United States: Strasburger Successfully Defends Dallas Housing Authority Against Breach Of Employment Contract And Civil Rights Violations Claims

Last Updated: October 20 2014
Article by Melody Smith, Jadd F. Masso and Katie Anderson

"It is my hope that the Court's clear and concise opinion in this matter settles the issue of whether DHA discriminates in its hiring practices," stated Greg Mays, Dallas Housing Authority's General Counsel.

On October 14, the Dallas Court of Appeals for the Fifth District of Texas upheld a summary judgment in favor of the Dallas Housing Authority ("DHA") on all claims in a case brought against DHA by a former City of Dallas Housing employee for breach of contract, substantive and procedural due process claims under Section 1983, and race discrimination claims under Section 1981.

Despite having all of his claims tossed out by the trial court, former City of Dallas Housing Manager Jerry Killingsworth continued to prosecute his claim against DHA. Killingsworth claimed DHA backed out of a deal to hire him as DHA's President and Chief Executive Officer and instead re-negotiated the contract of its existing CEO due to his race (Caucasian).

Killingsworth claimed that he entered into a binding employment contract with DHA. The purported contract was in fact a letter agreement to Killingsworth from the then DHA Board Chairman that included an express provision that the agreement was nonbinding unless it was both signed by the Board Chairman and approved by the Board of Commissioners. After executing the letter agreement, but, before Board approval, Killingsworth resigned from his position with the City of Dallas against the advice of the DHA Board Chairman and despite the express language in the letter. When community support and appreciation for the then existing CEO Ann Lott was expressed to the Board at a public meeting, the Board decided to take the matter under further advisement and later voted to begin the process of negotiating a new contract with the existing CEO.

Represented by Jadd Masso, Katie Anderson, and Melody Smith of Strasburger & Price, and with assistance and support by Greg Mays, General Counsel of DHA, the agency successfully argued in the District Court, and before the Dallas Court of Appeals, that the letter agreement with Killingsworth required subsequent approval by the DHA Board in order to become a valid contract, and thus no contract existed between DHA and Killingsworth. The Court of Appeals rebuffed Killingsworth's argument that Board approval occurred prior to his execution of the agreement, explaining that the approval provision would then be meaningless because of the express language requiring (subsequent) Board approval.

The Court of Appeals also agreed with DHA that Killingsworth's due process claims failed because he could not show the existence of a valid contract with DHA and thus had no property interest in employment with DHA, a necessary component to sustain such claims. Additionally, DHA successfully argued that the then existing CEO's new contract was justified by her accomplishments during her tenure, her leadership skills, and her service to the community rather than the new contract being a product of her race (African-American); the court recognized that there was no objective evidence of race discrimination, only Killingsworth's subjective belief that he was discriminated against because he is white. Finally, DHA successfully argued multiple procedural issues related to the timing of the trial court's summary judgment ruling and the scope of discovery. Killingsworth has not publicly commented on whether he intends to appeal his claims to the Texas Supreme Court.

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Melody Smith
Jadd F. Masso
 
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