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Wahlstrom v. Monk

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

March 30, 2018

DEBORAH WAHLSTROM and SUCCESSLINE, INC., Plaintiffs,
v.
JASON MONK, EDWARD BURLEY, GLENN VOORHESS, JEANINE WALKER, and MOUNT CLEMENS COMMUNITY SCHOOLS BOARD OF TRUSTEES, Defendants.

          ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT [#49]

          Denise Page Hood Chief Judge, United States District Court

         I. INTRODUCTION

         On November 23, 2015, Plaintiff Deborah Wahlstrom (“Wahlstrom”) filed the instant action for: (1) tortious interference with an advantageous business relationship or expectancy (the “tortious interference claim”), (2) violations of Michigan's Open Meetings Act, and (3) civil conspiracy, all stemming from her termination as Superintendent of the Mount Clemens Community School District (the “District”). In November 2015, Wahlstrom moved for, and the Court granted, leave to amend her Complaint to add a second Plaintiff, Successline, Inc. (“Successline”). Plaintiffs filed their Amended Complaint on December 2, 2016. On March 24, 2017, Defendants filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, Dkt. No. 49. Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment has been fully briefed and the Court has scheduled a hearing for October 31, 2017. For the reasons that follow, Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment is granted in part and denied in part .

         II. STATEMENT OF FACTS

         Wahlstrom is the co-owner of Successline, a Virginia corporation that provides educational consultation services. For the time period relevant to this action, Successline's only functions were to provide: (1) the services of Wahlstrom as the Superintendent of the District, and (2) a means for Wahlstrom to receive payment from the District.

         Successline and the District entered a Professional Services Agreement (the “Agreement”) on August 1, 2014. The Agreement was the third 12-month contract the parties had executed, as the parties had renewed both an initial contract (from August 1, 2012 to July 31, 2013) and a second contract (from August 1, 2013 to July 31, 2014) providing for Wahlstrom's services as Superintendent of the District. The Agreement provided, in part, follows:

1. Employment - Successline Inc. shall provide the services of Deborah Wahlstrom, PhD, (hereinafter “Superintendent”) to perform the normal and customary duties and responsibilities of Superintendent of Schools as well as the Curriculum Leader for the School District. It is expressly understood that the Superintendent is an employee of Successline, Inc.
* * * * *
3. Duties and Responsibilities - The Superintendent further agrees to devote her talents, skills, efforts and abilities toward competently and proficiently fulfilling all duties assigned by the Board of Education. Further, the Superintendent agrees to comply with and fulfill all responsibilities and tasks required by state and federal law and regulations and by the Board of Education to carry out the educational programs and policies of the School District during the entire term of the Contract. Further, the Superintendent pledges to use her best efforts to maintain and improve the quality of the operation of the School District and constantly promote efficiency in all areas of her responsibility.
* * * * *
6. Length of Contract/Extension - This contract shall commence on August 1, 2014, upon agreement by the Board of Education of the School District and Successline, Inc. and terminate on July 31, 2015. The contract may be extended for additional periods of time as agreed upon by the parties. In the event the contract is not renewed[, ] the Board of Education will provide a ninety (90) calendar day notice. Further, if the decision by the Board of Education, in its sole discretion, is made not to renew the contract and the contract will expire in less than ninety (90) days, the contract will automatically be extended by the number of days equal to ninety (90) days prior to expiration.
* * * * *

Dkt. No. 38, Ex. B, ¶¶ 1, 3, 6, at PgID 494-95. As Superintendent, Wahlstrom also was “expected to attend meetings of the Board of Education and its committees and to attend and participate in School District functions or, on occasion, other civic activities having relation to the School District, ” without receiving any additional compensation. Dkt. No. 38, Ex. B, ¶ 7, at PgID 496.

         On or about April 13, 2015, Wahlstrom received an anonymous letter jointly addressed to her, the District's Board of Trustees (the “Board”), the “Mount Clemens High School Administration, ” and Mitch Hotts (“Hotts”), a reporter for the Macomb Daily newspaper. This letter sought to “expose some unethical and illegal practices that are taking place at Mount Clemens High School, ” which allegedly included Defendant Jason Monk's management of the Mount Clemens Athletic Booster Club (“Booster Club”), his selling of food from his own restaurant at sporting events under the guise of raising money for the Booster Club, his lack of a permit or license from the City of Mount Clemens or its Health Department to sell such food, and various other allegations of conflicts of interest and nepotism related to Defendant Monk's coaching of the high school girls' volleyball and basketball teams (collectively, the “Anonymous Allegations”).

         A sealed copy of the Anonymous Allegations was placed on each Board member's chair prior to the start of the April 15, 2015 Board meeting. Defendant Glenn Voorhess, upset about the envelope, ripped it up and complained about it during the Board comments portion of the meeting. Defendant Monk indicated how upset he was to Defendant Voorhess when they left the meeting. None of the Defendants (or other Board members) looked into the Anonymous Allegations. On May 12, 2015, Wahlstrom met with Defendant Board members Bruley, Monk, and Voorhess and discussed, among other things, the Board goals on which Wahlstrom was to be evaluated. At the May 20, 2015 Board meeting, Defendant Monk thanked a number of people, including Wahlstrom. The Anonymous Allegations were not mentioned.

         Wahlstrom's husband, Mark Wahlstrom, testified that the Board's attorney, Robert Nyovich, at the direction of Board President Earl Rickman contacted Mr. Wahlstrom approximately a month prior to the Board's June 30, 2015 evaluation of Wahlstrom. The purpose of the call was to discuss the renewal of the Agreement. Dkt. No. 61-4, PgID 1391.

         On June 16, 2015, Wahlstrom participated in a conference call with Renee Clemens and Teresa Davis (the District's two Assistant Superintendents), and Defendant Monk. The call pertained to the Anonymous Allegations, and Wahlstrom questioned Defendant Monk about various aspects of the Anonymous Allegations. During this conversation, Defendant Monk indicated that he felt that “it was a personal attack because [he] was a public figure.” Dkt. No. 61-6, PgID 1484 (Page 121:19-21). The same day (June 16, 2015), Wahlstrom, Clemens, and Davis contacted the Macomb County Sheriff's Department (“Sheriff's Department”) and the State of Michigan Attorney General's Office (“Attorney General”) about the Anonymous Allegations for the first time. They reported to the Sheriff's Department a complaint of embezzlement. A deputy came to the high school to take a statement, which was forwarded to Detective Sergeant Stacy O'Brien to investigate. Clemens subsequently spoke on the phone to Detective O'Brien about the investigation on at least two occasions.

         At a Board meeting on June 17, 2015, Defendant Monk stated, in part:

Final note: I was elected not to be a rubber stamp. To assure this district gets it right. Being uncomfortable is good. I will support what is right. I will challenge what needs fixing. Outside of attacks on myself, I will maintain professionalism.

Dkt. No. 61-18, PgID 1719. On June 18, 2015, Wahlstrom and Rickman sent a letter to Defendant Monk, advising him that they had begun the investigations with the Sheriff's Department and the Attorney General, as well as advising him that the Board had not authorized him to fundraise on behalf of the District and to cease any such efforts, including the use of the District's name, logo, symbols or likenesses in fundraising. In response, Defendant Monk denied any wrongdoing and stated:

Let me conclude by stating that the approach taken with this inquiry is troubling, as it is an apparent personal attack. I have always been readily accessible and would have been willing and able to allay any concerns without need for the threatening undertone of your correspondence which, to me, borders on defamation. It questions my integrity and generates unwarranted “water cooler” discussions ...

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