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Watson v. Connelly

March 25, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Magistrate Judge Caiazza


Having conducted a bench trial in the above-captioned case, the court now enters these findings of fact and conclusions of law.

The court will utilize the narrative voice, rather than numbered findings and conclusions. Where any doubt may arise, the undersigned will specify whether the determination is made by the court sitting as finder of fact or as a matter of law.

The trial transcript has been filed, on a daily basis, under separate docket numbers.

In citing the transcript, the court will refer to the docket number corresponding to the date of the transcript, then a period ("."), followed by the specific page number(s). After each entry will appear the identity of the witness. Thus, the testimony of Eldon Watson, appearing on the hundredth page of the transcript dated January 14, 2008 (Doc. 68), will be cited "Tr. at 68.100 (Watson, E.)."

The facts in this case are familiar to the parties, so the court will restrict its discussions to those most germane to its conclusions.

I. Overview

A. The Plaintiff's Allegations and General Background Facts

The Plaintiff Eldon N. Watson, III, alleges age discrimination under the ADEA, and age, gender discrimination and retaliation under the PHRA. See generally Am. Compl. (Doc. 11) at Counts I-IV. Mr. Watson complains of the Defendants' failure to hire him for any of five permanent elementary school teaching positions offered by the Mercer Area School District ("the School") in Spring 2002. See generally Joint Stipulated Facts (marked as Court Ex. 1 and filed herewith under Appendix A) at ¶¶ 17, 22, 25, 31, 34.*fn1

Named as Defendants are the School, former Principal Dr. Michelle Rhule, and former Superintendent Dr. Lawrence Connelly. Dr. Rhule had primary responsibility for selecting the candidates, Tr. at 68.169-70 (Rhule), and the Plaintiff was one of thirty-six applicants (out of a pool of over three hundred) chosen for an interview. See id. at 68.176; Stipulated Facts at ¶ 17.

The interviews were attended by Dr. Rhule, Assistant Principal Cynthia Portman, and School Board member Albert French. See generally Tr. at 68.124 (Watson, E.). Immediately following his interview, the panel gave Mr. Watson a score of "one" out of five, the lowest assessment a candidate could receive. Tr. at 68.195 (Rhule). The Plaintiff was forty-seven years of age. Stipulated Facts at ¶ 10.

The successful candidates all were female, and they ranged in ages between eight and twenty-five years younger than Mr. Watson. Id. at ¶¶ 22-23, 25-26, 28-29, 31-32, 34-35.

The Plaintiff proceeds under the "pretext" theory of discrimination. See generally Pl.'s Mot. in Limine (Doc. 64) at 3. He has attempted to show that the School's proffered legitimate reasons for his non-selection were a pretext for unlawful age and gender discrimination. See id.

The Plaintiff also alleges that, based on his complaints of discrimination, the School retaliated by failing to employ him as a substitute teacher beginning the Fall of 2002.

B. Legal standards

The Plaintiff must show by a preponderance of the evidence that the Defendants' discrimination or retaliation was "a determinative factor" in the adverse employment action. Watson v. Southeastern Pa. Transp. Auth., 207 F.3d 207, 215 (3d Cir. 2000) (trial standards in pretext case, citations omitted).*fn2

"The role of determining whether [an] inference of discrimination is warranted" remains "within the province of the [factfinder], because a finding of discrimination is at bottom a determination of intent." Sheridan v. E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Co., 100 F.3d 1061, 1071-72 (3d Cir. 1996) (citations omitted). In this bench trial, the court performs the jury's "traditional function of assessing the weight of the evidence, the credibility of the witnesses through observation of both direct testimony and cross-examination . . ., and the strength of the inferences that can be drawn from the elements of the prima facie case and . . . the employer's proffered reasons for its actions." Id.

II. The Plaintiff, His Wife, and Their Credibility As Witnesses

Mr. Watson was born on April 6, 1955. Stipulated Facts at ¶ 8. He attended Geneva College from the Fall of 1973 until May 1978, where he pursued a major in elementary education. Tr. at 68.59 (Watson, E.). The Plaintiff ceased matriculation before receiving a degree, and he carried a grade point average ("GPA") of 2.299. See Pl.'s Ex. 2 (Geneva College transcript).

Mr. Watson became an employee of the United States Postal Service in 1987, and he worked there until being discharged ten years later. See Tr. at 68.60, 68.62 (Watson, E.). During his tenure, he met and married his co-worker Cyndi Watson. See Tr. at 68.9 (Watson, C.).

Around the same time Mr. Watson lost his job, his Wife was diagnosed with spinal cancer. Id. at 68.10. Given Ms. Watson's health concerns, the couple decided the Plaintiff should complete his degree and pursue a job in teaching. Id. at 68.11.

The Plaintiff returned to school, and graduated in 1999 with a degree in elementary education. Tr. at 68.65 (Watson, E.). Mr. Watson performed better this time, raising his overall GPA to 2.71. See Pl.'s Ex. 2.

After receiving his teaching certificate, the Plaintiff began substitute teaching for the School. See Stipulated Facts at ¶ 41. Mr. Watson "subbed" no fewer that 95 days during the 1999/2000 school year; no fewer than 75 days in 2000/2001; and no fewer than 79 days in 2001/2002. Id. at ¶¶ 42-44. It is undisputed that the Plaintiff was a good substitute teacher and was well liked by the Defendants. See, e.g., Tr. at 68.181 (Rhule) (Mr. Watson "performed very well in that position").

The record contains three applications submitted by Mr. Watson to the School: one in 1999 for substitute teaching work; one made in connection with the permanent positions in Spring 2002; and one in 2004. See Pl.'s Ex. 5 (applications); Tr. at 68.12-13, 68.37 (Watson, C.) (identifying same). The Plaintiff's Wife admits that she played a substantial role in generating these documents, and she signed the 2002 application, its cover letter, and other materials on his behalf. See Tr. at 68.41, 68.51-52 (Watson, C.) (Wife signed 2002 application and cover letter); Tr. at 68.113-14 (Watson, E.) (same for 1999 application statement regarding Plaintiff's discharge from Postal Service).

There are discrepancies between the GPAs reported on the Plaintiff's various applications. His 1999 application accurately reflected a GPA of 2.71 for Geneva College, but inaccurately reported 4.0 for Westminster College, see Pl.'s Ex. 5; his 2002 application continued to inaccurately report Westminster as 4.0, see id.; and his 2004 application correctly stated a Westminster GPA of 3.5, but inflated his Geneva average to 2.9. See id.

The factfinder also concludes that, in all three applications and his 2002 cover letter, Mr. Watson exaggerated the nature of his supervisory responsibilities at the Post Office.

See Pl.'s Ex. 5 (applications stated Mr. Watson served as "a Supervisor" for two and 1/2 years to three years, "supervising as many as 60" or 75 employees); Ex. 3 (2002 cover letter, stating he worked as "a Supervisor" "during 4 of [his] 10 years"). At trial, the Plaintiff testified:

The Postal Service offered a plan that was called a 204-B program. It was . . . training . . . in the skills of being a supervisor. . . .

[O]nce in the program, . . . you were eligible to fill in on a daily, weekly, [or] monthly basis as needed. . . . [I]n the two-and-a-half to three year period that I [was in the program,] a low estimate [of the Plaintiff's actual supervising tenure] would have been [approximately] fifteen weeks . . . .

Tr. at 68.60-61 (Watson, E.).

Although the Watsons testified the application statements were accurate in their eyes, the factfinder believes it more likely than not that the Plaintiff engaged in resume puffery.

Also undermining the Watsons' credibility are their explanations regarding the inconsistent GPAs. Although these witnesses attributed the discrepancies to human error and lack of attention, see, e.g., Tr. at 68.14-18, 50 (Watson, C.), the factfinder concludes that they knew or should have known the applications overstated Mr. Watson's grades. See discussions supra; see also Pl.'s Ex. 3 ("[f]rom 1997-1999[,] I . . . attended college at Westminster and Geneva and . . . carried a GPA of 4.0").*fn3

Last is Ms. Watson's role in drafting the applications and her signing documents on the Plaintiff's behalf. The Watsons' explanations are all over the place, and it is not credible that Ms. Watson drafted certain documents, handed them to the Plaintiff for his review, and he handed them back to his Wife for signature. See, e.g., Tr. at 68.36 (Watson, C.) (Plaintiff "might" sign something she wrote without reviewing it, but "[h]e probably did" review 1999 application); id. at 68.41 (regarding 2002 application, Plaintiff "reviewed it, looked at it, and I signed [it]"); Tr. at 68.102-103 (Watson, E.) (although Wife signed 2002 cover letter, she did so "with [his] permission"; "I should have [read it], and I probably skimmed through it"); id. at 68.114-15 (regarding 2002 application his Wife signed, "I read it, I read it.").

Common sense dictates that, had Mr. Watson actually reviewed these materials, he would have contemporaneously affixed his signature.

To be clear, the Defendants did not rely on the discrepancies in GPA reflected in the several applications, nor do they claim the Plaintiff's exaggeration of previous supervisory responsibilities led to his non-selection. The above evidence, however, undermines the Watsons' credibility, and their testimony proves more detrimental than the underlying transgressions.*fn4

III. The Plaintiff's Discrimination Claims

A. Mr. Watson's Interview

According to his Wife, "Eldon . . . said that he had a very good interview," and this prompted the Watsons to further investigate the circumstances surrounding his non-selection.

Tr. at 68.24 (Watson, C.). The Plaintiff's beliefs regarding his performance were not well founded.

The Plaintiff admits that, given his Wife's health concerns, he became emotional during the interview:

Q: What was your state of mind at the beginning of the interview?

A: Well, at that point in time when I talked about my [W]ife's cancer, . . . . [t]hat was a really scary time; and I would say that my . . . eyes welled up, but at no point ...

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