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Sparks v. South Kitsap School District

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Tacoma

March 18, 2014

DEREK SPARKS, Plaintiff,
SOUTH KITSAP SCHOOL DISTRICT, and DAVE LAROSE, an individual, Defendants.


RONALD B. LEIGHTON, District Judge.


THIS MATTER is before the Court on Defendants' Motion to Dismiss. [Dkt. #24]. Plaintiff Sparks, an African American, was a counselor at Defendant South Kitsap School District. He claims that fellow employees made racial remarks to and about him during his four-year tenure. He and his employer also had tension over his medical leave, his extracurricular activities, and his performance. The District voted to not renew his contract at the end of the 2010-2011 school year.

Sparks sued the District and its Superintendent, LaRose, claiming that his contract was not renewed because of his race and because he complained about his colleagues' alleged racial remarks. He asserts federal discrimination and retaliation claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1981; and parallel state law claims under Washington's Law Against Discrimination ("WLAD"). He also asserts a wrongful termination claim and seeks punitive damages. Defendants move to dismiss all claims, arguing that Sparks does not plausibly state a claim that Defendants declined to renew his contract because of his race, or because he had complained about coworkers' racial comments.


Derek Sparks was hired as a counselor in the South Kitsap School District in 2009. He also coached football. He claims that fellow employees made racially charged remarks during his tenure. For example, not long after Sparks started, Dr. Thomas Mosby (Sparks' supervisor) told him that Sandy Elton (an administrative assistant) had referred to Sparks as the "chocolate" candidate behind his back-while recommending that the District hire him. He also claims that other District employees made racial remarks directly to him. Dave Neighbors (a teacher), called Sparks an "uppity N****" because he drove a new car to work. On another occasion, Jim Fairweather (a coach), told Sparks he liked him because he did not "act like a N*****" and "was articulate." Sparks claims he complained to Mosby after each of these incidents, but each time Mosby laughed about the remarks and did nothing.

Sparks stepped down as football coach in late May 2010 because he could not deal with the other coaches, "who were jealous of his celebrity status, write-ups in the newspaper and great connection with the students." Sparks' conflicts with Elton also persisted during this period. Sparks emailed Mosby in December 2010, complaining that Elton was still insubordinate and was bad mouthing Sparks, and claiming that he faced increasingly hostile work environment. Sparks claims that his complaints were ignored[2] and that Mosby appeared worried about losing his job if he escalated the complaint. In early May 2011, Mosby informed Sparks that he "had some haters" and that the Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources, Gregory Roberts, was investigating him. At some point, Elton took a document from Sparks' desk that showed Sparks had been paid for a speaking engagement at Washington State University, and gave it to Roberts.

Sparks took sick leave for one workweek in March 2011, saying that he was ill. He also emailed Roberts on May 5, 2011 to request personal leave for May 20 for an unspecified reason. A few days later Mosby warned Sparks that the District was going to "railroad" him. Roberts emailed Sparks on May 11 to inform him that the District was investigating the possibility that Sparks had violated his employment contract and the District's conflict of interest policies. Nevertheless, a few days later, Roberts granted Sparks' May 5 request for personal leave. On May 16, Sparks learned that Elton had told Roberts that Sparks was selling t-shirts out of his office.[3] Sparks claims he merely made a t-shirt donation to the South Kitsap track team.

In June, Mosby showed up at Sparks' office and "frantically" showed him a Roberts document claiming that Mosby knew about and approved "the leave days in question."[4] Mosby demanded that Sparks "fix it" by telling Roberts and Kurt Wagner, Deputy Supervisor, that Mosby had in fact not approved the leave and that Sparks had lied when he said Mosby had. In response, Sparks told Mosby that Roberts' report was "all lies."

On July 7, LaRose met with Sparks one-on-one. LaRose told Sparks that he was going to recommend that the District not renew Sparks' employment contract. LaRose gave Sparks the option to resign, but Sparks refused. On July 13, the Board of Directors of the District[5] voted to not renew Sparks' employment contract and LaRose sent Sparks a formal letter the next day informing him of the decision. Sparks' Complaint does not recite the reason the District gave for declining to renew his contract, but it does claim that whatever the stated reasons were, they were false and pretextual. Sparks claims that he was fired because he is African-American and because he had complained about racially discriminatory workplace conduct.

Sparks sued[6] under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 (the right to contract free from racial discrimination) and under WLAD (which prohibits disparate treatment based on race). He also claims common law wrongful termination in violation of public policy, and seeks punitive damages. Defendants move to dismiss all of these claims. They argue that Sparks has not plausibly pled facts or claims from which a discriminatory or retaliatory intent can be inferred.

Because Sparks has pled facts that permit the Court to infer a connection between the alleged racial remarks, Sparks' complaints, Mosby's inaction, and the Board's vote to not renew Sparks' contract, the Motion to Dismiss the § 1981, WLAD, and punitive damages claims is DENIED. However, because the common law wrongful termination claim is unavailable to Sparks as a matter of law, the Motion to Dismiss that claim is GRANTED.


The Defendants move to dismiss all claims pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), claiming that the Sparks has not met (and cannot meet) Iqbal and Twombly's heightened pleading standard. Sparks opposes the motion on two main grounds.[7] First, Sparks argues that the Defendants are confusing the standard for pleading with the standard for summary judgment. Second, Sparks argues that he has in fact plausibly claimed that ...

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