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Groening v. Glen Lake Community Schools

United States District Court, W.D. Michigan, Southern Division

June 27, 2017




         Plaintiff, Joan Groening, has sued Defendants, Glen Lake Community Schools, Fran Seymour, Ross Hazelton, Cherie Hawkins, Laura Aylsworth-Bonzelet, and Patrick Middleton, alleging that they violated the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), 29 U.S.C. § 2601, et seq., by interfering with her exercise of her rights under the FMLA and by retaliating against her for exercising her FMLA rights. Regarding the retaliation claim, Groening alleges that Defendants' retaliation was in the form of a constructive discharge. Defendants move for summary judgment on both of Groening's claims. The Court heard oral argument on the motion on June 8, 2017.

         For the reasons set forth below, the Court will grant Defendants' motion as to both claims.

         I. Facts

         A. The Parties

         Groening was employed by Glen Lake Community Schools (Glen Lake) as its Superintendent from 2006 until August of 2015, when she resigned from her position. Glen Lake is a Michigan school district located near the Sleeping Bear Dunes. Defendants Seymour, Hazelton, Hawkins, Aylsworth-Bonzelet, and Middleton were members of the Glen Lake School Board during the period of time relevant to Groening's claims.

         B. Relevant Facts Regarding Groening's Tenure

         During her years as Superintendent, Groening initiated and oversaw Glen Lake's participation in Federal Impact Aid (Impact Aid), a federal program that compensates local school districts and other governmental entities for loss of property tax revenues when real property is removed from the local tax base as a result of the federal government's property acquisition (in Glen Lake's case, Sleeping Bear Dunes). (ECF No. 59-1 at PageID.189; ECF No. 59-3 at PageID.248.) Groening's efforts resulted in Glen Lake being awarded millions of dollars in federal aid that substantially improved the district's financial position. (Id.; ECF No. 62-2 at PageID.512.) As part of her involvement in Impact Aid, Groening often attended meetings in Washington, D.C. and other major cities during the school year. (ECF No. 59-3 at PageID.248.)

         In 2013, Groening's working relationship with the school board changed when Fran Seymour was appointed a board member. Seymour was considered a no-nonsense businessman who asked tough questions and demanded answers. Former board members described Seymour as “brash, ” “condescending, ” and rude toward Groening. (ECF No. 59-11 at PageID.303; ECF No. 72 at PageID.1329.) Groening, on the other hand, was often cold toward Seymour and, at times, was evasive and would not answer Seymour's questions. (ECF No. 59-9 at PageID.288.) In short, Seymour and Groening had strong personalities that often clashed. (ECF No. 59-8 at PageID..283.) In January 2014, Seymour was elected president of the school board. Seymour's style-considered more demanding of Groening-was much different than that of former board president Jennifer Ozmera. (ECF No. 72 at PageID.1329.)

         An issue of contention both prior to and during Seymour's leadership was access to administrators' performance evaluations. Seymour and other board members, including Cherie Hawkins, thought that the board should have access to such evaluations when considering Groening's proposals for administrator raises and contract renewals. (ECF No. 59-28 at PageID.440.) Groening told the board members that the evaluations were confidential and that they could not review them.[1] (ECF No. 59-6 at PageID.270.)

         In 2013 and 2014, the school board discussed the possibility of a board member attending Impact Aid conferences with Groening to become familiar with the process and prepare to take over for Groening when she eventually left Glen Lake. (ECF No. 59-7 at PageID.278.) Groening resisted the suggestion, stating that school board members do not attend the conferences. Ultimately, the board choose to send Cherie Hawkins to attend the March 2015 conference in Washington, D.C. (ECF No. 59-3 at PageID.249.) When Hawkins returned from the conference, she reported that, contrary to what Groening had stated, numerous other board members had attended the conference. Hawkins suggested that Groening was not being truthful when she said that only administrators attended the conferences. (Id.)

         Groening's last evaluation as Glen Lake's Superintendent was finalized in August 2014, for the 2013-14 school year. Groening received an overall rating of “highly effective, ” with high marks in many areas, including the financial condition of the district, but lower marks in student achievement. Among the individual board members, three board members (Omerza, Bonzelet, and Goodrick) gave Groening overall scores falling in the “highly effective” category and four board members (Seymour, Middleton, Hawkins, and Hazelton) gave her overall scores falling in the “effective” category. (ECF No. 59-12 at PageID.308-09, 14-15, 22.)

         C. Groening Takes FMLA Leave

         In the fall of 2014, Groening took medical leave for hip replacement surgery and submitted the required FMLA documents to Glen Lake's Business Manager for approval. Groening informed the school board of her contractual medical leave, although she did not specifically inform the board members that she was taking FMLA leave. Groening's leave began on October 17, 2014. (ECF No. 59-1 at PageID.210.) She returned to work on December 1, 2014, and worked half days through the end of December. (Id. at PageID.224.)

         Prior to taking leave, Groening participated in the selection of Mike Hartigan-a retired public school superintendent-to serve as Interim Superintendent during her absence. (Id. at PageID.214.) The school board did not require Groening to work while she was on FMLA leave. (Id. at PageID.225.) Nor did Hartigan ask or require Groening to do any work while on FMLA leave. (ECF No. 59-20 at PageID.377.) In addition, the school board told Groening's staff not to contact her. (ECF No. 59-1 at PageID.239.) However, being the head of the school district, Groening wanted to be copied on emails and other communications to keep apprised of what was going on while she was away. (Id.)

         While Groening was on leave, the board continued to work on the superintendent evaluation tool, which was a work in progress. On October 17, 2014, Seymour sent Groening an email stating that he would get feedback from the board while she was on leave and that, when Groening returned, he, Groening, and the consultant Groening had retained could meet to determine what the evaluation tool would look like. (ECF no. 67-2 at pageID.1235.) Groening responded that she would look at the tool the next week. A day later, Seymour told Groening that he hoped her surgery went well and that she was feeling better, and that he would “rather [she] take the time to heal” instead of working on the tool while on leave. (Id.) Groening nonetheless elected to provide substantial comments on the evaluation tool during her leave.

         On November 19, 2014-while on leave-Groening emailed Seymour to ask him about topics that he wanted to cover at the upcoming board meeting. (ECF No. 67-4 at PageID.1243.) About a half hour later, Groening sent out an email to the board stating that she had made arrangements for food to be served at the meeting. (Id. at PageID.1242.) Shortly thereafter, Groening sent Seymour an email offering to send out a list of agenda items for the meeting. (Id. at PageID.1243.) The following week, the board held a closed session with its legal counsel, Kevin Harty, to discuss two sections of the Revised School Code. (ECF No. 59-1 at PageID.224; ECF No. 67-3 at PageID.1238.) Groening attended the meeting even though she was not required to do so. (ECF No. 59-1 at PageID.225.) Board access to employee evaluations, while not a planned topic, came up at the meeting. Harty informed the board members that employee evaluations are subject to FOIA ...

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