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Clemens v. Mount Clemens Community School District

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

March 30, 2018

RENEE CLEMENS, Plaintiff,
v.
MOUNT CLEMENS COMMUNITY SCHOOL DISTRICT; WILLIAM A. PEARSON; MOUNT CLEMENS COMMUNITY SCHOOLS BOARD OF TRUSTEES; JASON MONK; EDWARD BRULEY; GLENN VOORHESS; JEANINE WALKER; EARL RICKMAN, III; and DAVID McFADDEN, 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

         Plaintiff was employed by Mount Clemens Community School District (the “District”) for 30 years, including as an Assistant Superintendent from 2013-2016, before her employment was terminated. Plaintiff filed a five-count Complaint against Defendants, including claims for: (1) violation of her First Amendment freedom of speech and association rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the Michigan Constitution (Counts I and II); (2) conspiracy to intimidate a witness, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1985 (Count III); (3) violation of the Michigan Whistleblowers' Protection Act, M.C.L. § 15.361 et seq. (“WPA”) (Count IV); and (4) wrongful discharge in violation of Michigan public policy (Count V). Defendants have filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, and the Motion has been fully briefed. For the reasons set forth below, the Court grants in part and denies in part the Motion.

         II. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff began working for the District in 1986 as a teacher. In the 2012/2013 school year, after 26 years as a teacher, she became a “Special Assistant to the Superintendent.” The Superintendent of the District was Deborah Wahlstrom (“Wahlstrom”). For the 2013/2014 school year, Plaintiff was hired as one of the two Assistant Superintendents for the District, a position she also held for the 2014/2015 and 2015/2016 school years. As Assistant Superintendent, Plaintiff's duties included being in charge of the homeless student population, staffing, curriculum, professional development, school improvement interventions, School Improvement Grants (“SIG”), and applying for other grants and awards to obtain funds for the District acting as the clerk for the Board of Trustees of the District (the “Board”). Plaintiff represents that she was the ultimate supervisor of the special education department (30-40% of students in the District), which was the source of a significant amount of funding for the District from the State of Michigan. According to District documents, 40% of Plaintiff's duties were attributable to curriculum and instruction, 35% to development coordinator, and 25% to school improvement interventions coordinator.

         On or about April 13, 2015, Wahlstrom (“Wahlstrom”) received an anonymous letter jointly addressed to her, the Board, the “Mount Clemens High School Administration, ” and Mitch Hotts (“Hotts”), a reporter for the Macomb Daily newspaper. That 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 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. None of the Defendants (or other non-Defendant 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.

         On June 16, 2015, Wahlstrom participated in a conference call with Plaintiff, Teresa Davis (the other Assistant Superintendent in the District at that time), and Defendant Monk. The call pertained to the Anonymous Allegations, and 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, Plaintiff, and Teresa 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 and a deputy came to the high school to take a statement, which was forwarded to Detective Sergeant Stacy O'Brien to investigate. Plaintiff 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 Defendant Earl Rickman, III (the President of the Board) 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 about a respected member of the School Board and a longstanding supporter of Mount Clemens Schools.

Dkt. No. 61-20, PgID 1725-26. On June 29, 2015, Defendant Monk, in conjunction with a letter of reprimand related to a period when he was the head coach of the high school girls basketball team, sent Defendant Rickman an email that stated, in part: “Since I am dealing with the conflict between me and the superintendent, . . .” Dkt. No. 61-21, PgID 1728.

         On June 28, 2015, Hotts contacted Wahlstrom with questions related to the Anonymous Allegations and the June 2015 Board meeting. On June 30, 2015, Wahlstrom and Plaintiff drafted a press release to address Hotts' inquiries and circulated it to all Board members approximately seven hours before the Board met and evaluated Wahlstrom's performance as Superintendent. The press release included statements that: (a) the District had “received several recent inquiries about the MCB Parent Group, an organization purportedly raising funds on the District's behalf”; and (b) “the District directed MCB Parent Group to immediately cease all fundraising efforts that suggest or imply the District's or Board's approval and further directed MCB Parent Group to immediately cease using the District's name, logo, and symbols.” Dkt. No. 61-23, PgID 1734. On June 30, 2015, the Board held a special meeting for the purpose of discussing Wahlstrom's performance as Superintendent. Dkt. No. 61-26, PgID 1750-52.

         On July 5, 2015, an investigative article written by Hotts was published in the Macomb Daily. It was titled “Questions arise over Mount Clemens booster club headed by school board trustee.” Dkt. No. 61-37, PgID 1842-44. The article published the text of the June 30, 2015 press release drafted by Wahlstrom and Plaintiff and quoted Wahlstrom as follows, “There are a number of citizens and people working with the booster club who have expressed some serious concerns about the club and we are legally obligated to look into these matters.” Id. When Hotts asked Defendant Monk about the Anonymous Allegations, Defendant Monk responded “talk to my attorney.” Id. Defendant Rickman and Defendant Bruley testified that Defendant Monk was very upset when the July 5, 2015 article was published. Dkt. No. 61-10, PgID 1618; Dkt. No. 61-7, PgID 1557. At a special meeting of the Board on July 6, 2015 to vote on whether to renew the Agreement, 4 of the 7 Board members voted against the renewal of the Agreement. Wahlstrom's employment with the District terminated the first week of October 2015 (but her physical presence at the District offices concluded in early August 2015).

         The Sheriff's Department investigation of Defendant Monk for embezzlement resulted in Detective O'Brien “claiming that there was insufficient evidence presented to [him] at the time of [his] investigation to charge [Defendant Monk] with that charge, ” Dkt. No. 61-12, PgID 1674. Plaintiff suggests this was because there were no finances or manpower to complete the investigation. Dkt. No. 61, PgID 1201. The Attorney General's office was only given Defendant Monk's own accounting records, including a profit and loss statement and a “Transaction Detail by Account.” Detective O'Brien testified that he did not know if that reflected “a correct statement of the finances of the organization.” Dkt. No. 61-12, PgID 1671. No. bank records from the Booster Club's bank were requested. Id. Detective O'Brien testified that Wahlstrom and Plaintiff had “reasonable suspicions” to think there was embezzlement and to ask the Sheriff's Department to investigate. Id. at PgID 1679.

         In an undated response to a July 22, 2015 letter from the Attorney General's office, Defendant Monk reiterated that he thought that “the Superintendent and [an unnamed] citizen previously mentioned, have conspired to defame me, my wife and my company.” Dkt. No. 60-22, PgID 2374-76. Defendant Monk admitted that all of Wahlstrom's “defamatory” and “conspiratorial” conduct occurred prior to the Board's vote regarding the renewal of Wahlstrom's employment. Id. at 2375.

         Teresa Davis began working for the District in the fall of 2014, approximately 10 months before Defendant William Pearson did. On or before August 3, 2015, Plaintiff and Wahlstrom had complained to Defendant Rickman (as Board President) that Teresa Davis had given herself (and her team) an unauthorized raise immediately prior to a Board business committee meeting so that Teresa Davis could slip the signed contracts into the business committee's packet of documents to review and approve. Dkt. No. 60-3, PgID 1986-88. Defendant Rickman later asked Wahlstrom for copies of all salary information for employees and contracted persons in the District because of apparent “HUGE salary increases/adjustments over the past couple years.” Dkt. No. 60, PGID 2495. When Plaintiff sought to fulfill this request, Teresa Davis emailed Plaintiff (and copied Wahlstrom and Defendant Rickman), stating “This is a FRIENDLY REMINDER. Stay in your lane . . . . You will not receive this information.” Id. at 2493. Teresa Davis then provided Wahlstrom with salary information for Plaintiff and her team but not Teresa Davis and her team. Id. at 2495. Plaintiff continued to complain to Wahlstrom and Defendant Rickman about the raises given to Teresa Davis and her employees and about Davis' threatening response. Wahlstrom took no action, as her employment ended in early October 2015.

         Defendant Pearson began working for the District as Interim Superintendent on or about August 10, 2015. He previously had worked as a superintendent in the South Lyon school district for 20 years. Defendant Pearson also had worked as an Assistant Superintendent for Instructional Services for four years before that in South Lyon. He was a teacher for 11 years and last taught in a classroom in 1986. As a Superintendent, he had experience with budgets, having presented budgets to the finance committee and attended finance committee meetings for 22 years. Defendant Pearson was the treasurer of the Metro Bureau of Directors, and the Board was aware that Defendant Pearson had a wealth of experience as a superintendent, including putting together a budget.

         Plaintiff began complaining to Defendant Pearson about the raises in Teresa Davis' department within the first two days of Pearson's employment. Pearson quickly learned of the disparity in pay between Plaintiff and Davis - and the disparity in pay between four principals - and he was angry about the differences. At a meeting in August or September 2015 where the pay disparity issues were discussed, he said “we can't do anything about this right now” and slammed the door shut, even as Plaintiff was holding the door, and he told Plaintiff to keep her mouth shut about the salary differences. Dkt. No. 60-3, PgID 1988. Defendant Pearson told Plaintiff that he was not going to look into the reasons for the differences but that he would be sure the discrepancies were addressed in the next year - and he did offer to raise Plaintiff's salary commensurate with Teresa Davis' salary. Id. at 1987. Plaintiff rejected the salary offer because “it wasn't about me not making what she made, it was about not being able to staff and resource our classrooms, ” especially as the District had been facing large deficits that they were trying to reduce. Id.

         On November 23, 2015, Wahlstrom (and her company, Successline, Inc.) filed a lawsuit against the Board and the individual Board members who voted against renewing an Agreement between the District and Successline, Inc. (pursuant to which Wahlstrom was the Superintendent for the District) (the “Wahlstrom Litigation”). Hotts called Plaintiff that day to ask about the Wahlstrom Litigation, and Plaintiff gave Hotts Defendant Pearson's cell phone number. Defendant Pearson talked to Hotts but did not comment because the District had not been served, and Defendant Pearson then wrote an email to the Board members, notifying them that the Wahlstrom Litigation was filed. The next week, Defendant Pearson asked Plaintiff if she was “still friends with . . . [or] talking to” Wahlstrom. Id. at 2008. When Plaintiff stated that she was, Defendant Pearson stated, “I can't protect you if you're stupid. The board's not gonna like this.” Id. Plaintiff understood Defendant Pearson to mean that it was stupid for Plaintiff to continue being Wahlstrom's friend. Plaintiff states that Defendant Pearson and most, if not all, of the Board members knew that Plaintiff was friends with Wahlstrom and that Plaintiff continued to be in contact with Wahlstrom after Wahlstrom's employment ended. Id. at 2008-09, 2013.

         On December 16, 2015, prior to a Board meeting, a process server in the Wahlstrom Litigation sought to serve a summons and complaint on Defendant Board Members and approached Plaintiff. Plaintiff contacted Defendant Pearson. Defendant Pearson reacted by telling Plaintiff that “the board wasn't going to be happy about this and if the lawsuit went the wrong way, there was no way he could protect me. And if I was stupid, there was no way he could protect me.” Id. at 1993. The next day, Defendant Pearson again told her that the Board was not happy. He said he could not protect her if she was stupid, and that she should “be careful” and stop talking to Wahlstrom. He claimed the Board knew she was involved in helping Wahlstrom with the lawsuit and the Board wanted her gone. Id. at 1995, 2010. On January 12, 2016, Defendant Pearson said to Plaintiff, “if the lawsuit go[es] the wrong way, there's nowhere you can hide. Id. at 2010.

         On January 20, 2016, a closed session of the Board met to discuss the District's deficit elimination plan, which, as it was revealed at the meeting, involved eliminating one of the assistant superintendents. At the meeting, Defendant Pearson told Plaintiff not to write down anything, put her pad of paper on the floor, and sit with her hands in her lap before he stated to the Board, “if you want me, Renee's gone.” Id. at 2000. According to Board member Jeanine Walker, it was the first time anyone had mentioned terminating Plaintiff. Dkt. No. 60-9, PgID 2254.

         On January 25, 2016, Defendant Pearson discussed with Plaintiff his plan to have her be the principal of the high school if she was no longer an Assistant Superintendent. Dkt. No. 60-3, PgID 1995-96. Defendant Pearson told her that the Board did not like that plan, as the Board had issues with her and she knew why but that he could not tell her why because she “would use it in a lawsuit against him and the board.” Id. at 2011; Dkt. No. 60-41, PgID 2509. Defendant Pearson said that “he should have protected [Plaintiff] better” before ultimately stating that “it's Deb. They see you as complicit in the thing with Deb.” Dkt. No. 60-3, PgID 2011.

         On January 25, 2016, Defendant Pearson also told Plaintiff that the Board had agreed to terminate her employment, effective at the end of the school year, as he had recommended. Dkt. No. 60-3, PgID 2012. On April 25, 2016, the Board formally laid Plaintiff off from her Assistant Superintendent position, a position the District advised her was being eliminated, effective June 30, 2016. Dkt. No. 60-42, PgID 2512.

         III. LEGAL STANDARD

         Rule 56(a) of the Rules of Civil Procedures provides that the court “shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The presence of factual disputes will preclude granting of summary judgment only if the disputes are genuine and concern material facts. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A dispute about a material fact is “genuine” only if “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id. Although the Court must view the motion in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, where “the moving party has carried its burden under Rule 56(c), its opponent must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323-24 (1986). Summary judgment must be entered against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial. In such a situation, there can be “no genuine issue as to any material fact, ” since a complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the nonmoving party's case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial. Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 322-23. A court must look to the substantive law to identify which facts are material. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248.

         IV. ANALYSIS

         A. Applicable Law

         1. ...


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