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James Smith v. Anchorage School District

October 8, 2010


Appeal from the Superior Court of the State of Alaska, Third Judicial District, Anchorage, John Suddock, Judge. Supreme Court No. S-13285 Superior Court No. 3AN-06-12525 CI

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Stowers, Justice

Notice: This opinion is subject to correction before publication in the Pacific Reporter. Readers are requested to bring errors to the attention of the Clerk of the Appellate Courts, 303 K Street, Anchorage, Alaska 99501, phone (907) 264-0608, fax (907) 264-0878, e-mail


Before: Carpeneti, Chief Justice, Winfree, Christen, and Stowers, Justices. [Fabe, Justice, not participating.]


On October 29, 2004, the Anchorage School District terminated James Smith from his security position at Whaley Secondary School. Smith sued the School District, claiming: (1) race discrimination; (2) age discrimination; (3) disability discrimination; and (4) breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing. The superior court granted summary judgment in favor of the School District on all claims. We conclude that Smith did not present evidence raising genuine issues of material fact on any of his claims and that the School District was entitled to judgment as a matter of law on all claims. We therefore affirm the superior court's grant of summary judgment.


James Smith was a Mental Health Technician (MHT) at Whaley Secondary School, a school in the Anchorage School District for students with severe emotional disturbances and related behavioral problems. MHTs are safety and security personnel at Whaley and are trained and authorized to restrain students using the Mandt system of de-escalation and restraint. In order to use Mandt techniques, the School District requires MHTs to obtain certification and attend an annual three-day recertification training program.

A. Smith's Race Discrimination Complaint

On June 4, 2004, Smith and Todd Hess, the School District's Director of Contract Administration, met for a disciplinary conference. Hess held the disciplinary conference in order to address, among other things, complaints that Smith was making racially insensitive remarks. Smith is African-American.

During the conference, Smith expressed his belief that it was his coworkers who were acting in a racially inappropriate manner. Hess forwarded Smith's complaints to the School District's Equal Employment Opportunity Office (EEO) "[b]ecause Smith's allegations against his coworkers concerned possible racial harassment or discrimination." The EEO conducted an investigation and issued a report on November 12, 2004, concluding that there was "no evidence to support the allegation that coworkers made racial comments to [Smith]."

B. Smith's Absence From Whaley

Whaley held its annual Mandt training for returning MHTs on August 26, 27, and 30, 2004. Smith attended the first day of training, which was a Thursday. At the beginning of the day, Smith informed Whaley's principal that he intended to use personal time off for the next two training days (Friday August 27 and Monday August 30) in order to officiate at his niece's wedding in California. Smith explained that he had purchased his airline tickets for this travel in July. He was scheduled to fly out of Anchorage Thursday evening around 7 or 8 p.m. The principal told Smith that he could not take the personal days off because of the mandatory training. Later in the day, Smith informed the trainers that he was not feeling well. At lunch, Smith went to the Veteran's Administration Hospital to see a doctor, received a prescription for pain medication, and then went home.

Smith testified that he called in sick that evening for the next morning, Friday, August 27, because he was still in pain. Smith testified in a deposition that he stayed at home that day with his son. He testified that he was feeling better by the afternoon so he decided to fly that night to California. He testified that he attended the wedding on August 28 and stayed with a relative through August 29. Upon his arrival in Anchorage sometime after midnight Monday, August 30, he realized that he was sick and could not work, so he called in sick. Thus, he did not attend the second and third Mandt training days.

C. Ensuing Disciplinary Conferences

On September 8 Hess held a disciplinary conference with Smith to address "concerns related to [his] absence from work on August 27 and 30, 2004." Smith told his story, and Hess asked Smith to provide a copy of his boarding pass from his trip out of state to corroborate his story.

At the September 8 conference, Smith provided a physician's note stating that Smith was unable to walk more than 100 feet without resting, was unable to stand for longer than five or ten minutes, and may need crutches to aid in movement. Smith's MHT position required him to be in excellent health and specifically required him to be able to physically restrain students. Based on Smith's physician's note, Hess placed Smith on leave until he provided the School District with a fitness for duty statement from a physician indicating that he was medically able to perform the duties of his work position. Smith did not provide the requested information.

On September 13 Hess sent Smith a letter advising him that he had not provided the required travel documentation and giving Smith until September 17 to do so. The letter informed Smith that "[f]ailure to contact [Hess's] office [would] be viewed as insubordination." Smith still did not provide the requested information.

On September 20 Hess sent another letter notifying Smith that he had failed to provide the requested travel documentation and directing him to attend a discipline conference on ...

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