773 F.2d 1182 (11th Cir. 1985), 84-3388, Sullivan v. School Bd. of Pinellas County

Docket Nº:84-3388.
Citation:773 F.2d 1182
Party Name:Dec. P 35,658, 3 Fed.R.Serv.3d Claire H. SULLIVAN, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. SCHOOL BOARD OF PINELLAS COUNTY and Gus Sakkis, Superintendent of Schools; Jerry Catellanos, Betty L. Hamilton, Calvin A. Hunsinger, Martha Rudy Wallace, and Gareth R. Whitehurst, Defendants-Appellees.
Case Date:October 15, 1985
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit
 
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Page 1182

773 F.2d 1182 (11th Cir. 1985)

Dec. P 35,658,

3 Fed.R.Serv.3d

Claire H. SULLIVAN, Plaintiff-Appellant,

v.

SCHOOL BOARD OF PINELLAS COUNTY and Gus Sakkis,

Superintendent of Schools; Jerry Catellanos, Betty L.

Hamilton, Calvin A. Hunsinger, Martha Rudy Wallace, and

Gareth R. Whitehurst, Defendants-Appellees.

No. 84-3388.

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

October 15, 1985

Page 1183

George K. Rahdert, Steven H. Malone, Patricia F. Anderson, St. Petersburg, Fla., for plaintiff-appellant.

B. Edwin Johnson, Clearwater, Fla., for defendants-appellees.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida.

Before HILL and ANDERSON, Circuit Judges, and GARZA, [*] Senior Circuit Judge.

Page 1184

JAMES C. HILL, Circuit Judge:

Appellant/plaintiff Claire Sullivan, a Jewish female, filed suit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, and 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983 against appellees/defendants, Pinellas County School Board, its board members, and the Superintendent of Schools, alleging that she was unlawfully discharged from her position as assistant superintendent of the school district. Appellant's theory of recovery with respect to Title VII was, essentially, that she was dismissed because of the sexist and anti-semitic attitudes of her coworkers, who because of these attitudes were hostile to her and complained about her job performance to her superiors. With respect to section 1983, her theory of recovery was that she was discharged without the process that was constitutionally due to her. She sought as relief reinstatement, backpay, and reimbursement for "other lost professional benefits."

The district court, following a nine day bench trial, found for appellees/defendants on both claims. The court also sua sponte found appellant's claims frivolous and invited appellees to petition for an award of attorneys' fees. Appellant appeals the district court's order, both with regard to the merits of her case and the finding of frivolity. We affirm the district court's judgment, except for its finding of frivolity. That portion of the judgment is reversed.

FACTS

Appellant Claire Sullivan was hired as the Pinellas County School District's first female assistant superintendent in 1974. She was hired by Dr. Sakkis, the School District's Superintendent, without the usual administrative interview process, presumably because of his personal confidence in appellant's professional skills. John Blank, appellant's immediate supervisor, was involved only peripherally, if at all, in the process leading to appellant's employment.

Appellant's primary duty was to coordinate a "decision-making matrix" among the district's secondary school principals. Under this "decision-making matrix" system, school principals were jointly to make decisions about and have input into policy matters, rather than simply to implement the policy decisions of their superiors. The "decision-making matrix" system was a part of the new administrative structure of the school system organized by Dr. Sakkis in 1974. The previous administrative structure was based upon a "line/staff hierarchy," where all decisions came from the top and went through to the bottom. Prior to the change, supervisors for secondary and elementary education had direct line authority over the schools and their principals. Under the new system, assistant superintendents such as Ms. Sullivan did not have any direct authority over the principals. Instead, they were to use their organizational and political skills to help principals reach a consensus on issues of policy. In particular, Ms. Sullivan was responsible for helping secondary school principals develop the curriculum and instructional programs to be implemented in their schools.

According to appellees, appellant was initially well received by her coworkers; according to appellant, her coworkers, most of whom were male, were predisposed toward disliking appellant because she was a woman and Jewish. In any event, it is undisputed that appellant's tenure was less than smooth. She had a great deal of difficulty getting along with her immediate supervisor Mr. Blank. Appellant resented Blank's calling her "Dolly Levy" and "Sarah Bernhardt," terms which appellant viewed as anti-semitic. Appellant also felt that Mr. Blank had turned the principals against her. Because of these problems, appellant often took her concerns over Mr. Blank's head either to the superintendent or to Mr. Whitehurst, a school board member who was a friend of appellant. In spite of appellant's complaints, her relationship with Mr. Blank did not improve.

Appellant's relationship with the principals also was stormy. A number of complaints from the principals about appellant's demeanor were received. Eventually, in January or February, 1979, the principals

Page 1185

complained en masse to the superintendent that they could no longer work with appellant.

In late February 1979, the superintendent informed appellant that he would not recommend her for reappointment the following year. According to appellees, she was not renewed because she was adversarial and unable to get along with and earn the respect of her coworkers. According to appellant, her problems with her coworkers were due to their sexist and anti-semitic attitudes, and it was these discriminatory attitudes that led to the termination of her employment.

Shortly after the superintendent informed appellant that he could not recommend her renewal, some discussion ensued that appellant be allowed to resign. Appellant ultimately rejected this option, because it would have made her ineligible for unemployment compensation. Appellant then publicly announced that she would not be returning to work the following year. Having done so, appellant, in mid-March 1979, sought a full, written explanation from the superintendent as to why she would not be rehired. Eventually, in April 1979, this explanation was presented to the school board. In spite of an attempt by school board member Whitehurst to raise the issue of appellant's termination, the issue was tabled and never fully aired before the board.

DISCUSSION

I. Title VII Claim

Appellant argues that the district court's finding of no discrimination is clearly erroneous. We disagree. Appellees introduced an overwhelming amount of evidence indicating that appellant's difficulties with her coworkers and her subsequent discharge were not on account of her sex or religion, but because she was adversarial and a difficult person with whom to work. Recounting only a portion of the evidence produced by appellees, we note that their evidence indicated that throughout her time with the school board coworkers, including women, had complained about her work habits and demeanor, and that her difficulty in getting along with her coworkers had been noted on her performance evaluation. Dr. Sakkis testified that the en masse complaints of the principals regarding Ms. Sullivan's...

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