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Mounsey v. St. Louis Irish Arts, Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division

August 3, 2016

ST. LOUIS IRISH ARTS INC., et al., Defendants.



         This matter is before the Court on the motion of Defendants St. Louis Irish Arts, Inc. (“SLIA”) and its president, Helen Gannon, for summary judgment. Plaintiff James Mounsey, a white male, alleges that Defendants discriminated against him because his romantic partner was a black male, and retaliated against him for complaining of discrimination. Plaintiff, who is proceeding pro se, [1] asserts discrimination and retaliation claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and the Missouri Human Rights Act (“MHRA”), Mo. Rev. Stat. §§ 213.010-213.137. For the reasons set forth below, the Court will grant Defendants’ motion for summary judgment.


         Viewing the facts and all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, for purposes of this summary judgment motion, the record establishes the following. SLIA is the local branch of the Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann (“CCE”), an organization seeking to preserve and promote traditional Irish music, dance, and culture. Gannon, a white female, is the president of SLIA and owner of St. Louis Irish Arts School (the “School”), an Irish dance school operated by SLIA. Gannon runs the School with help from a group of unpaid volunteers.

         In the spring of 2012, Defendants agreed to sponsor Plaintiff on an H-1B worker visa to teach at the School. Plaintiff was already in the United States, working as a lecturer at the University of Missouri-St. Louis (“UMSL”), under a J-1 visa that was due to expire soon. Under the H-1B visa sponsored by SLIA, Plaintiff could continue to lecture at UMSL and other institutions as a representative of SLIA, while also teaching at the School. SLIA, by its attorneys, submitted Plaintiff’s visa application in May 2012.

         Plaintiff asserts in his unverified complaint that SLIA required him to work far greater hours than those represented in his visa application and that he was not paid for the additional hours worked, and for that reason, Plaintiff filed a wage-and-hour complaint with the Department of Labor (the “DOL”). It is unclear from the record when the DOL complaint was filed, but the DOL completed its investigation on or about June 27, 2014, and found that SLIA owed Plaintiff back wages in the amount of $9, 464.25, for the period covering April 7, 2012, to February 22, 2014.

         The parties dispute how many employees SLIA employed while Plaintiff worked there (from 2012 to 2013). On May 15, 2012, Gannon signed, under penalty of perjury and as part of her visa application for Plaintiff, a petition indicating that SLIA had six current employees in the United States. However, in an affidavit in this case, Gannon states that SLIA paid only five teachers, including Plaintiff, at any given time in 2012 and 2013. Gannon also states in her affidavit that SLIA’s teachers were independent contractors rather than employees. In support of this statement, Gannon asserts that, when the DOL investigated Plaintiff’s wage-and-hour complaint, the DOL concluded that all of SLIA’s teachers except Plaintiff were independent contractors rather than employees.[2]

         In June 2012, Gannon learned that Plaintiff was in a romantic relationship with Napoleon Owens, a black male unaffiliated with SLIA. Plaintiff emailed Gannon on June 23, 2012, asking Gannon to keep her knowledge of Plaintiff’s relationship with Owens private and thanked Gannon for her discretion.

         On July 3, 2012, Gannon sent an email to Plaintiff stating that she was “upset” that Plaintiff brought Owens to a rehearsal for a concert that had taken place the night before. Gannon stated that Owens “had no business being there” and that Gannon had “never accepted teachers bringing their date to work.” (Doc. No. 39-4 at 11.) Gannon further stated that the director of the concert hall had asked her if the “black kid” (referring to Owens) sitting in the lobby was part of her group. Gannon asked that Plaintiff keep his “personal life outside [her] school” and stated:

Your relationship with Napoleon is causing a distraction in your work and in the school. I am having second thoughts on your future involvement with the school for many reasons. This is a new situation for me. I have a lot of home schooled families who are very conservative and may want to explain sexually [sic] when they are ready and not because they see hear something around the school.
You have made some grave decisions very very quickly which will affect every aspect of your life. Flaunting them and forcing us to accept them will have consequences out of your control. We love you dearly like a son and that gives me the liberty of telling you how I feel.


         Over the next few months, SLIA finished the visa process on Plaintiff’s behalf, and Plaintiff’s H-1B visa was issued on September 28, 2012, with an expiration date of September 30, 2015. (Doc. No. 45-1.)

         On March 21, 2013, Plaintiff sent an email to Gannon complaining of two incidents that occurred in his Irish dance class. The first was that before class, he heard one student “sniggering to [her friend] about a black kid who was walking down the street outside SLIA, ” and the second was that, during class, another student shouted “Napoleon!” as an example for the letter “N” while practicing the Irish alphabet. (Doc. No. 39-3 at 18.) Gannon responded: “This is so sad. I had hoped your private life would remain private. I am not sure how to deal with it but I will find a way. Napolean [sic] has become familiar to the school which I wanted to avoid and take it slowly. We will work it out but I am grateful you told me about it.” Id. at 17-18. In a further email exchange the same day, Gannon asked that Plaintiff let her deal with the students and agreed that what went on in the class was “totally unacceptable.” Id. at 17. Plaintiff responded the next day, thanking Gannon for “all the support and acceptance” and agreeing to let Gannon know about and handle any similar behavior in the future. Id.

         On April 2, 2013, Plaintiff sent an email to Gannon describing another incident with his students. Plaintiff stated that he reprimanded the students’ use of cell phones during class, which he found disruptive and rude. Plaintiff yelled at the students and ultimately confiscated the students’ cell phones. Gannon responded that, although she agreed Plaintiff must be respected as a teacher, one of the students was very upset about the incident and Plaintiff should have come to Gannon sooner with the issue. Gannon stated that she did “not understand why [Plaintiff] chose to handle whatever happened without consulting [Gannon]” and that the incident “reflect[ed] very badly on the school.” (Doc. No. 39-3 at 19.)

         On September 15, 2013, Plaintiff sent Gannon a letter addressed to the SLIA board regarding Plaintiff’s role with the School during the upcoming fall semester. In the letter, Plaintiff stated that he wanted to update the board on the changes in his “circumstances and working capacity” for the fall semester, and specifically that his “situation personally, professionally, medically and financially [had] all changed dramatically.” (Doc. No. 39-4 at 6.) Plaintiff stated that his “family in Ireland [had] undergone huge personal difficulties” in the past year; that he “had to put [his] PhD on hold as [he was] unable to deal with all of the stresses that full time study demands along with the other difficulties faced”; that his salary at UMSL remained at $6, 000 a year, on which he could not live, and did not include health benefits; that he felt that his “working role at SLIA went above and beyond the role of ‘teacher, ’” and he could no longer assist with things like “websites, paperwork, presentations, grant applications, publications”; and that he could not return to teaching the group dance classes, which he described as a “negative classroom environment, ” because the “level of resentment, undermining and lack of support in dealing with discipline and personal issues ha[d] made it far too upsetting for [him].” Id. With regard to the group dance classes, he stated:

I feel it unfair to be corrected and demeaned in front of these wonderful students. My personal life is to remain outside the classroom and the school. I will not have my personal life commented on or viewed as a “negative” impact on the school. I have a right as an employee, a person and an individual to not be judged on my sexual orientation.

Id. He ended the letter by stating that he wished to continue to teach Irish language, private dance lessons, and harp ensemble if the SLIA board desired. Id.

         On September 26, 2013, Gannon offered Plaintiff the opportunity to teach an Irish language class at SLIA for the fall 2013 semester, which would allow Plaintiff to continue working for SLIA and to maintain his visa. Gannon stated that the class would be held on Mondays at 7 p.m. and that Plaintiff would be paid $50 per class night. But Gannon stated that if the attendance numbers dropped “too low, ” SLIA may need to reevaluate whether to continue the language class. (Doc. No. 39-3 at 21.) Gannon asked Plaintiff to keep her informed of cancellations and to keep attendance each night. Id.

         In early October 2013, Plaintiff took a set of Irish drums from the School without permission for use at a kindergarten class he taught at another facility. Plaintiff returned most, if not all, of the drums approximately one month later, upon Gannon’s request; the parties dispute whether one of the drums was missing.

         On October 24, 2013, Joel Glassman, Director of UMSL’s International Studies and Programs, emailed Gannon to ask whether Plaintiff still worked for SLIA because he had heard “indirectly” that Plaintiff did not, which would mean that Plaintiff was no longer permitted to work for UMSL. Gannon responded that, while Plaintiff was not teaching the Irish dance class, he was teaching other programs at SLIA, including an Irish language class. Glassman replied to this email on October 28, 2013, thanking Gannon for her update and stating that he met with Plaintiff a few days prior, at Plaintiff’s request, and had received an update from Plaintiff as well. Gannon emailed Plaintiff the same day asking him to communicate with her and inquiring about what he told Glassman about his relationship with SLIA. According to Defendants, Plaintiff never informed them what he told Glassman about his relationship with SLIA or how he portrayed SLIA to the institutions at which he taught as a SLIA representative.

         Defendants assert that Plaintiff canceled several of the six scheduled Irish language classes he was supposed to teach in the fall 2013 semester, and that he canceled at least one class without notice to Gannon or the students. In support of this allegation, Gannon provides her affidavit, stating that Plaintiff never gave her any information on the Irish language classes he held or canceled, and that Plaintiff never provided a list of enrolled students. Defendants also cite an email Gannon sent to Plaintiff on October 28, 2013, asking Plaintiff to inform Gannon ahead of time of class cancellations because a student named Jennifer did not know the last week’s class was canceled and had waited in a hallway for 30 minutes for class to start. (Doc. No. 39-4 at 15.) Plaintiff generally denies these allegations and cites two emails in support of his denial. The first is an email he sent to Gannon and a student named Randy on November 11, 2013, stating that there would not be any language class that night on account of a holiday. The second is an email he sent to Gannon the next day, November 12, 2013, stating that he did not inform the whole class of the November 11 cancellation because he believed the other students were not able to attend that class in any event. In this email, Plaintiff also provided Gannon a list of the four students enrolled in the Irish language class. (Doc. No. 45-4.)

         On December 2, 2013, SLIA asked Plaintiff to sign a Memorandum of Understanding, which Defendants assert was necessary because of Plaintiff’s ongoing lack of communication with them. This Memorandum stated that it would “clarify and detail” Plaintiff’s relation and obligations to SLIA. The Memorandum stated that SLIA would continue to support Plaintiff’s employment and visa sponsorship until May 31, 2014, in return for Plaintiff agreeing to the following stipulations:

1) you will fulfill your obligations with [UMSL and two other institutions at which Plaintiff taught through his affiliation with SLIA];
2) as the holder of a visa sponsored by SLIA, you agree to represent SLIA, CCE, their leadership and board members, in the best possible terms at all times;
3) you will not discuss this agreement or any aspect of your relationship with SLIA, its president, or any of its board members with anyone, either in the US, Ireland, or elsewhere;
4) you will not post or write anything which may appear in any form of printed or social media or the internet either as a result of direct action by you or as a result of an action by a third party, whether on your behalf of not.

(Doc. No. 39-4 at 25.) The Memorandum stated that Plaintiff’s failure to comply with any of the foregoing would result in the immediate termination of this agreement and of SLIA’s commitment to sponsor ...

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