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Summer v. Southfield Board of Education

Court of Appeals of Michigan

May 1, 2018

MEREDITH SUMMER, Plaintiff-Appellant,

          Oakland Circuit Court LC No. 2013-135991-CL

          Before: Borrello, P.J., and Shapiro and Tukel, JJ.

          TUKEL, JUDGE.

         In this suit involving an employment dispute under the Revised School Code, MCL 380.1 et seq., plaintiff, Meredith Summer, appeals as of right the trial court's January 9, 2017 opinion and order granting summary disposition in favor of defendants, the Southfield Board of Education and Southfield Public Schools, pursuant to MCR 2.116(C)(8) and (C)(10). We reverse and remand for further proceedings.

         I. BASIC FACTS

         This matter returns to this Court after a prior panel affirmed in part, reversed in part, and vacated in part an earlier decision of the trial court, which had granted summary disposition in favor of defendants pursuant to MCR 2.116(C)(4) and (C)(8). Summer v Southfield Bd of Ed, 310 Mich.App. 660; 874 N.W.2d 150 (2015) (Summer I). In that June 2, 2015 opinion, this Court explained the general factual background that gave rise to this litigation:

This action arises out of a teacher layoff dispute. According to plaintiff's complaint, she began working as a teacher in the Southfield Public Schools in 1999. During the 2010-2011 school year, plaintiff was involved in an ongoing dispute with a colleague. The dispute ultimately led plaintiff to file an internal complaint in the spring of 2011, in which she claimed that the other employee had been harassing her. According to plaintiff, defendants failed to provide any information regarding the results of the investigation that followed plaintiff's complaint.

         At the beginning of the 2011-2012 school year, an administrator for defendants allegedly informed an employee that she "would not have to worry about [plaintiff]" after the 2011-2012 school year. According to plaintiff, defendants subsequently observed her performance in the classroom, but never shared with her the results of the observation. At the end of the school year, defendants concluded that plaintiff's teaching performance that year was "minimally effective, " but despite this evaluation rating, they did not provide a "plan of improvement" for plaintiff or otherwise give plaintiff an opportunity to improve the purported deficiencies in her performance. At the end of the 2011-2012 school year, plaintiff was laid off by defendants. According to plaintiff, she was the only teacher in the school to receive a "minimally effective" rating. Despite being laid off at the end of the 2011-2012 school year, plaintiff was subsequently hired to teach summer school during the summer of 2012.

         On August 30, 2013, plaintiff filed a complaint alleging that she was laid off in violation of the Revised School Code, MCL 380.1 et seq. Plaintiff asserted that while defendants had purportedly "developed a system to effectuate standards for placements, layoffs, and recalls, " which-under the requirements of MCL 380.1249-"was supposed to be based on teacher effectiveness and be rigorous, transparent and fair, " nevertheless, defendants' actions in laying off plaintiff "were arbitrary, capricious, and in bad faith" in the following ways:

A. Defendants . . . retaliated against [plaintiff] by failing or refusing to share the results of her retaliation complaint [against another employee who had harassed plaintiff] despite the fact that she was the Complainant;
B. Defendants . . . prejudged her evaluation when it [sic] decided, and declared that at the end of the 2011-2012 school year, people "would not have to worry about [plaintiff];"
C. Defendants . . . gave [plaintiff] a "Minimally Effective" evaluation based in part on Observations that were never even shared with [plaintiff] and for which no written feedback was given;
D. Defendants . . . also harbored ill will towards [plaintiff] based on incidents when she served as the union building representative[.]
Plaintiff also alleged that defendants provided no plan of improvement and "no opportunity to cure any alleged performance shortcomings" after it rated plaintiff as minimally effective. Plaintiff's complaint requested a judgment (1) requiring defendants to recall her to her previous position, (2) requiring defendants to void and destroy her 2011-2012 school year evaluation, and (3) awarding money damages equaling her costs and attorney fees, and any other relief to which she was entitled. [Id. at 662-664.]

         Defendants moved for summary disposition pursuant to MCR 2.116(C)(4) (lack of subject-matter jurisdiction) and MCR 2.116(C)(8) (failure to state a claim). Id. at 664. The trial court granted the motion. Id. at 667. However, while the trial court referenced it was granting the motion under both MCR 2.116(C)(4) and MCR 2.116(C)(8), this Court determined that the trial court's explanation for its ruling really was only based on MCR 2.116(C)(4). Id. at 682.

         Relevant to the present appeal, this Court examined MCL 380.1248 and explained:

The purpose of MCL 380.1248 is, at least in part, to regulate the policies and criteria governing "personnel decisions . . . resulting in the elimination of a position . . . ." MCL 380.1248(1). In furtherance thereof, § 1248 requires the "school district [to] adopt [] . . . a policy that provides that all personnel decisions when conducting a staffing or program reduction . . . are based on retaining effective teachers." MCL 380.1248(1)(b) (emphasis added). The determination of whether a teacher is effective is to be made pursuant to the evaluation system delineated in § 1249. See MCL 380.1248(1)(b) ("Effectiveness shall be measured by the performance evaluation system under section 1249 . . . ."). And the individual performance of a teacher must be the majority factor in making personnel decisions, MCL 380.1248(1)(b)(i). Any violation of § 1248 provides a private cause of action for the aggrieved teacher. MCL 380.1248(3). [Summer I, 310 Mich.App. at 678-679 (citations to cases omitted).]

         This Court reversed the grant of summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(4) because, contrary to the trial court's ruling, the circuit court did have jurisdiction to hear plaintiff's claims. Id. at 673-674, citing Baumgartner v Perry Pub Sch, 309 Mich.App. 507, 531; 872 N.W.2d 837 (2015). Further, the Summer I Court held that while § 1249 of the Revised School Code did not provide a private right of action, § 1248 did. Id. at 676, 679. As a result, "the trial court properly determined that MCL 380.1249 does not establish a private cause of action under which plaintiff may bring the instant case." Id. at 676. The Court therefore determined that

a private right of action under § 1248 is limited to claims that a personnel decision was made based on considerations that are not permitted under the statute, i.e., the teacher was laid off based on length of service or tenure status in violation of § 1248(1)(c), or was laid off using a procedure or based on factors other than those listed in § 1248(1)(b). Accordingly, a plaintiff may not raise a claim under § 1248 based on a violation of an evaluation system under § 1249 unless he or she is specifically alleging that a school district's failure to comply with § 1249 resulted in a performance evaluation that was not actually based on his or her effectiveness and, most importantly, that a personnel decision was made based on that noncompliant performance evaluation. [Id. at 680 (emphasis in original).]

         "Therefore, to the extent that plaintiff's complaint alleged that she was laid off on the basis of considerations other than those permitted under MCL 380.1248, or was laid off following an evaluation that did not comply with MCL 380.1249, plaintiff may have stated a cause of action under MCL 380.1248 that was sufficient to survive summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(8)." Id. at 679-680 (emphasis added). Notably, the Court did not reach a decision regarding whether plaintiff's complaint actually stated such a claim. Id. at 680 n 10. Rather, the Court explained that the trial court failed to specifically articulate whether plaintiff's complaint stated such a claim and remanded for consideration of this question. Id. at 682.

         This Court's opinion in Summer I was handed down on June 2, 2015. And effective November 5, 2015, the Legislature enacted 2015 PA 173, which amended MCL 380.1249. 2015 PA 173, inter alia, added a provision that explained that § 1249 "does not affect the operation or applicability of section 1248." MCL 380.1249(7), as amended in 2015 PA 173.

         Plaintiff filed an amended complaint on March 11, 2016. The amended complaint provided a little more detail regarding plaintiff's dispute with her coworker. Plaintiff explained that she had had a personal dispute with Tina Lees, a colleague. Lees was a personal friend of Paula Lightsey, the principal of Thompson K-8 Academy, the school where plaintiff taught. Plaintiff allegedly had sought Lightsey's assistance with regard to her conflict with Lees but "to no avail." Plaintiff also alleged that she had filed an internal complaint that was investigated in the "Spring of 2011." Plaintiff alleged that after having filed her internal complaint, she had contacted defendants' human resources department to inquire regarding the status of the investigation. She was eventually told that Lightsey had been reprimanded. Plaintiff requested a written report regarding the investigation, and received a letter on October 3, 2011. This letter, which was authored by David Turner, defendants' Associate Superintendent for Human Resources and Labor Relations, explained that while Turner was unable to substantiate plaintiff's allegations of a hostile work environment, Turner could "attest to the dereliction and neglect of duty on the part of the Thompson K-8 administrative team."

         Plaintiff's amended complaint also alleged that Lightsey observed her classroom on February 7, 2012, but did not share the results of this observation with plaintiff or give any indication of any concerns she may have had about plaintiff's performance in the classroom. Lightsey, however, told another teacher, Lori List, that List would not have to worry about plaintiff after the 2011-2012 school year. In March 2012, Lightsey rated plaintiff as "minimally effective" but allegedly did not provide her with a plan of improvement or an opportunity to cure any purported shortcomings. Plaintiff was the only teacher rated minimally effective in her building. She was laid off effective June 30, 2012, but was hired by defendants to teach summer school in 2012.

         The final two paragraphs of the amended complaint state:

28. Defendants' layoff of Plaintiff was in violation of Section 1248 and Section 1249 of the Revised School Code because they refused to provide Plaintiff with the February 7th observation results and failed to provide Plaintiff with a Plan of Improvement and an opportunity to improve. MCL 380.1248, 380.1249.
29. Defendants' evaluation system was not rigorous, transparent, and fair when used to evaluate Plaintiff.

         On October 19, 2016, defendants again moved for summary disposition, pursuant to MCR 2.116(C)(8). Defendants primarily argued that through the enactment of 2015 PA 173, and specifically the amended MCL 380.1249(7), our Legislature rejected the holding in Summer I, thereby rendering plaintiff's claims based on purported violations of MCL 380.1249 inactionable. Defendants also argued that if Summer I was still controlling notwithstanding the legislative amendment, plaintiff's amended complaint still failed to state a claim under Summer I and that, in any event, the factual record proved that defendant had complied with the applicable statutory provisions by providing plaintiff with constructive feedback and opportunities to improve.

         The trial court agreed that in enacting 2015 PA 175, our Legislature had rejected the holding of Summer I. The trial court concluded that as a result of the legislative amendment, plaintiff's complaint no longer alleged a valid cause of action. The trial court also agreed with defendants' alternative arguments, explaining in a written opinion:

Assuming arguendo that the [Summer I] decision is still binding precedent, Plaintiff's Complaint fails to state a valid claim because she has not pled violations of [§] 1249(1)(a) through (d). In addition, Plaintiff's claim of bias would necessarily encompass subjective considerations regarding her evaluator's state of mind and would not be specifically based on violations of the particular statutory requirements. Under the statute, Plaintiff was not entitled to an IDP in 2011-2012, or an opportunity to cure before a layoff. The Court finds that Defendants have complied with the requirements of [§] 1249 by properly evaluating ...

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