Eller v. Prince George's Cnty. Pub. Sch.

Citation580 F.Supp.3d 154
Decision Date14 January 2022
Docket NumberCivil Action No. TDC-18-3649
Parties Jennifer ELLER, Plaintiff, v. PRINCE GEORGE'S COUNTY PUBLIC SCHOOLS, Prince George's County Board of Education and Monica Goldson, in her official capacity, Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Maryland

Lori B. Leskin, Pro Hac Vice, Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP, Omar Gonzalez-Pagan, Pro Hac Vice, Carl S. Charles, Pro Hac Vice, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund Inc., New York, NY, Douglas Curtis, Pro Hac Vice, Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP, Chicago, IL, Elliott Cruchley Mogul, Pro Hac Vice, Michael Rodriguez, Pro Hac Vice, Paul E. Pompeo, Pro Hac Vice, Rebecca Neubauer, Pro Hac Vice, Thomas Dallas McSorley, Jocelyn Wiesner, Pro Hac Vice, Arnold and Porter Kaye Scholer LLP, Washington, DC, for Plaintiff.

James E. McCollum, Jr., Amit Kumar Sharma, McCollum and Associates, LLC, College Park, MD, for Defendants.


THEODORE D. CHUANG, United States District Judge

Plaintiff Jennifer Eller has filed this civil action against the Prince George's County Public Schools ("PGCPS"), the Prince George's County Board of Education ("BOE"), and PGCPS Chief Executive Officer Monica Goldson, alleging that while working in various PGCPS schools in Prince George's County, Maryland, she was subjected to a hostile work environment, constructive discharge, and unlawful retaliation on the basis of sex, gender identity, and transgender status, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e – 2000e-17 (2018) ; Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 ("Title IX"), 20 U.S.C. § 1681 (2018) ; the Maryland Fair Employment Practices Act ("MFEPA"), Md. Code Ann., State Gov't § 20-606 (West 2021) ; and the Prince George's County ordinance prohibiting employment discrimination, Prince George's County, Md. Code ("PGC Code") § 2-222 (Supp. 2021). She also alleges, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a claim that this conduct violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Pending before the Court are DefendantsMotion for Summary Judgment and Eller's Cross Motion for Partial Summary Judgment, which are fully briefed. Having reviewed the submitted materials, the Court finds that no hearing is necessary. See D. Md. Local R. 105.6. For the reasons set forth below, the Motions will be GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART.

I. Eller's Employment

Jennifer Eller, a transgender woman who was assigned the sex of male at birth, was employed as a teacher within the PGCPS from 2008 to 2017. From 2008 to 2011, Eller worked as a reading and English language arts teacher for gifted and talented students at Kenmoor Middle School ("Kenmoor") in Landover, Maryland. In May 2011, in light of alleged harassment of Eller at Kenmoor, Eller and PGCPS agreed that she would be transferred to another school. She was then placed at Friendly High School ("Friendly") in Fort Washington, Maryland, at which she was an English teacher from August 2011 to June 2016. In June 2016, following additional alleged harassment, Eller was transferred to a position as an English teacher at James Madison Middle School ("James Madison") in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, at which she remained on staff from August 2016 until her resignation on August 18, 2017.

II. Alleged Harassment
A. Kenmoor Middle School

In the Spring of 2011, during the course of her employment at Kenmoor Middle School, Eller informed Kenmoor Principal Maha Fadli that she would be socially transitioning to begin living as a woman in accordance with her gender identity. As part of this process, she began to wear more feminine clothing to work. From the time that Eller began transitioning until her resignation from PGCPS, she was subjected to insults, threats, and physical assaults. The harassment included frequent misgendering—being referred to with names, pronouns, or terms associated with a different gender identity.

Although Eller asked Fadli to keep the fact of her transitioning private until she was ready to discuss it with others, Fadli announced it to the teachers on Eller's grade-level team without Eller's consent. After her transitioning became publicly known, students in her class at Kenmoor called Eller "fag," "gay," "homo," "tranny," and "booty warrior," a term referencing a character that was a pedophile or child molester. Joint Statement of Undisputed Facts ("JSUF") ¶ 20, ECF No. 115-1; Joint Record ("J.R.") 397-99, 428-30, ECF Nos. 105-108. The harassment included being physically grabbed or touched in the hallways. Eller was also frequently misgendered by Kenmoor teachers and students. Even though she had legally changed her name to Jennifer Eller, another Kenmoor teacher, Courtney Ball, repeatedly referred to Eller by her former name in front of co-workers at staff meetings, even when corrected by others. Ball also made derogatory comments about Eller's appearance and hormone replacement therapy.

As early as May 4, 2011, Eller complained to Fadli about the harassment and informed her that she had overheard PGCPS staff in the Kenmoor teacher's lounge saying "... thinks he's a girl.... I know. It's disgusting." JSUF ¶ 18. She emailed Fadli about the "booty warrior" statement on May 17, 2011. JSUF ¶ 20. On a third occasion in May 2011, Eller emailed Fadli asking for assistance in bringing the harassment to an end. Rather than address the harassment itself, however, Kenmoor administrators instead focused on obscuring signs of Eller's transition by getting her to agree to limit her clothing, footwear, and make-up to less feminine versions and to not wear nail polish. A human resources staff member demanded that she present as male and told her that a note from her therapist regarding her transition was "garbage." J.R. 399. On May 24, 2011, Eller and Fadli agreed that Eller should be transferred to another school.

B. Friendly High School

Eller's August 2011 transfer to Friendly High School did little to alleviate the frequency or severity of the harassment. During her time at Friendly, Eller was harassed by staff, students, and parents alike. Harassment by co-workers began shortly after her arrival, when Peter Quaeway, the head football coach at Friendly, told team members to "just stay away from it and leave it alone," in reference to Eller. J.R. 700. Assistant Principal Paula Robinson, who oversaw the English Department, of which Eller was a member, repeatedly misgendered her and continued to do so even after being corrected. Other staff did the same. During the 2011-2012 school year, mathematics teacher Brian Ecton told his Advanced Placement ("AP") class that Eller should have waited until she looked more like a woman before coming to teach at Friendly. Other teachers asked her about her surgical status, called her a "he-she," and asked her "if it was worth all the disruption" just so she "could wear a skirt." J.R. 81.

As early as August 2011, two students at Friendly began to harass Eller verbally, calling her "the he/she." J.R. 401. In December 2011, students asked about the appearance of her genitals, and on January 9, 2012, a student shouted "tranny" and "transvestite" as she attempted to teach her classes. J.R. 401. Eller was also assaulted in her own classroom during the 2011-2012 school year, when a student who had previously referred to her as a "tranny" shoved her out of an open doorway after she caught the student cheating on a test. J.R. 81, 401. The verbal harassment continued into the 2012-2013 school year, as parents also used a variety of derogatory terms such as "tranny" and pedophile to refer to Eller, J.R. 402, 404, and students at Friendly continued to use similar terms, regularly misgendered Eller, and made comments about her surgical status like "do you have a dick," "do you bleed," and "have you cut it off." J.R. 402-03; J.R. 432. That same school year, the derogatory insults escalated to threats of physical assault, when a student approached Eller in the Friendly parking lot and told her that he and his friends planned to "rape" her and make her "their girlfriend." J.R. 402.

In the fall of the 2013-2014 school year, students shouted "tranny" at Eller from their classrooms, insinuated that she was a prostitute by asking "how much do you charge," and again made degrading remarks like "did you cut it off" in reference to her genitalia. J.R. 403. The threats also continued that school year when a different student confronted Eller in the hallway and whispered, "you best watch yourself" Id. In another incident that year, a student stepped on and pressed down on Eller's foot while using a slur about her transgender status.

In or about June 2015, a female student stopped in front of her door and waggled her crotch while addressing her as "Ho." JSUF ¶ 48. Between August 27, 2015 and November 16, 2015, students continued to misgender Eller and referred to her as a "guy in a dress," "shemale," "he/she," and "tranny." J.R. 406-407. On one occasion in October 2015, Eller confronted another English teacher, Ms. Claggett, about her refusal to use the correct pronouns for a student. The teacher refused to change her pronoun usage and accused Eller of attempting to force her to "push the transgender agenda." J.R. 406-07; J.R. 467-68. On November 10, 2015, while Eller was walking into school, a young man stepped onto her foot and pressed down until she cried out in pain, then called her "tranny" and walked away. J.R. 407.

At Friendly, Eller began reporting incidents of harassment to school administrators as early as August 30, 2011, when she sent an email detailing misgendering by students to Friendly Principal Raynah Adams. Over the course of her time at Friendly, Eller sent to school administrators at least 16 separate emails reporting harassment by co-workers, students, and parents. Eller also made repeated requests for additional student and staff training on gender identity discrimination to school...

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