e-mail to her supervisor, Gutierrez, about the situation. Lovelace stated her desire to talk with Gutierrez about how an Hispanic parent "appears to be manipulating events and circumventing protocol in an effort to further her agenda of defamation and slander of Principal Yolanda Knight." In preparation for a meeting with the parent, Ms. Acosta, Lovelace felt it "gravely necessary" to point out "one specific thing before we move forward with what may prove to be a politically racial nightmare that further dichotomizes African-Americans and Latinos." Lovelace then complained about a meeting arranged by Gutierrez with Rene Martinez of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) about the situation. Lovelace assumed a parent had contacted LULAC, but after Martinez stated he was never contacted by parents about the school or principal, Lovelace "left the meeting with the feeling that you had prompted this meeting but could not justify a logical reason why you would have done so since our role is to support our campus leadership publicly but reprimand and coach them privately."

         Lovelace also complained that Gutierrez made contact with the parent during Lovelace's absence while taking classes in Austin. The parent told Gutierrez she did not want to speak with Lovelace, but Gutierrez never redirected the parent to follow protocol or attempt to bring in Lovelace to discuss her concerns. Lovelace reminded Gutierrez that she

told you early on that [the parent's] decision not to meet with me could be seen as "racist" given the climate in Dallas and that she should not be allowed to proceed without first talking to me; however, you continued to meet with her and others without a postponement that would have included my presence. By doing this, you further placed yourself in a position of power and me in a position of marginalization.

         Lovelace concluded:

At this time, I understand that Ms. Acosta [parent] and Mr. Martinez [LULAC representative] are calling for the removal of Ms. Yolanda Knight [African-American principal]. I do not support this request and earnestly feel that I have not received support, coaching, and unbiased guidance from you as my supervisor to resolve this issue amenably. Your actions appear biased, unethical, and to have a racist tenor directed toward Ms. Knight and me. I will be at the meeting tomorrow evening supporting Ms. Knight as I would support any principal under my supervision, no matter the ethnicity, who champions the success for ALL scholars.

         Lovelace spoke to Gutierrez both before and after the August 14, 2013 e-mail. According to Lovelace's declaration, Gutierrez "expressed a clear understanding that I was opposed to race discrimination in the actions of the DISD across the district and at Burleson Elementary at the time." Lovelace also stated in her declaration that she told Gutierrez that "DISD was acting in an unlawful racial manner which was only going to escalate into even worse racial problems." Lovelace stated that "meeting with LULAC and not the NAACP or any other African-American organization" could be viewed as racist.

         Gutierrez resigned in October 2013. In November, DISD informed Lovelace that Dr. Karon Cofield, an African-American, would become her supervisor beginning January 1, 2014. Lovelace contends Cofield began harassing her in December 2013, even before Cofield assumed her official duties. Cofield would randomly call Lovelace into her office to answer questions about anonymous complaints regarding Spruce High School. The meetings pulled Lovelace away from her work and interfered with her efforts to support principals and improve academic achievement. Lovelace claimed Cofield gave her a bad performance review in January 2014 without having the opportunity to adequately observe her performance.

         On March 25, 2014, Lovelace sent a memo to Cofield expressing dissatisfaction with Cofield's oversight of the Spruce Feeder system. The memo began: "Due to the increasingly hostile nature of the work environment, the racial unfairness, inequitable treatment, and prolonged harassment, I feel it necessary to send you written responses to your questions concerning complaints received about the Spruce Feeder, especially its high school." Lovelace complained she was repeatedly questioned about items she had already investigated and reported on and was attacked based on anonymous complaints and gossip.

         On March 31, 2014, Lovelace responded to an e-mail from another Executive Director regarding the scheduling of interviews for their shared administrative assistant. Lovelace declined to participate in the interviews because Cofield selected the other Executive Director as the primary evaluator of the administrative assistant and the unprofessional ...


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