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13th Court of Appeals dismisses one count of principal's employment discrimination suit

By Charmaine Little | Feb 12, 2018

Discrimination 20

CORPUS CHRISTI – The Texas 13th Court of Appeals - Corpus Christi has tossed one count count of two in a woman's employment discrimination suit against her former local school district employer.

The appellate court reversed in a Jan. 31 opinion a trial court’s decision to deny Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District’s plea to the jurisdiction for former principal Melba Lozano’s first charge against it and dismissed this suit. However, it confirmed the trial court’s denial of the decision to the plea of jurisdiction in her second charge of discrimination.

Lozano initially took legal action against the school district with claims that it discriminated against her because of a disability. The school district moved and filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which the trial court did not grant. This led to the school district taking its case to the appeals court, stating that the trial court should have ruled in its favor in its plea to the jurisdiction.

According to the opinion, the relationship between Lozano and the school district went left shortly after Lozano was promoted to principal of a high school in 2012. She missed the following spring semester as she was diagnosed with cancer and had to receive treatment, the opinion states. The next year, spring 2014, she let a senior lead a prank that went wrong. The superintendent stepped in and the principal alleged that she didn’t know anything about the prank, “but text messages between her and the senior student proved otherwise,” according to the opinion.

That July, the opinion states Lozano was told she would be demoted to assistant principal for a middle school for the 2014-2015 school year. Lozano has maintained that her demotion was a result of her telling the superintendent she had cancer. Lozano filed a discrimination lawsuit with the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC) in January 2015 over the demotion. The school district still offered Lozano a job for the 2015-2016 school year, but not for a principal position. She turned down the offer and ultimately resigned, the opinion states.

Lozano went on to file a second charge of discrimination a month after her resignation alleging constructive discharge; this time because the school district did not offer her a principal contract. The TWC later tossed out Lozano’s charges when it could not prove her case. 

Lozano took her case to trial court. That’s when the school district entered its plea to the jurisdiction under two notions: Lozano filed both of the lawsuits at least six months after she claimed to have been discriminated against, and “Lozano’s pleadings failed to state a prima facie case for employment discrimination.”

The opinion states Lozano moved by giving an affidavit testimony to back up her argument. The trial court in turn denied the school district’s plea to the jurisdiction. The appellate court stated that the lower court decided Lozano did in fact file both discrimination charges in a timely matter and that her “pleadings and evidence made out a prima facie case” when it came to the discrimination claims.

In relation to the time Lozano filed the first charge, the appellate court stated Lozano originally filed the charges just 10 days after the six-month mark of her demotion. Still, while Lozano said the violation doctrine is a solution to the “untimeliness” argument, the appellate court stated that the doctrine does not protect demotions.

As for the second charge that was a result of the school district not offering Lozano a principal position, the appellate court said Lozano filed the second charge less than a month after giving her resignation; so that one is timely.

The appellate court also ruled against the school district’s concern that Lozano’s second charge “was not made under oath” and violated the Texas Labor Code.

When it comes to the “prima facie” argument, the school district cited that Lozano couldn’t give evidence in the plea related to the trial court’s jurisdiction. However, the appellate court stated that Lozano had sufficient proof when she pointed out she had a clean record up until her cancer diagnosis. That’s when the school district’s alleged harassment began.

She provided as proof a written reprimand from the school district around the time it did not extend her the principal position, her letter of resignation in which she pointed at discrimination for her decision, “her second charge of discrimination” and her testimony.

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Texas 13th Court of Appeals - Corpus Christi