Federal judge denies motion to dismiss teacher lawsuit


A federal judge has denied a request by the Watson Chapel School District to throw out a lawsuit filed by a teacher who claimed he was discriminated against because of his religion.

Judge Kristine G. Baker said the claims by Mark Leon Essex Smith of discrimination, hostile work environment and retaliation “shall proceed to trial.”

Smith filed the federal suit last year, claiming that he wore Muslim attire to school on Sept. 10, 2010, to celebrate a Muslim holiday and Principal Henry Webb sent him home to change his clothes.

The school district argued that Smith was not discriminated against because the district has a policy that prohibits promoting political candidates, political parties or theologies. In the court ruling, Baker said there are “material issues of fact in dispute,” particularly whether Smith was discriminated against on the basis of a bona fide religious belief and whether the district applied its policy neutrality.

Regarding the allegation of discrimination, Smith argued that he was removed from his teaching position and reassigned to a position in the alternate school because he filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint.

The school district had contended that it had legitimate non-discriminatory reason for reassigning Smith and said he suffered “no adverse employment action” because his salary remained the same.

The judge responded further.

“There are issues of fact that remain regarding the resulting changes in Mr. Smith’s responsibilities, seniority and future career prospects because of the reassignment,” Baker said.

In addition to the federal lawsuit, Smith has also filed a lawsuit against the district in Jefferson County Circuit Court, alleging that he was not given a duty-free lunch period for 92 work days, approximately three days per week, during the 2011-2012 school year.

The lawsuit said state law provides that any teacher who does not receive a duty-free lunch period should he paid at their hourly rate of pay for each missed period.

According to the suit, Smith is paid $32.32 per hour and said he is owed $1,486 plus interest.

That lawsuit was assigned to Second Division Circuit Judge Rob Wyatt Jr.