Law & Courts

High Court Declines to Hear Ex-Principal’s Race-Bias Case Over Transfer to Central Office

By Mark Walsh — June 07, 2021 4 min read
In this Nov. 4, 2020 photo, the Supreme Court in Washington.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear the appeal of a Black former North Carolina principal who alleges she was transferred to a central office position because of race discrimination. Her appeal sought clarification on what constitutes an “adverse employment action” under the main federal job-discrimination law.

Meanwhile, the court also declined to take up a major case challenging the federal system requiring that men, but not women, register for the military draft. The challengers argued that because women are now allowed into all combat roles, male-only draft registration violates the Fifth Amendment’s equal-protection clause.

Because draft registration is required for men beginning at age 18, high schools across the country are involved in reminding young men to fulfill the obligation and that the consequences for failing to do so include ineligibility for federal student aid.

The case of the North Carolina educator involves Wanza Cole, who served as a middle school principal in the Wake County school district from 2007 until 2015, when she had run-ins with her supervisors over teacher evaluations.

The district transferred her to a central office position, director of intervention services, with no change in pay or benefits, court papers say.

“Cole was devastated, both because of how the transfer would change her job and also because she realized she had been treated differently from her white peers,” says her appeal.

Cole sued, alleging race discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But a federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, in Richmond, Va., ruled that a lateral transfer with no effect on pay, benefits, or seniority was not an adverse employment action under Title VII. The appeals court said the reassignment would have to lead to some “significant detrimental effect” in pay or work conditions to fall under the statute.

The former principal appealed to the high court in Cole v. Wake County Board of Education (Case No. 20-1373), arguing that there was a significant split among the federal circuit courts over which discriminatory employment practices violate Title VII.

A transfer “necessarily alters previously established ‘terms, conditions, or privileges’” her brief says, referring to language in Title VII, and such transfers are reasonably understood as a demotion.

The Wake County district, in a brief urging the justices not to take up the case, said Cole was transferred after an investigation that brought to light her management failures as a principal. The district “elected not to take adverse action against Ms. Cole and instead opted to provide her a fresh start in a new role in central office,” the brief says.

Cole never reported to the central office position, using up leave until her administrator contract expired at the end of the 2016-17 school year, the district’s brief says.

The district argued that in contrast to the circuit split alleged by Cole, the federal appeals courts “have consistently held that the circumstances presented here—where there is a lateral transfer with no reduction in pay or benefits, no diminution in responsibility, and no material changes in the conditions of employment—are not actionable under Title VII.”

Male-Only Draft Registration

The nation last conscripted men in 1973, during the Vietnam War, and draft registration ended in 1975 before being reinstated in 1980 under President Jimmy Carter. In 1981, the Supreme Court upheld male-only draft registration in a 6-3 decision in Rostker v. Goldberg.

The new challenge was filed by a group called the National Coalition for Men on behalf of those aged 18 to 26 who are subject to the registration requirement. They argued that the key factual foundation of the court’s 1981 decision had been undermined by the opening up of all combat military roles to women. They lost in a lower court but gained support in the high court appeal from a handful of women’s rights and military associations and retired generals.

The federal government urged the court not to take up the issue at this time because “Congress is actively considering the scope of the registration requirement.”

The court denied the appeal in National Coalition for Men v. Selective Service System (No. 20-928), with three justices signing on to a statement that explained why they went along with that outcome.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Brett M. Kavanaugh, said that “the role of women in the military has changed dramatically since” the Rostker decision, with some passing “the military’s demanding tests to become U. S. Army Rangers, Navy SEALs, and Green Berets.”

But Congress has also taken an interest, establishing a commission to study the issue. That panel, the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service, issued its report last year, concluding that “[m]ale-only registration sends a message to women not only that they are not vital to the defense of the country but also that they are not expected to participate in defending it.”

Sotomayor said that “at least for now, the court’s longstanding deference to Congress on matters of national defense and military affairs cautions against granting review while Congress actively weighs the issue.”

The Supreme Court is still working on several cases being watched by educators, most notably the one involving off-campus student speech. The next day for opinions is this Thursday.

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