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Hartwell v. Houghton Lake Community Schools

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

February 16, 2018

SHAWNA HARTWELL, Plaintiff,
v.
HOUGHTON LAKE COMMUNITY SCHOOLS, et al, Defendants.

          Magistrate Judge, Patricia T. Morris

          ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT, AND DISMISSING PLAINTIFF'S COMPLAINT

          THOMAS L. LUDINGTON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         On March 3, 2017, Plaintiff Shawna Hartwell filed a complaint against Defendants Houghton Lake Community Schools and Collins Elementary School Principal Amy Peterson (in her official capacity). ECF No. 1. Plaintiff was employed at Collins Elementary as a kindergarten teacher from August 2014 until June 13, 2016. Her probationary teaching contract was not renewed after that date. (referred to by the parties as “non-renewal” or alternatively “termination”). The complaint asserts two counts under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violations of the first and fourteenth amendments. Id. at 8, 10. Plaintiff asserts that Defendants terminated her employment because of her relationship with her husband and her stepchildren, in violation of her first amendment right to intimate association and her due process right to marry.

         After several months of discovery, Defendants moved for summary judgment on September 19, 2017. ECF No. 23. Because Defendant's did not produce court ordered discovery, Plaintiff had not received complete discovery when her response brief was due. Consequently, a substantial amount of discovery was conducted after the motion for summary judgment was briefed. Defendant Amy Peterson was deposed as well as Susan Tyer, superintendent of Houghton Lake Community Schools. Teacher evaluations were finally produced, well after Defendants were directed to produce them. The document production submitted by Defendants was missing two of the five years of evaluations that were ordered to be produced. Plaintiff also learned of the existence of additional documentation they had timely sought, but that Defendants did not produce. Once Defendants did produce these documents, several months after the initial discovery deadline, Plaintiff sought leave to supplement her response to the motion for summary judgment to incorporate additional information learned during discovery. ECF No. 38. In lieu of granting that request, the briefing on the motion for summary judgment was stricken in its entirety, the scheduling order was adjourned, and a new dispositive motion deadline was set. Defendants filed their new motion for summary judgment on December 12, 2017. ECF No. 46. Plaintiff responded on January 2, and Defendants replied on January 11. ECF Nos. 49, 51.

         I.

         Shawna Hartwell (“Plaintiff” or “Mrs. Hartwell”) is married to Scott Hartwell (“Mr. Hartwell”). Mr. Hartwell has two children, G.H. (age 13), and K.H. (age 10). Scott Hartwell's ex-wife, Neika Hartwell-King (“Ms. King” or “Ms. Hartwell-King”), is the mother of the two children. One of the children was a student at Collins Elementary while Plaintiff was employed there. Mr. Hartwell and Ms. King have joint custody of G.H. and K.H. The children reside with Mr. and Mrs. Hartwell part of the time, and with Ms. King part of the time, pursuant to a state court order. Plaintiff also has a son who lives with her and Mr. Hartwell.

         Defendant Amy Ms. Peterson (“Ms. Peterson” or “Defendant Peterson”) is the principal of Collins Elementary. Ms. Peterson was close friends with Plaintiff's mother. Hartwell Dep. at 14:19-20, ECF No. 46-3. Ms. Peterson approached Mrs. Hartwell regarding employment and Collins Elementary, and Mrs. Hartwell was hired. Id. at 16:10-13. Ms. Peterson knew the Hartwells and was aware of Mr. Hartwell's divorce. Id. at 14:19-15:24.

         At the end of her second year of teaching, Mrs. Hartwell's probationary contract was not renewed by Defendant Board of Education. Principal Peterson sent Mrs. Hartwell a letter notifying her that she was recommending against renewal based on the following: “1. Failure to provide quality instruction; 2. Failure to effectively provide classroom management; 3. Inability or unwillingness to accept constructive criticism or to follow directives when areas of concern are brought to her attention. She becomes defensive and fails to improve; 4. Failure to work cooperatively and professionally with other teachers, mentor, and administration.” ECF No. 46-9. Ms. Peterson sent a letter to the board recommending against renewal of Mrs. Hartwell “because her services have been minimally effective. The rationale for this recommendation has been included in the teacher's performance evaluations.” ECF No. 46-11. The board adopted the recommendation. ECF No. 46-14.

         A.

         At some point during Mrs. Hartwell's employment at Collins Elementary, Ms. King began contacting Ms. Peterson and Superintendent Brent Cryderman (Cryderman) by phone and/or email regarding Mrs. Hartwell. Peterson Dep. at 37. Ms. King had concerns about her children, and specifically about Mrs. Hartwell's contact with the children at school. Id.

         On August 11, 2015, Ms. Peterson sent the following email to Cryderman:

I have been meaning to tell you . . . Neika Hartwell[King] . . . called me a few times with concerns of Shawna Hartwell (step mom) “harassing” the children during summer enrichment. Apparently the children live with Neika and she won't let Shawna and/or Scott (biological dad) see the kids. I haven't witnessed any “harassing”, but did speak to Shawna regarding the concern. Shawna told me she received a letter from Neika's attorney, both of our names were listed as being subpoenaed. I'm not sure what we would have to offer? I know Neika contacted you last year, just wanted to give you a warning.

ECF No. 49-4. Ms. Peterson had a conversation with Mrs. Hartwell regarding Ms. King's complaints around August of 2015. Id. at 44-45. They discussed Mrs. Hartwell's difficulty communicating with Ms. King outside of school. Id. Ms. Peterson was aware that Mrs. Hartwell may have been having conversations with her step-children at lunch time or during break, but there was nothing that came to light that seemed inappropriate. Id.

         On September 9, 2015, Mrs. Hartwell sent the following email to Cryderman:

Good evening, I spoke with Amy [Ms. Peterson] earlier and she informed me that Neika, my husband Scott's ex-wife, has been in contact with you regarding me. Amy informed me today she is worried that this is hurting my professional career. I wanted to inform you while I am still a parent, this has not affected my job. Professionally I am performing my duties as a teacher for our district. I am unable to control what Neika has or will say about me. If there is something being said that you feel I need to be aware of please let me know. Sorry there have been so many issues my husband is working on the issue, it is not in my control.

ECF No. 49-6. Ms. Peterson denies ever making the statement referenced in the email about Mrs. Hartwell's professional career being hurt as a result of issues with Ms. King. Peterson Dep. at 46. Mrs. Hartwell also testified that, during this conversation, Ms. Peterson advised her she felt it would be best if Mrs. Hartwell only spoke to the kids during her husband's parenting time. Hartwell Dep. at 33. Mrs. Hartwell understood this suggestion as a directive from a superior. Id. at 36-37. Ms. Peterson testified that she told Mrs. Hartwell not to contact the children while she was teaching, which Ms. Peterson intended to be limited to the school day. Peterson Dep. at 160.

         On September 10, 2015, Mrs. Hartwell sent the following email to Ms. Peterson:

Hello Amy, I would like to see what memo is being added to my records. I am very concerned about the statement made earlier about this effecting my job. I spent maybe ten minutes on the phone last week during one day of professional development. And only about two minutes of that time was pd we were on a break during the rest of that time. Also I made a phone call during my prep time. Anything else I did was during my lunch or after 3:30, and I was under the impression we were duty free at that time. As I stated previously I am sorry this is being made into a larger issue than it should but I cannot control what Neika does or says, but I should have a right to defend myself if this is going to effect me “professionally.” I am very concerned about this because I put a lot of time into the school after hours and during school hours and I am unsure what I am doing wrong.

ECF No. 49-7.

         Ms. Peterson denies that any memo was ever added to Mrs. Hartwell's file concerning issues with Ms. King. Peterson Dep. at 48. Ms. Peterson also offered testimony clarifying the conversation Mrs. Hartwell was referring to in the email:

what she's referencing on the conversation about the [professional development] is because she was screaming on the phone and I didn't know at the time who she was talking to. She was screaming on her cell phone to someone with other colleagues around. So I believe when she and I had that conversation about the professionalism and this it wasn't due to the nature of the conversation, it was that she was screaming at someone on her cell phone.

         Peterson Dep. at 50.

         On or about September 2, 2015, Ms. King came to Collins Elementary and asked to have her daughter's records transferred to Charlton Heston Academy. Hartwell Dep. at 37. Mrs. Hartwell intervened and asked the secretary not to send the transcripts because Mr. Hartwell and Ms. King were in the middle of a custody dispute, the court had not yet decided that the children could transfer schools, and Mr. Hartwell had not signed paperwork consenting to a transfer. Id. at 38.

         On September 10, 2015 an incident occurred after school hours. Peterson Dep. at 53-54. Ms. King came to pick up her daughter, K.H., at school. Id. at 55. While Mrs. Hartwell was walking back to her classroom, Ms. King approached Mrs. Hartwell and told her she needed to release K.H. to her and that she was not leaving without K.H. Hartwell Dep. at 39. Mrs. Hartwell felt threatened by the encounter, as she was pregnant at the time. Id. She went to room zero, where K.H. was, and called the police. Id. at 40. Although the timeline of events is less than clear, Ms. Peterson noticed Ms. King standing in the “pick-up line” waiting for K.H. Peterson Dep. at 54. Ms. Peterson went to locate Mrs. Hartwell and told her that Ms. King had arrived to pick up her daughter. Id. Mrs. Hartwell informed her that it was her husband's parenting time, not Ms. King's. Id. Mrs. Hartwell did not allow K.H. to leave with her mother despite Ms. Peterson directing her to do so. Hartwell Dep. at 39. Ms. Peterson then called the police, fearing that confrontation would ensue. Ms. Peterson Dep at 55. The police officer arrived and talked to Mrs. Hartwell, Ms. King, and Ms. Peterson. He also spoke with Mr. Hartwell on the phone as well as Jennifer Councilman from friend of the court. Hartwell Dep. at 40. The police officer ultimately directed Mrs. Hartwell to allow K.H. to leave with her mother. Id. at 41.

         On September 11, 2015, Ms. Peterson issued Mrs. Hartwell a written reprimand concerning these two incidents.[1] ECF No. 46-7. The reprimand notes: “This memo is a written reprimand in regards to maintaining your professional responsibilities during the school day and not allowing your personal matters to interfere with your teaching.” Id.

         B.

         At the end of the '14-'15 school year (her first year of teaching and prior to any of the incidents discussed above), Mrs. Hartwell received a final evaluation score of 2.45 (“minimally effective”). Final Eval. ('15), ECF No. 46-5. At the end of the '15-'16 school year, she received a final evaluation score of 2.0 (“minimally effective”). Final Eval ('16), ECF No. 49-11. Ms. Peterson was the evaluator during both years. Id. Possible scores range from 1.0-4.0. Id. A score of 1.0-1.49 corresponds to an ineffective rating, 1.50-2.49 corresponds to a minimally effective rating, 2.50-3.49 corresponds to an effective rating, and 3.50-4.0 corresponds to a highly effective rating. Id.

         The evaluation score consists of two components. One is referred to as “5D Teacher Evaluation Rubric, ” and is worth 75% of the weighted total, and the other is referred to as “NWEA DATA” and is worth 25% of the weighted total. Final Eval. ('15), ECF No. 46-5. The 5D score is calculated based on in class observations conducted by Ms. Peterson, whereas NWEA refers to student growth data, which is measured according to student performance on the “NWA test.” Peterson Dep. at 12-13. There is no set number of observations required, but the district's goal is between two and six per teacher per year. Id. at 12. Ms. Peterson would periodically observe teachers during class, prepare a “scripting of the observation, ” send it to the teacher at the end of the session, and potentially schedule a follow up to discuss her observations. Id. Observation reports are then compiled into the 5D component of the final year end evaluation. Id.

         During the '14-'15 school year, Mrs. Hartwell was observed on December 15, 2014 and March 3, 2015. Final Eval. ('15), ECF No. 46-5. The factual record does not contain a report for either of those observations but does contain a summary of the evaluation entitled: “Recommended Areas of Focus/Goals For the Next School Year.” Final Eval. ('15), ECF No. 46-5; Peterson Dep. at 25:6-10. The summary reads as follows:

Congratulations on completing your first year of teaching and having perfect attendance! You are an extremely hard worker and as you gain classroom management strategies and knowledge of the curriculum, you will grow to be a great teacher. Please continue to work with your mentor, attend family nights and develop professionally by attending our district and ISD professional development. I am excited for you to have the summer to reflect and prepare for the fall. As always, please let me know if I can be of any assistance to you.

Final Eval. (‘15), ECF No. 46-5.

         Mrs. Hartwell also received a mid-year review in January of 2015 which Ms. Peterson characterized as a positive review “for a first year teacher, ” in which she noted “I look forward to seeing continued growth and impact on student achievement with improvements in classroom management and student engagement.” Peterson Dep. at 20-21, Mrs. Hartwell received a 2 out of 4 (minimally effective) for the 5D component of the year end evaluation, accounting for 75% of the weighted total. Final Eval. ('15), ECF No. 46-5. For NWEA data (student performance), Mrs. Hartwell received scores of 4 out of 4 (highly effective) and 3 out of 4 (effective), accounting for 20% and 5% of the weighted total, respectively. Thus, her final evaluation total for the '14-'15 year was 2.45 (minimally effective).

         During the '15-'16 school year (Mrs. Hartwell's second year of teaching), Ms. Peterson conducted an in class observation of Mrs. Hartwell on October 19, 2015, and another on November 4, 2015. ECF No. 49-13. The observations lasted 32 minutes and 25 minutes, respectively. Id. During the observations, Ms. Peterson would record contemporaneous notes in a program called Pivot regarding what she observed. She would also leave specific comments for the teacher in a section entitled “Noticing/Wondering.” Teachers would then log into the program later on, review the comments Ms. Peterson made, and respond. Id. The comments and responses for Mrs. Hartwell's October 19, 2015 observation were as follows:

Noticing/Wondering: I notice the learning target is posted, but wasn't clearly stated in your lesson. I wondered if you could review the learning target during the lesson?
Response: Yes, we start the lesson off with ‘what we will do today.' I will add that to the middle of my lesson as well. I thought that I said that when I said we were going to work on writing the letter Rr. I will work on that.
Noticing/Wondering: I noticed the first worksheet was from Saxon Phonics and I wondered if the other 2 were as well? I also noticed students were sitting when I arrived at 8:50 and still sitting 30 minutes later and wondered if this was too long to sit?
Response: The other two are not from the Phonics program it is just something that all of Kindergarten does extra.
Noticing/Wondering: Hi Shawna, I enjoyed observing your phonics lesson today. Please respond to the wonderings by Wednesday of this week. We can also meet to review. I would also like to meet to answer your questions to the recent response. Please let me know when you would like to meet. These should be two separate meetings. Thanks!
Response: When would you like to meet regarding moving Anthony's seat? Also no my MOBI is not working right now. I do not think my pen was charging. I was going to try one more time of charging it, then I was going to put a work order in. It is plugged in and charging now.

         The comments and responses for the November observation were as follows:

Noticing/Wondering: I noticed your math learning target is posted and I wondered if you could use any other verbal or visual strategies for student understanding of the target and could you check for that understanding.
Response: I try to say the objective at the beginning of the lesson, and then during the debrief and exit ticket I am checking for understanding. Would you have some ideas for verbally or visually showing the target?
Noticing/Wondering: I noticed you gave the students directions to ‘put the towers in order' and I wondered what your strategy is for checking their understanding of knowing the directions. I wondered if maybe this would be a good time to turn, talk and share, just to clarify the directions.
Response: Okay, I did not think about that. I have them turn and talk at the end, but yes to check for understanding before the beginning would be very helpful for most.
Noticing/Wondering: Hi Shawna, Please respond to the wonderings by the end of the week.
Response: If you have a chance we can meet and discuss some ideas for the learning targets, as well as, my response to your email.

Id. Ms. Peterson testified that she did not consider Mrs. Hartwell's responses defensive, and the only concerned she had was that she “didn't see the change happen with the learning target” between the two observations and she had to address it again. Peterson Dep. at 94.

         Ms. Peterson followed up on the November evaluation with an email that reads as follows:

Hi Shawna, You and your students are growing! (no pun intended!) I have sent your observation to you, please respond to the wonderings. Your directions are clear and firm, your students are responding appropriately. Please be careful with the “extra explanation” after the directions. It's usually more effective to stick to the clear, firm direction. Your have grown in this area, just be careful about the extra words they may not hear. We can meet for a few minutes and discuss your observations . . .

ECF No. 49-11

         Ms. Peterson also gave Mrs. Hartwell a midyear review on January 29, 2016, which reads as follows:

You are receiving this mid-year review because of the “minimally effective” rating you received in the spring of 2015 as a first year teacher. Per our discussion on the observation cycle, you are currently making progress toward your goals of sharing your learning target and communicating with parents. I do still have some concerns about your professionalism outside of the classroom and management within the classroom. I also have concerns of your difficulty taking constructive feedback from ...

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