Alamo Heights Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Clark, No. 16–0244

CourtSupreme Court of Texas
Writing for the CourtEva M. Guzman, Justice
Citation544 S.W.3d 755
Decision Date06 April 2018
Docket NumberNo. 16–0244
Parties ALAMO HEIGHTS INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT, Petitioner v. Catherine CLARK, Respondent

544 S.W.3d 755

ALAMO HEIGHTS INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT, Petitioner
v.
Catherine CLARK, Respondent

No. 16–0244

Supreme Court of Texas.

OPINION DELIVERED: April 6, 2018


Jonathan G. Brush, Rogers, Morris & Grover, L.L.P., Houston TX, for Amicus Curiae.

Robert Allen Schulman, Bryan P. Dahlberg, Schulman, Lopez, Hoffer & Adelstein, LLP, San Antonio TX, for Petitioner.

Brendan K. McBride, The McBride Law Firm, Matthew R. Pearson, Tracie Gee Conner, Gravely & Pearson, L.L.P., San Antonio TX, for Respondent.

Justice Guzman delivered the opinion of the Court, joined by Chief Justice Hecht, Justice Green, Justice Johnson, Justice Devine, and Justice Brown.

Eva M. Guzman, Justice

544 S.W.3d 763

Workplace discrimination and harassment cases are some of the most sensitive and difficult to resolve. The conduct complained about in these types of cases is often so offensive that "it is easy to understand that a sense of decency initially inclines one to want to grant relief."1 But anti-discrimination laws target "discrimination in the workplace, not morality or vulgarity."2 An employer's liability is determined by the statute the Legislature enacted, not well-meaning judges. "The text is the law, and it is the text that must be observed."3

This discrimination and retaliation suit involves allegations of same-sex harassment and bullying by female coaches in the girls athletic department at a San Antonio middle school. The ultimate issue on appeal—the school district's immunity from suit—is subsumed in two predicate evidentiary matters concerning the governmental-immunity waiver in the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act (TCHRA). The TCHRA waives immunity from suit only for statutory violations, which means the trial court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction over the dispute absent some evidence the school district violated the TCHRA.4 By intertwining the TCHRA's immunity waiver with the merits of a statutory claim, the Legislature ensures public funds are not expended defending claims lacking sufficient evidence to allow reasonable jurors to find the governmental entity liable. The main issues in this case are (1) whether the evidence raises an inference of gender-motivated discrimination and (2) whether the complainant must produce evidence to support her retaliation claim when no presumption of unlawful retaliation exists under the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework. The latter inquiry is a question of first impression for the Court.

Sexual harassment is a form of sex-based discrimination and, as such, requires proof that the alleged mistreatment was "because of" the employee's gender. Anti-discrimination laws—in their current incarnation—do not guarantee a pleasant working environment devoid of profanity, off-color jokes, teasing, or even bullying. In this case, the record—viewed as favorably as the legal-sufficiency standard allows—bears no evidence that the inappropriate conduct alleged here was gender motivated.

A retaliation claim is related to, but distinct from, a discrimination claim, and one may be viable even when the other is not. Unlike a discrimination claim, a retaliation claim focuses on the employer's

544 S.W.3d 764

response to an employee's protected activity, such as making a discrimination complaint. The TCHRA's prohibition against retaliation does not protect employees from all ostracism, discipline, or even termination following a discrimination complaint. Rather, a remedy exists only when the evidence establishes that a materially adverse employment action resulted from the employee's protected activities.

Because retaliatory intent is rarely overt, the tripartite McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework provides a mechanism to support a retaliation claim with circumstantial evidence.5 In this case, the parties dispute which facets of the burden-shifting framework constitute jurisdictional facts for purposes of the TCHRA's immunity waiver. The court of appeals limited the jurisdictional inquiry to the first step—the prima-facie-case element—even though the jurisdictional evidence neutralized the presumption it provides. This was error. Consistent with our analysis in Mission Consolidated Independent School District v. Garcia ,6 we hold that when jurisdictional evidence negates the prima facie case or, as in this case, rebuts the presumption it affords, some evidence raising a fact issue on retaliatory intent is required to survive a jurisdictional plea. Such evidence is lacking here.

We reverse the court of appeals' judgment and render judgment dismissing the employee's TCHRA claims.

I. Background

A. The 2007–08 school year

In the summer of 2007, Alamo Heights Independent School District (Alamo Heights) hired Catherine Clark as a coach and physical education teacher in the girls athletic department at Alamo Heights Junior School. Clark's tenure at the school got off to a seemingly successful start. In a mid-year "Observation Summary," the middle school principal, Stephanie Kershner, gave Clark the highest possible score of "exceeds" in a subset of evaluative criteria.7 A few months later, in March 2008, Principal Kershner completed Clark's "Summative Annual Appraisal," carrying forward her "exceeds" ratings from the observation review. In categories that had not previously been evaluated, Kershner gave Clark an "exceeds" rating for "professional development," and the next lower rating of "proficient" for "professional communication," "compliance with policies, operating procedures, and requirements," and "improvement of academic performance of all students."

As part of the summative appraisal conference, Principal Kershner addressed two particular matters of concern with Clark: (1) co-worker reports that Clark was bringing her young children to school during instructional hours, which she acknowledged, and (2) a student's report that Clark and Ann Monterrubio, another newly hired female coach in the girls athletic

544 S.W.3d 765

department, were not "getting along." Kershner directed Clark not to bring her children to work in the future, noting constant supervision was required due to their age. Kershner further recommended the two coaches meet with the school counselor, to which Clark assented, and advised Clark to report any problems. In Clark's written summative appraisal, Kershner identified "communicat[ion] with the girls athletic coordinator and administrators" as a professional skill that Clark needed to improve.

Two months later, around mid–May, an emotionally distraught Clark visited Principal Kershner's office to complain about Monterrubio's behavior. Clark was unable to communicate effectively due to her highly charged emotional state, so Kershner secured a substitute teacher to cover Clark's afternoon classes and allowed her to leave work to collect herself and prepare a written report.

Without explanation, Clark missed the next two days of school, and on her return, she submitted a thirteen-page typed letter detailing a litany of complaints against Monterrubio, extending as far back as the start of the school year (the May 14 letter). She reported that Monterrubio bullied and harassed her on a daily basis; she had reported the objectionable conduct to the girls athletic department coordinator, Michelle Boyer; and Boyer personally observed many bullying and harassing incidents but did nothing to stop Monterrubio. Clark explained that she decided to file a formal complaint following a conversation among Clark, Monterrubio, and Boyer during which Clark complained to Boyer about Monterrubio's behavior, such as interrupting her, criticizing her parenting, being disrespectful to students, not doing what she is supposed to be doing, and talking to other people about topics that bothered Clark. Clark "had finally had enough" when Monterrubio stated that Monterrubio goes to the bathroom to talk on the phone to friends and that Boyer "probably thinks she's just taking a great big sh--." Clark further explained she was "just now reporting this" because she feared retaliation and had expected Boyer and the school counselor to stop Monterrubio's bullying.

Among the more than four dozen incidents Clark catalogued, a handful that occurred months apart during the school year involved comments Monterrubio allegedly made about female body parts, including Clark's breasts and buttocks. Clark also complained that Monterrubio frequently used vulgar language, often with sexual connotations, that was sometimes directed at her. According to Clark:

• Early in the school year, Monterrubio said, "Wow, Coach Clark, I think your boobs are going to pop out of your shirt!", told Clark that her thong underwear and the "dimples" on her buttocks were visible when she wore certain pants, and "talk[ed] about" her bottom and breasts throughout that week.

• Several weeks later, Monterrubio told Clark the male coaches were betting that her breasts were fake and that Monterrubio had agreed with that assessment.

• After Monterrubio received a candle Clark brought to the coaches' holiday gift exchange, Monterrubio stated "she was going to make love next to the candle when it was lit up in her apartment."

• At the end of January, Monterrubio warned
...

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  • Brewer v. Lennox Hearth Prods., LLC, No. 18-0426
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Texas
    • April 24, 2020
    ..., 993 S.W.2d 781, 788-89 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 1999, pet. denied).1 See, e.g. , Alamo Heights Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Clark , 544 S.W.3d 755, 817 (Tex. 2018) (BOYD, J., dissenting) ("Because a reasonable juror could conclude from this evidence that Clark suffered harassment because o......
  • Am. K-9 Detection Servs., LLC v. Freeman, No. 15–0932
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Texas
    • June 29, 2018
    ...257 (1821).12 Baker v. Carr , 369 U.S. 186, 217, 82 S.Ct. 691, 7 L.Ed.2d 663 (1962).13 See Alamo Heights Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Clark , 544 S.W.3d 755, 770-71 (Tex. 2018) ; Tex. Dep't of Parks & Wildlife v. Miranda , 133 S.W.3d 217, 227 (Tex. 2004).14 Ante at 259–60.15 See Miranda , 133 S.W.3......
  • Tex. Tech Univ. Health Scis. Ctr. El Paso v. Niehay, 08-19-00201-CV
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Texas
    • January 31, 2022
    ...Shores , 590 S.W.3d at 550. We view the evidence in the light most favorable to Dr. Niehay. Alamo Heights Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Clark , 544 S.W.3d 755, 771 (Tex. 2018) ("In determining whether a material fact issue exists, we must take as true all evidence favorable to the plaintiff, indulgi......
  • Hudgens v. Univ. of Tex. MD Anderson Cancer Ctr., NO. 14-18-00938-CV
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Texas
    • December 8, 2020
    ...that the employer's stated reason is false and a pretext for intentional discrimination. See Alamo Heights Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Clark , 544 S.W.3d 755, 782 (Tex. 2018) ; Toennies , 47 S.W.3d at 477 ; Willrich , 28 S.W.3d at 24. Although the burden of production shifts between the employee a......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
244 cases
  • Brewer v. Lennox Hearth Prods., LLC, No. 18-0426
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Texas
    • April 24, 2020
    ..., 993 S.W.2d 781, 788-89 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 1999, pet. denied).1 See, e.g. , Alamo Heights Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Clark , 544 S.W.3d 755, 817 (Tex. 2018) (BOYD, J., dissenting) ("Because a reasonable juror could conclude from this evidence that Clark suffered harassment because o......
  • Am. K-9 Detection Servs., LLC v. Freeman, No. 15–0932
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Texas
    • June 29, 2018
    ...257 (1821).12 Baker v. Carr , 369 U.S. 186, 217, 82 S.Ct. 691, 7 L.Ed.2d 663 (1962).13 See Alamo Heights Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Clark , 544 S.W.3d 755, 770-71 (Tex. 2018) ; Tex. Dep't of Parks & Wildlife v. Miranda , 133 S.W.3d 217, 227 (Tex. 2004).14 Ante at 259–60.15 See Miranda , 133 S.W.3......
  • Tex. Tech Univ. Health Scis. Ctr. El Paso v. Niehay, 08-19-00201-CV
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Texas
    • January 31, 2022
    ...Shores , 590 S.W.3d at 550. We view the evidence in the light most favorable to Dr. Niehay. Alamo Heights Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Clark , 544 S.W.3d 755, 771 (Tex. 2018) ("In determining whether a material fact issue exists, we must take as true all evidence favorable to the plaintiff, indulgi......
  • Hudgens v. Univ. of Tex. MD Anderson Cancer Ctr., NO. 14-18-00938-CV
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Texas
    • December 8, 2020
    ...that the employer's stated reason is false and a pretext for intentional discrimination. See Alamo Heights Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Clark , 544 S.W.3d 755, 782 (Tex. 2018) ; Toennies , 47 S.W.3d at 477 ; Willrich , 28 S.W.3d at 24. Although the burden of production shifts between the employee a......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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