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Summer v. Southfield Bd. of Educ.

Court of Appeals of Michigan

June 2, 2015

MEREDITH SUMMER, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
SOUTHFIELD BOARD OF EDUCATION, and SOUTHFIELD PUBLIC SCHOOLS, Defendants-Appellees

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Oakland Circuit Court. LC No. 2013-135991-CL.

Before: WILDER, P.J., and OWENS and M. J. KELLY, JJ.

OPINION

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[310 Mich.App. 662] Kurtis T. Wilder, P.J.

Plaintiff, Meredith Summer, appeals as of right an order granting summary disposition in favor of defendants, Southfield Board of Education and Southfield Public Schools. We affirm in part, reverse in part, vacate in part, and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

I. FACTS

This action arises out of a teacher layoff dispute. According to plaintiff's complaint, she began working as a teacher in the Southfield Public Schools in 1999. During the 2010-2011 school year, plaintiff was involved in an ongoing dispute with a colleague. The dispute ultimately led plaintiff to file an internal complaint in the spring of 2011, in which she claimed that the other employee had been harassing her. According to plaintiff, defendants failed to provide any [310 Mich.App. 663] information regarding the results of the investigation that followed plaintiff's complaint.

At the beginning of the 2011-2012 school year, an administrator for defendants allegedly informed an employee that she " would not have to worry about [plaintiff]" after the 2011-2012 school year. According to plaintiff, defendants subsequently observed her performance in the classroom, but never shared with her the results of the observation. At the end of the school year, defendants concluded that plaintiff's teaching performance that year was " minimally effective," but despite this evaluation rating, they did not provide a " plan of improvement" for plaintiff or otherwise give plaintiff an opportunity to improve the purported deficiencies in her performance. At the end of the 2011-2012 school year, plaintiff was laid off by defendants. According to plaintiff, she was the only teacher in the school to receive a " minimally effective" rating. Despite being laid off at the end of the 2011-2012 school year, plaintiff was subsequently hired to teach summer school during the summer of 2012.

On August 30, 2013, plaintiff filed a complaint alleging that she was laid off in violation of the Revised School Code, MCL 380.1 et seq. Plaintiff asserted that while defendants had purportedly " developed a system to effectuate standards for placements, layoffs, and recalls," which--under the requirements of MCL 380.1249--" was supposed to be based on teacher effectiveness and be rigorous, transparent and fair," nevertheless, defendants' actions in laying off plaintiff " were arbitrary, capricious, and in bad faith" in the following ways:

A. Defendants . . . retaliated against [plaintiff] by failing or refusing to share the results of her retaliation complaint [310 Mich.App. 664] [against another employee who had harassed plaintiff] despite the fact that she was the Complainant;

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B. Defendants . . . prejudged her evaluation when it [sic] decided, and declared that at the end of the 2011-2012 school year, people " would not have to worry about [plaintiff]; "
C. Defendants . . . gave [plaintiff] a " Minimally Effective" evaluation based in part on Observations that were never even shared with [plaintiff] and for which no written feedback was given;
D. Defendants . . . also harbored ill will towards [plaintiff] based on incidents when she served as the union building representative[.]

Plaintiff also alleged that defendants provided no plan of improvement and " no opportunity to cure any alleged performance shortcomings" after it rated plaintiff as minimally effective. Plaintiff's complaint requested a judgment (1) requiring defendants to recall her to her previous position, (2) requiring defendants to void and destroy her 2011-2012 school year evaluation, and (3) awarding money damages equaling her costs and attorney fees, and any other relief to which she was entitled.

Defendants filed a motion for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(4) (court lacks jurisdiction of the subject matter) and MCR 2.116(C)(8) (failure to state a claim on which relief can be granted). Defendants argued that jurisdiction over plaintiff's claim that her layoff decision was " arbitrary and capricious" or was made in bad faith rested exclusively with the State Tenure Commission (STC), because plaintiff's allegations amount to nothing more than a claim that the layoff decision constituted a subterfuge.[1] Likewise, [310 Mich.App. 665] defendants argued that the Michigan Employment Relations Commission (MERC) has exclusive jurisdiction over plaintiff's claim arising out of her union activity. Alternatively, defendants argued that plaintiff's complaint was not properly before the circuit court because she had failed to exhaust her administrative remedies.

Defendants also presented four separate bases from which they argued the trial court should conclude that summary disposition for failure to state a claim was appropriate. First, defendants contended that plaintiff failed to set forth a cause of action under MCL 380.1248 because plaintiff admitted that she was laid off after being rated minimally effective, did not allege that the evaluation process failed to follow the procedure required under the statute, and failed to make any allegation that she was laid off on the basis of seniority or tenure status. Second, defendants argued that MCL 380.1249 does not establish a private cause of action for teachers against a school district, and, therefore, plaintiff failed to state a valid claim under MCL 380.1249. Third, defendants argued in the alternative that, even if plaintiff has a private cause of action under MCL 380.1249, plaintiff's allegation that defendants did not offer her a plan of improvement following her evaluation did not constitute a violation of MCL 380.1249, because the school district was not required by statute to provide minimally effective teachers with plans of improvement until the 2013-2014 school year. Finally, defendants contended that plaintiff's allegation, that defendants denied her an opportunity to address shortcomings in her performance, failed to state a claim because plaintiff did not identify the particular statutory provision

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which they allegedly violated.[2]

[310 Mich.App. 666] In response, plaintiff argued that defendants' motion for summary disposition should be denied. Plaintiff claimed that facts supporting her allegations, if taken as true, articulated a colorable claim under the Revised School Code that defendants laid off plaintiff in an arbitrary and capricious manner and failed to use an evaluation procedure that was fair, open, and transparent. Additionally, plaintiff argued that, if the trial court concluded that plaintiff had not stated an actionable claim, she should be allowed, at the very least, to amend her pleadings. Second, plaintiff argued that it was evident from the plain meaning of the phrase " court of competent jurisdiction" in MCL 380.1248(3) that the Legislature intended to allow teachers to bring claims for reinstatement in the circuit courts of this state. Plaintiff also argued that a private cause of action could be stated under MCL 380.1249. Finally, plaintiff contended that defendants had mistaken her claim as one arising under the public employee relations act (PERA), MCL 423.201 et seq., because she had alleged no cause of action related to her union status. In support of her position that she had stated a claim under MCL 380.1248 and MCL 380.1249, plaintiff also referred to the orders entered by Oakland Circuit Court Judge James Alexander in a similar case, which denied defendant Southfield Board of Education's motions for summary disposition and held that, in that case, the plaintiffs had stated a cause of action under both MCL 380.1248 and MCL 380.1249.[3]

[310 Mich.App. 667] The trial court issued its opinion and order on February 12, 2014, granting defendants' motion for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(4) and (8). The opinion provided, in relevant part:

Plaintiff's Complaint states that she was laid off after she was rated " Minimally Effective." Plaintiff alleges that her rating was a subterfuge and that the real reason she was laid off was retaliation for an internal complaint about a co-worker. The Court finds that these allegations do not support a claim under MCL 380.1248, which requires the lay-off to be based on " teacher effectiveness." The [STC] has jurisdiction over a claim that a teacher was laid off in bad faith and for a reason that is arbitrary and capricious. Because Plaintiff has failed to exhaust her administrative remedy by filing her claim with the [STC], summary disposition is appropriate. The Court finds that MCL 380.1249 does not create a cause of action under the facts presented. While this Court understands Plaintiff's desire for it to follow the ruling made by Judge Alexander, that decision is not relevant to this case because this Plaintiff was evaluated under the new system at the end of the 2011-2012 school year. Finally, the Court finds that Plaintiff's allegations

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regarding her status as a union representative must be brought ...

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