United States District Court, W.D. Michigan, Southern Division
J. QUIST UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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.
reasons set forth below, the Court will grant Defendants'
motion as to both claims.
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.
Relevant Facts Regarding Groening's Tenure
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.)
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.)
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. (ECF No. 59-6 at PageID.270.)
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
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.)
Groening Takes FMLA Leave
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.)
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.)
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.
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