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Wilbanks v. Ypsilanti Community Schools

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

July 27, 2017

AMBROSE WILBANKS, JR., Plaintiff,
v.
YPSILANTI COMMUNITY SCHOOLS, YPSILANTI COMMUNITY SCHOOLS BOARD OF EDUCATION, DR. BENJAMIN EDMONDSON, AARON ROSE and DONALD WOOD, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT, (DOC. 16)

          AVERN COHN, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. INTRODUCTION

         This is an employment retaliation case. Ambrose Wilbanks, Jr. (Wilbanks), a former special needs teacher at Ypsilanti Middle School, is suing the school district, Ypsilanti Community Schools, for wrongful termination.

         Wilbanks also names as defendants the school board-Ypsilanti Community Schools Board of Education-and school officials. They are: (1) Aaron Rose, Principal of Ypsilanti Middle School; (2) Dr. Benjamin Edmondson, the district's Superintendent; and (3) Donald Wood, the district's Human Resources Director.

         A. The Case

         Wilbanks says defendants retaliated against him for complaining to Rose and others at Ypsilanti Middle School of the school's failure to provide mandated services to students with disabilities. He claims retaliation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., and Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 701 et seq.

         Defendants say Wilbanks was terminated for twice using physical force against students, PH and DH. Rose referred the incidents to Wood for investigation. Wood recommended termination to the school board. After a meeting, the board accepted the recommendation and terminated Wilbanks.

         B. Pending Motion

         Defendants have filed a motion for summary judgment, (Doc. 16), to which Wilbanks responded, (Doc. 20), and defendants replied, (Doc. 22).

         C. Supporting Exhibits

         Attached to the statements of fact are (1) e-mails from Wilbanks to officials at Ypsilanti Middle School and to the school board president, (Doc. 20-1 at 25-32, 35-36; Doc. 17-6 at 7, 12); (2) videos of the two incidents, (Doc. 17-9); (3) an affidavit of Wilbanks, (Doc. 20-1 at 63-65); (4) disciplinary records of PH and DH, (Doc. 20-1 at 20-24);[1] (5) district policies on use of force, (Doc. 20-1 at 62, 109-10); (6) documentation of Wood's investigation and termination charges, (Docs. 17-11 to 17-14); (7) the school board's findings and decision, (Docs. 17-15, 17-17); and (8) depositions of Wilbanks, Rose, Edmondson and Wood, (Docs. 17-3, 23-3 to 23-5).

         D. Motion Hearing and Supplementation of the Record

         On June 14, 2017, the Court held a hearing on the motion after which the parties supplemented the record relating to the school board meeting, (Docs. 24, 25). The attached exhibits include,

• correspondence between Wilbanks's counsel and school district counsel in advance of the school board meeting, (Doc. 24 at 6-7, 11, 16-18);
• an affidavit of Wilbanks's counsel regarding the meeting, (id. at 8-10);
• an affidavit of Wilbanks regarding the meeting, (id. at 12-15);
• an affidavit of Wood regarding the meeting, (Doc. 25-4); and
• an affidavit of the school board president regarding the meeting, (Doc. 25-5)

         E. Disposition

         A school district may not terminate a teacher because the teacher advocates for pupils with disabilities. If school officials recommend termination with this motivation, and succeed, the school district may be liable even if the school board which accepted the recommendation acted unwittingly. After accusing the administration of failing to follow the law, Wilbanks was seen on video twice using force against a student. The school board terminated him at a meeting days after a recommendation by Wood, who investigated the matter on the report of Rose on the incident.

         The question to be answered is cannot one reasonably infer that Wilbanks was terminated because of his complaints, and that his use of force was a pretext for retaliation? The Court finds the answer is no.

         Defendants' motion for summary judgment, (Doc. 16), is GRANTED and the case is DISMISSED.[2]

         II. FACTS

         A. Hiring and Promotion

         Wilbanks was hired by the district in 2007 as a teacher's aide. In 2013, he was promoted to special needs teacher in a classroom at Ypsilanti Middle School. He did not have tenure.

         B. Complaint to Administration

         Wilbanks began the 2015-2016 year complaining to administration regarding the services available to his pupils and the state of his classroom.

         In an e-mail from Wilbanks dated September 8, 2015 to his supervisor, a special education administrator, and an executive secretary, Wilbanks accused the school district of failing to provide “appropriate” education for pupils by removing them from general education settings, and of ignoring individualized education programs (IEPs) which called for aides to assist Wilbanks (there were none). (Doc. 20-1 at 27).[3]Wilbanks asserted this was a “violation of . . . federal law.” (Id.).

         Wilbanks met the next day with the special education director, who temporarily reassigned an aide from another classroom to address Wilbanks's concerns. (Id. at 28). Wilbanks followed up with an e-mail that day confirming the meeting and adding Rose to the e-mail chain. In his e-mail, Wilbanks reiterated the “absence of any [aides]” in his classroom and that this conflicted with “[a]ny cursory review of the number of students on [his] caseload[] or the needs contained in the IEP's of these children.” (Id.).

         The same day, Rose responded to Wilbanks: “This is good news regarding [the reassigned aide] Thanks for advocating for your programs and students I support your efforts and will push whenever possible.” (Doc. 17-16 at 7).

         C. Incident 1 (PH) - September 14, 2015

         1.

         On September 14, 2015, PH had been sent into the hallway from his art classroom for being disruptive. Wilbanks saw PH roaming the hallway unattended.

         2.

         It is against school policy for students to wander a hallway unattended. (Doc. 20-1 at 61). Policy permits teachers to use reasonable force to “remove a student who refuses to comply with a request to behave or report to the office.” (Id. at 62).

         3.

         The video depicts PH shouting in the direction of Wilbanks, his hands animated. PH turned and walked to the classroom door where others had congregated. Wilbanks approached from behind. PH turned and walked up to Wilbanks.

         In deposition, Rose described the events leading to the encounter, based on his conversations with Wilbanks and PH and after reviewing the video (see below), as, (Doc. 23-4 at 48-49),

“Mr. Wilbanks described PH's behavior as loud, inappropriate for the hallway and the learning environment. Disrespectful may have been a term that described his behavior, certainly his response to Mr. Wilbanks asking him to be quiet and quiet down. Basically just shrugged him off and kept doing what he wanted to do and PH acknowledged that and owned that.
Mr. Wilbanks followed him, asking his name, what he was doing, that sort of thing. To my knowledge PH didn't respond as he should have to the adult . . . and they had some exchange.”

         4.

         The video depicts PH trying to sidestep Wilbanks. In response, Wilbanks moved his body to block PH from getting by. Every time PH attempted, Wilbanks repositioned and blocked him. PH bolted. Wilbanks grabbed PH by the torso as he ran. The inertia of the two led PH to crash into the wall, where Wilbanks cornered PH.

         5.

         PH went to Rose after the incident and told him Wilbanks “put his hands on me.” (Id. at 48). In a written statement prepared as he viewed the video afterward, ...


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