Dr. Sherilonda Green Wins Trial Showing District Violated Open Records Act In Order To Hide Evidence Of Race Discrimination
The Charlton County Herald recently featured Dr. Green’s victory in winning her Open Records Act at trial see here for the news story.
A copy of the transcript is available to whomever requests it at 404-654-0288 and the citations below refer to “T” for the trial transcript:
Dr. Green contends the school district’s motive to withhold Open Records is to cover up systemic discrimination within the District. Evidence of discrimination is replete in the record and includes the following: For the past 136 years of Charlton County School District’s existence, a Black woman has never been hired as a school Principal or Superintendent despite being the District being approximately one-third African American in demographic. (T-197:1-9; T-426:7-16.) The current Chairman of the Board of Education Matt Sands testified that he did not think its problematic that in the 136 years of public-school existence there has never been a Black female that has been hired as a school principal (T-426:9-25; 427:1-11) stating “it’s just the fact that that’s the way it is.” (T-426:13-14.)Board member Curtis Nixon testified he didn’t recall ever being trained on discrimination policies (T-348:3-9), stated that he was unaware that federal law and board policy prohibit retaliation as a result of reporting unlawful discrimination (T-348:9-12), and didn’t know why no one could agree to Dr. Green’s complaint of discrimination or conducted an investigation into it. (T-348:14-20.) Rather, he stated that the Board of Education decided that they would not do anything in response to Dr. Green’s complaint of discrimination. (T-351:12-15.)Plaintiff Dr. Green, a Black woman employed by the Charlton County School District where she was born and raised, testified to the ongoing racial discrimination she has been subjected to throughout her career where she has been repeatedly passed her over for job opportunities in favor of white male applicants despite the District admitting that she is well qualified and giving her good job performance evaluations. (T-199; T-65.) She described the former Superintendent transferring her to jobs that prevented her from becoming a Principal culminating with being denied the opportunity to be interviewed as a candidate for Superintendent. (T-64-78.) Specifically, Dr. Green sued to enforce the Georgia Open Records Act because the School District denied her open records documents she requested listing out the qualifications for the Superintendent job vacancy she had applied to in addition to text messages and emails that were exchanged between the Board of Education, Superintendent and others concerning the search and hiring process. In August of 2020 she first sought out the qualifications and job description for the new Superintendent’s vacancy by contacting the search firm who had posted the job announcement and making an oral request. (T-74:17-25.)Relevantly, Superintendent Dr. John Lairsey had recommended that the Board of Education hire his personal friend Dr. Bill Truby and his search firm (King Cooper) to conduct the hiring search for his successor. (T-217:10-25.) It was this search firm that Dr. Green first contacted to obtain public records subject to the Georgia Open Records Act, specifically the job description and job qualifications of the Superintendent vacancy as was supposed to be listed on the job posting. (T-74:17-25; Pl. Ex. 11; T-418:13-24; T-420:1-25.) Under the clear language of the Georgia Open Records Act, such a private entity’s documents would be considered public records subject to the Act. O.C.G.A. § 50-18-70(b)(2).There was a complete failure to announce the job qualifications for the position or provide them to Dr. Green as well as a failure to state a non-discrimination policy as well as no non-discrimination training that took place for the hiring search. (T-243; Pl. Ex. 11; T-418:13-24; 420:1-25; 339:1-2; 340:19-25; 341:1-16; 342:11-17; 344:10-16.) Dr. Green was unable to obtain these public records and Board Chairman Sands and Board member Nixon admitted that the job vacancy announcement failed to list out both the job qualifications and a non-discriminatory disclaimer as required by the Board of Education policy. (Pl. Ex. 11; T-418:13-24; 420:1-25; 339:1-2; 340:19-25; 341:1-16; 342:11-17; 344:10-16.) So, Dr. Green reached out to her Georgia Association of Educators representative, Ms. Valerie Henton, for help. (T-76:4-25.) Ms. Valerie Henton, a GAE representative for 52 counties in South Georgia, was likewise unable to obtain responses for such information. (T-40-42.) Ms. Henton testified that she too was familiar with the school board policy that required a written vacancy announcement to list out the job qualifications and a non-discrimination disclaimer which was not done. (T-40-42.) Ms. Henton testified as to the double dose of race and sex discrimination she has observed African American educators like Dr. Green experience. (T-39: 17-20.) Ms. Henton testified that in an effort to assist Dr. Green, she made a verbal open records request for such public documents directly to King-Cooper search firm as well as to the Charlton County School District seeking both the job qualifications as well as the job description. (T-41:2-25; 42:1-17.) Not only did the District fail to provide her such documents in response to her open records request, but Ms. Henton also testified that other African American members of the community like herself were similarly unable to obtain such information. (T-41:21-25; 42:1-4.)Dr. Green contends that she was being racially discriminated against by Charlton County Schools in an effort to deny her equal employment opportunity for the Superintendent’s position so that a white male finalist that was pre-determined by Superintendent Lairsey could be hired. (T-53-95.) The evidence revealed that Superintendent Lairsey had his hands involved in almost every step of the new superintendent selection process, including emailing the interview questions prior to the finalist’s interview to Joshua Popham, a job reference and friend of the finalist that was ultimately hired as new superintendent. (T-238:10-24; 94:19-25; 95:1-2.) Notably, the Superintendent did not dispute that the Board of Education does what he tells them to do. (T-208:13-17.)Dr. Green confronted her direct supervisor, Superintendent Dr. John Lairsey and made a complaint of racial discrimination regarding this denial of equal employment opportunity. (T-77:1-12.) In response, After Superintendent Lairsey told her that he couldn’t help her she went up the chain of command by making a complaint of discrimination with the Board of Education. (T-77:25.)On October 13, 2020, Dr. Green submitted a complaint of discrimination letter with the Board of Education outlining the racial discrimination she was subjected to by the Superintendent and school Board that included not being able to obtain an interview for the position of Superintendent while a lesser experienced white male was granted an interview. (Pl. Ex. 6.) That very same day, October 13th, Dr. Green emailed her first Open Records Act request in writing directly to Superintendent Lairsey as he was the designated person in charge of receiving and responding Open Records Requests for the School District via his work email address. (T-80:5-24.) Dr. Green sent her Open Records Act request to Superintendent Lairsey’s designated School District email from her personal email address. (Pl. Ex. 7.) Shortly after, Dr. Green conversed with the Superintendent’s secretary Sheila Smith about her Open Records requests she submitted and was told by the Superintendent’s secretary that she believed the superintendent was responding to the requests and they’re “working on it.” (T-81:13-20; 153-154.) Because of that conversation with Sheila Smith, on October 16th, she sent a second open records act request in writing to the Superintendent via his School District email and this time blind carbon copied the Superintendent’s secretary as well. (Pl. Ex. 8.) In the October 16th Open Records Request, Dr. Green reminded the Superintendent of the initial email sent on October 13th, informing him that Georgia law required him to respond in three days, and asked him “when will I receive the records?” (Pl. Ex. 8.)Dr. Green received no response to her October 13th and October 16th Open Records Act requests. She received a letter on October 19th from Patrick Brooks, school board attorney informing Dr. Green that the Board of Education would not meet with her to address the discrimination complaint and referred her back to the complaint process through the lower organizational level (Def. Ex. 6; T-168:11-21) despite the fact that Dr. Green was and still is the designated individual to receive complaints of discrimination as part of her job duties and she had already brought a complaint of discrimination to her direct supervisor, Superintendent Lairsey who she was making the complaint against. (T-368:17-25; 369:1-18.) Board member Curtis Nixon admitted that the only logical thing that Dr. Green could have done in going through the chain of command would have been to go to the Board of Education (T-358:13-22), couldn’t say why the school board attorney would write such a nonsensical letter (T-359:10-14), and stated that it concerned him certain responses were not provided. (T-345:24-25; 346:1-4.) When asked what Dr. Green could have done since she’s the lady that fields complaints and she already made a complaint to her boss, Board Chair Sands gruffly stated: “she knew what the hell she was doing” but couldn’t describe what that complaint process was. (T-425:1-25.) Notably, this is also where the Board Chair testified that it was not problematic that no Black females were hired as Principals in 136 years despite this being a position that is even contradicted by former Superintendent Lairsey who testified that this status quo within the District was problematic. (T-195:3-7) Nevertheless, no responses to Plaintiff’s open records requests were given. All she received was the letter from school board attorney Patrick Brooks denying her wish to discuss her complaint of discrimination with the Board which he sent this October 19th email directly to Dr. Green’s personal email, firstname.lastname@example.org, the same one she submitted her Open Records Act requests from despite the school system later claiming they did not receive them. (Def. Ex. 6.)On October 20th, at the Board meeting Dr. Green observed Rev. Dr. Bobby Roberson, an African American preacher confront the Board with questions about qualifications for the superintendent vacancy, but he too received no response at the meeting. (T-85:19-25; 419:18-24.) After the Board meeting, Dr. Green had a conversation with Board of Education member Curtis Nixon and his wife Pam Nixon via telephone. (T-84:23-25; 85:1-8.) Dr. Green testified that she asked Board member Mr. Nixon if the Superintendent had informed the Board about her Open Records request and Mr. Nixon responded: “Yeah, he told us about it” and according to Dr. Green implied that the reason why she hadn’t received her records responses was because he was trying to hide information from her. (T-84:23-25; 85:1-8.) Mr. Nixon denied stating this on the witness stand (T-332:1-25; 333:1-11) but his wife Pamela testified that he did state it to Dr. Green in her presence. (T-303:1-13.)Because the School District failed to respond to any of Dr. Green’s repeated Open Records Requests, on November 23, 2020, Dr. Green filed an Open Record Act lawsuit against Charlton County Schools to enforce compliance with the Act. On November 30, 2020, Dr. Green emailed her third Open Records Act request in writing directly to Superintendent Lairsey’s School District email address (Pl. Ex. 9) and later that day emailed a fourth amended Open Records Act request also to Superintendent Lairsey’s School District email address, this time blind carbon copying her own School District email address in addition to her personal email address. (Pl. Ex. 10.) In both Open Records requests she sought the “Superintendent’s qualifications for the vacancy that was posted on 7/25/2020” and:“All emails and text messages from the cell phones of all board members and Superintendent Dr. John Lairsey exchanged with other board members, Superintendent Dr. John Lairsey and other employees of the district, and Superintendent Dr. John Lairsey, all board members and King-Cooper & Associates from January 1, 2020-present concerning:*Dr. Sherilonda Green*Black peoples’ claims of race discrimination at the district*The lawsuit Dr. Green filed*The open records requests made by Dr. Green*The comments made by Rev. Bobby Roberson and other people about discriminatory hiring practices within the district as discussed at board meetings*Race, racism, Black Lives Matter, and the N word*New Superintendent search.”Because Dr. Green did not receive complete responsive documents to these requests, on February 1, 2021, she amended her complaint to reflect the third and fourth Open Records Act November 30th request as is her right pursuant to O.C.G.A. § 9-11-15. While Defendant provided some responses to the November 30th request on February 4th (Def. Ex. 3) and February 18th (Def. Ex 4), Dr. Green presented evidence at trial as to the responses being clearly deficient in responsiveness.The School District argued that Plaintiff’s claims should be dismissed stating that the School District had not received the Open Records Act requests sent by Dr. Green to Superintendent Lairsey’s School District email claiming that the messages had been quarantined and they did not become aware of them except through the lawsuit.The District contends the ORR contained in various emails from the Plaintiff were quarantined by the Google “Vault” system. This contention was placed into evidence by the District’s IT person, Chris Causey. Causey testified that the Plaintiff’s emails were never seen by District employees because they were quarantined by Google. His position is contradicted by the testimony of Plaintiff, Sheila Smith, Pam Nixon, and the fact that Green Bcc’d her own school system email from the same personal Gmail address and it was received. It is important to note that Causey did not check to determine if Green’s school system email address received her blind cc y failing to pull the data in that first email. In fact, the Defendant skipped over the November 30th email showing that Dr. Green had sent the same Open Records request to her own School District email address to her own entirely in Defendant’s presentation of evidence at trial. (Pl. Ex. 10.) Moreover, the evidence showed that Superintendent Lairsey frequently sent School District emails from his own personal Gmail address (email@example.com) such as the one containing the finalist interview questions to Joshua Popham (firstname.lastname@example.org) on October 13th (Pl. Ex. 20) the same day Dr. Green sent her first Open Records Act request to him from her personal Gmail. (Pl. Ex. 7.)Notably, Causey admitted changing his testimony from his deposition to at trial after he talked to a Gmail analyst. (T-392-393.) It’s also important to note that Causey has never been instructed by anyone to attempt to prevent the unknown quarantining of emails. (T-397-398; 406.) This too is telling and is evidence of an indifference to the consequences of the District’s defense of non-receipt. Causey testified that of his own volition he is attempting to fashion a solution so that the “non-receipt” defense doesn’t occur again. If the “non-receipt” defense were valid, it would be tragic for the School Superintendent and the Board of Education to fail to order that a solution be found, and yet that appears to be the case presently. The failure to direct the District IT head, Causey, to fix such a “problem” easily gives rise to an inference that there was never such a problem to begin with.Approximately nearly a year and a half after Plaintiff submitting Open Records Act requests in writing seeking such information on November 30th and nearly ten months since Plaintiff’s GAE representative made oral requests on her behalf to the School District, as of the date of the trial on June 3, 2021 and as of today, the Defendant still had not produced key documents in response to the Open Records that had been requested by the Plaintiff. Despite being aware of the November 30th, 2020 Open Records request as detailed in the lawsuit and going through extensive discovery and depositions concerning this matter, as of the date of the trial the School District and now today: 1. The qualifications for the Superintendent’s job vacancy had clearly not been produced to the Plaintiff in response to her Open Records Act requests as proven through evidence shown at trial through the testimony of the Plaintiff, as well as Defendant’s witnesses including Superintendent Lairsey, Chairman of the Board Sands and others. (T-90:23-25; 91:1-5; 119:7-10; 151:23-24; 161:20-25; 162:1-4; 401:4-8; 430:9-25; 431:1-10; 291:3-13.) 2. Email attachments that were missing from various email documents that had been produced as can be seen from the actual exhibit production such as the finalist interview questions that had been mailed by the Superintendent to Popham. (Ex. 20-21.) 3. Text messages from individuals such as Superintendent Dr. John Lairsey. (T-92:14-25; 93:125:8-17; Ex. 22.) Former Superintendent Lairsey admitted that he conducted much of his public record exchanges from his personal electronic devices and understood that he did not waive his obligation to comply with the law. (T-218:1-23.) Despite acknowledging that there were text messages that had to do with the superintendent’s search or the Plaintiff on his personal cell phone, (T-251:1-25; 252:1) he admitted that no one, including himself, has ever gone to search and retrieve those public records from his phone. (T-255:18-21.) He likewise admitted that he has never at any point in time retrieved the text messages responsive to the Open Records requests and given them to school board attorney Mr. Brooks (T-249:19-25) nor has he ever been asked by anyone to do so. (T-295:3-7.)Former Superintendent Lairsey did not dispute that Dr. Green sent her open records act requests to his correct email address; that he was in fact the custodian/point person for the Open Records Act and that no response was made within three days. (T-294:12-25; T-212.) While the District argued the Superintendent did not receive these emails sent to his District address claiming they were quarantined by the email system, Dr. Green testified that she was able to view the open records act requests sent to her own District email address just fine. (T-101:16-25; 102:1-4.) Additionally, while Superintendent Lairsey’s secretary, Sheila Smith, did not recall viewing the open records request emails, (T-365:7-17) she admitted she could have deleted it because she didn’t recognize the email address (T-365-366) and did remember discussing Dr. Green’s open records requests sent to Dr. Lairsey approximately on October 14th, one day after Dr. Green emailed them to the Superintendent and talking to Dr. Green about her requests, telling her that the responses were being put together. (T-368:2-16.) Similarly, Pam Nixon, an employee of the School District and wife of the School Board member Curtis Nixon, remembered hearing her husband tell Dr. Green about his and the former Superintendent Lairsey’s knowledge of her Open Records Act requests to him and admitted that Superintendent Lairsey was not responding to them because “you know why…..Dr. Lairsey didn’t send no records.” (T-303:1-13.)But as explained above, the District continues to violate the Georgia Open Records Act through its deficient responses—specifically having failed to produce to Dr. Green three items as listed above: 1. the qualifications listed for the Superintendent job vacancy; 2. email attachments; and 3. the text messages. The District’s own technology director testified that he has no possible explanation or defense as to this deficiency. (T-401:3-12.) Chairman of the Board Matt Sands also had no possible explanation as to why the District had failed to date to give Dr. Green the qualifications document requested. (T-430:9-25; 431:1-10.) Likewise, Chairman Sands had no possible explanation as to why there remained deficient emails produced in that they are clearly missing attachments, such as the interview questions for the newly hired Superintendent Brent Tilley that the former Superintendent mailed to his reference Joshua Popham a few hours before Dr. Tilley’s interview. (T-431:11-19.) Chairman Sands also had no explanation as to why no one requested former Superintendent Lairsey’s to conduct a search and retrieval of his text messages responsive to Dr Green’s Open Records Act requests. (T-432:19-25; 433:1-9.)