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Redlin v. Grosse Pointe Public Schools

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

May 10, 2018

DEBRA REDLIN, Plaintiff,
v.
GROSSE POINTE PUBLIC SCHOOLS, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          BERNARD A. FRIEDMAN SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on the motion of defendant Grosse Pointe Public School (“the district”) for summary judgment [docket entry 20]. This motion is fully briefed. Pursuant to E.D. Mich. LR 7.1(f)(2), the Court shall decide it without a hearing.

         FACTS

         This is an employment discrimination case. In September 2012, the district hired plaintiff to be the Assistant Principal at Grosse Pointe South High School (“South”), where she worked alongside fellow Assistant Principal Terry Flint.

         Flint's Mistake. This saga began in early 2014. South's deputy superintendent Jon Dean suspected that a social worker was coming to work intoxicated and planned to “surprise spot-check” him. Pl.'s Resp. p. 3. He told plaintiff and Flint not to warn the social worker, but Flint did warn him, which plaintiff reported to Dean. Flint initially claimed innocence but a few hours later confessed. After then-Superintendent Dr. Harwood met with Dean and the Board of Education, which hired an attorney to review the matter, he put a letter of censure in Flint's file, threatened him with suspension, and put him on an individualized development plan (“IDP”).[1]Flint Dep. pp. 20, 23. Harwood also noted the mistake in Flint's year-end evaluation.[2] Id. at 23, 86.

         Organizational Changes. In July 2014, the district hired new South principal Moussa Hamka. Hamka began reorganizing the main office. He moved plaintiff's secretary to the financial department and made Flint and plaintiff share a secretary. Plaintiff testified that the shared secretary did not spend enough time helping her.[3] Plaintiff mentioned this to Hamka.[4] He encouraged her to keep working to improve the situation and asked both assistant principals to do “[a] lot of the secretarial stuff” to “help pull the load off of” the shared secretary. Id. at 31.[5]

         Hamka also reapportioned assistant principal responsibilities. Plaintiff and Flint shared most duties equally, including student discipline, freshman orientation, testing requirements, individual special education accommodation (“504”) plans, and all secretarial work the secretary could not do. After the reshuffle, plaintiff had the following new duties: running the positive behavioral intervention system (“PBIS”); ensuring that South was “not disproportionately suspending one group of students more than another”; and “student activities, ” including organizing a monthly principal advisory group meeting. Pl.'s Dep. pp. 19-23; Flint's Dep. p. 31. Flint testified that after the reshuffle he had the following duties: 504 coordinator and organizing weekly and monthly meetings for two leadership groups and a mentor group. Flint Dep. pp. 30- 41. Plaintiff believes that this apportionment left her with more work than Flint.

         C.M. Incident, Part 1. One day in early December 2014, Flint, while speaking to plaintiff and their shared secretary, brought up the evaluation rubric for South's media specialist C.M.[6] Flint's and plaintiff's deposition testimonies sharply differ as to what exactly Flint said. According to Flint, he talked only about the rubric, not about C.M.'s review itself. According to plaintiff, Flint said that for “five days” over “Thanksgiving break” he was “trying to nail [C.M.] on her evaluation.” Pl.'s Dep. p. 36. Plaintiff immediately told, among others, C.M. about the conversation and warned her to “keep an eye on her evaluation.” Id. at 38. C.M., upset by this revelation, emailed Hamka about it. Hamka asked plaintiff and the secretary to put in writing exactly what Flint had said. Id. at 39. Plaintiff wrote:

In a conversation this week [Flint, the shared secretary, ] and I were chatting in the office about Thanksgiving Week (I believe). And [Flint] mentioned he spent the weekend working on [C.M.'s] evaluation and the rubric. He mentioned that he realized he was hard on her (because of the rubric) and went back in to add positive comments. . . .
[Later, plaintiff told C.M. that Flint] thought b/c of the rubric he was hard on her and was going back/went in to the Google doc to add the positive.

Def.'s Mot. Ex. H. The secretary wrote:

Flint was talking to [plaintiff] and me about how excited he was because he had spent many hours over the weekend going through the rubric for the teacher evaluations. He mentioned how he had worked in particular on [C.M.'s rubric] He was excited because he felt that the questions he came up with really hold teachers accountable for how they interact with students and staff, etc.

Id. at Ex. I.

         Plaintiff's Complaints About Hamka. Hamka's relationship with plaintiff appears to have been strained. In fact, during the few months they worked together preceding the C.M. incident, plaintiff kept copious notes about Hamka's actions that she found offensive, and she complained at length in her deposition about his behavior. When Hamka asked her to write out the statement regarding the C.M. incident, she took action.

         The following day, plaintiff took her notes and met with Dean and the district's director of secondary education Maureen Bur. Her notes contained 39 numbered paragraphs, many of which detailed examples of allegedly offensive behavior. Pl.'s Dep. p. 64. Bur and Dean treated plaintiff's complaint as a hybrid gender discrimination/harassment complaint. They asked whether she wanted to resolve it formally or informally. Plaintiff chose to resolve it informally.

         Bur and Dean conducted the informal investigation as follows: that same day, they met with Hamka to discuss plaintiff's harassment complaint and then conducted a “resolution meeting, ” which Hamka and plaintiff attended. During that meeting plaintiff presented her concerns and Hamka responded. At the end of the meeting, plaintiff and Hamka agreed to “work things out.” Pl.'s Dep. p. 151. A few days later, Dean sent plaintiff an email summarizing the investigation's results and letting her know that, in the district's view, Hamka had not harassed or discriminated against her. Def.'s Mot. Ex. K. Because plaintiff chose not to request that the central office conduct a formal investigation the investigation ended there, and since then plaintiff has had no more issues with Hamka. Pl.'s Dep. p. 151.

         C.M. Incident, Part 2. At some point in the week following Dean and Bur's investigation, plaintiff met with Dean to discuss her role in the C.M. incident. Dean told her that her conduct was inappropriate and that she would be disciplined. Dean Dep. p. 57. Plaintiff- who was already interviewing for administrative positions in other districts-told Dean that she was “in the process of leaving. Wanting to get another job outside of the district.” Pl.'s Dep. pp. 159, 243. Dean said in response, “I don't want to jam you up, so I will hold this [discipline] in abeyance.”[7] Id. Dean also filed a placeholder “effective” evaluation with the State of Michigan pending the outcome of plaintiff's job search. Id. at 213. This allowed plaintiff to conduct her job search without any discipline or a substandard rating in her file. At her deposition, plaintiff agreed both that it was not “appropriate” for her to tell C.M. about Flint's comments and that the district should have disciplined her for it. Id. at 40, 156.[8] Nevertheless, the district never formally disciplined her for the C.M. incident. Id. at 212.

         The L.L. Incident. Sometime in spring 2015, a South employee reported to plaintiff that at 6:00 p.m. on a Friday she saw female South teacher L.L. sitting on Hamka's desk and that this made her uncomfortable. Id. at 166. Plaintiff told Flint what she had heard, but neither she nor Flint brought this up with Hamka or the central office.[9] Id. at 169. Although Flint felt that L.L. dressed provocatively and was flirtatious-and he, too, had seen L.L. and Hamka in Hamka's office after hours-he never suspected that they were having an affair and was concerned only “with the appearance of things.” Flint Dep. pp. 66-69. A few weeks later this rumor became more public, so Dean and Bur visited South to investigate. When it came out that Flint and plaintiff had heard this rumor but had not taken action, Dean verbally reprimanded them and threatened them with discipline; again, however, discipline was not meted out. Id. at 70, 76; Pl.'s Dep. pp. 170- 72, 212; Dean Dep. pp. 137-38. Dean testified that he reprimanded both assistant principals for not bringing these rumors to the central office's attention, and plaintiff in particular for spreading these rumors. Dean Dep. p. 130.

         Plaintiff's 2014-2015 Evaluation. Although Dean and Bur's investigation of plaintiff's harassment complaint ended with a finding of no harassment or gender discrimination, Dean considered it prudent for a woman and someone besides Hamka to evaluate plaintiff; so in early 2015 he decided that he and Bur would evaluate her. Id. at 140; Dean Dep. p. 143. Dean asked plaintiff to provide him periodic updates of her semester so his evaluation would be thorough. Pl.'s Dep. p. 140.

         Generally, evaluations of administrators are due to the State of Michigan each year by June 30. Dean Dep. p. 145. But, as noted above, Dean agreed to withhold plaintiff's final evaluation until her job search concluded. So to comply with the June 30 deadline, Dean submitted a placeholder effective rating to the state. Id. at 147. Dean did not finalize plaintiff's evaluation until after she told him in late July that her job search was unsuccessful. Dean and Bur finalized plaintiff's evaluation on August 21, 2015. Id. at 148. Taking the C.M. and L.L. incidents into consideration, they rated plaintiff “minimally effective.”[10] Id. at 148; Pl.'s Dep. p. 212; Def.'s Mot. Ex. M. Dean explained that plaintiff received this rating because she made four poor decisions-“[t]wice within the [C.M.] situation” and twice in the L.L. situation. Dean Dep. pp. 132.

         Transfer to Parcells. Meanwhile, in June 2015, the district had hired a new superintendent, Gary Niehaus. After Dean and the district's attorney updated Niehaus on the situation at South, Niehaus decided to separate plaintiff and Hamka. On August 3, 2015, Dean and Bur visited South to tell plaintiff that she would be switching positions with Steven Wolf, the Assistant Principal for Parcells Middle School. Normally this move would result in a pay decrease, but Niehaus testified that it was his understanding that plaintiff would continue “to be paid at the high school assistant principal rate.”[11] Niehaus Dep. pp. 43-44. Plaintiff alleges that at some point in summer 2015, Dean asked that she resign, which she refused to do. Pl.'s Dep. p. 195.

         2015-2016 Evaluation, Medical Leave, and Complaint Against Dean. Because of her minimally effective rating, plaintiff began the 2015-2016 school year with three evaluators- Dean, Bur, and Parcells Principal Dan Hartley. Plaintiff disliked this arrangement, calling it “bullying, ” so in October 2015 Dean gave her the choice of being evaluated by Hartley and either himself or Bur, and he asked her to identify specifically what she considered “bullying.” Def.'s Mot. Ex. O.

         Before plaintiff chose or described what she considered bullying, in November 2015 she took a medical leave of absence for psychiatric reasons until mid-March 2016. Pl.'s Dep. pp. 332-33, 337, 341. While plaintiff was on leave, the district paid her full salary, and she began working at Parcells immediately upon her return. Id.

         A month after her return, on April 13, 2016, Dean sent her two emails. The first email said that because plaintiff had never chosen her 2015-2016 evaluaters, the district picked Bur and Hartley. Id. at Ex. Q. The second email reminded plaintiff that because of her minimally effective rating, she was supposed to have undergone a “thorough and in-depth evaluation for the 2015-2016 school year.” Pl.'s Resp. Ex. R. It then stated that plaintiff's four-month leave made conducting such an evaluation “problematic.” Id. So, it said, the district would complete an “interim evaluation” for the 2015-2016 school year. If this interim evaluation rated plaintiff as effective or highly effective, the district would extend her one-year contract for the 2016-2017 school year, during which time she would undergo the full, in-depth evaluation. Id.

         Four days later, plaintiff sent an email to Niehaus in which she made “a formal complaint of continued ‘Harassment/Retaliation' against me by Assistant Superintendent Dr. Jon Dean during two emails sent to me in April, 2016.” Id. at Ex. S. She claimed that Dean violated the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) by holding her leave against her and that he falsified information about her that the public could obtain via the Freedom of Information Act. Id.

         After plaintiff made this complaint, the district requested an independent investigation into plaintiff's complaint against Dean. Attorney Kevin Sutton conducted the investigation: He reviewed the district's policies and several documents, including the emails, and he interviewed plaintiff and Dean. Id. at Ex. T. In early June 2016, Sutton found that Dean did not violate district policy or any federal or state law. Id. Indeed, he wrote, even if Dean could have phrased his emails more kindly, “there still exists no reasonable basis to conclude that the emails form a basis for a conclusion of harassment or retaliation.” Id.

         A few weeks later, after hearing from Hartley that plaintiff was doing an excellent job at Parcells, Niehaus changed course on plaintiff's interim evaluation and directed Bur and Hartley to give her a full evaluation, which they did, rating her effective; he also directed that, going forward, she be given a two-year contract, taken off of the scheduled IDP, and be evaluated by only one person. Id. at Exs. U, V; Bur Dep. pp. 125-32; Dean Dep. pp. 205-08; Niehaus Dep. pp. 32-35; Hartley Dep. pp. 34-35.

         2016-2017 and 2017-2018 School Years.

         Initially, plaintiff believed that she was on an IDP and that she would have multiple evaluators. Pl.'s Dep. pp. 381-84. Hartley testified that he told her at the beginning of the year that she was not on an IDP and that he would be her sole evaluator. Hartley Dep. p. 35. This confusion led to a lengthy email exchange in late November 2016 between plaintiff and Hartley, in which plaintiff inquired about her IDP and her evaluator(s). Def.'s Mot. Ex. W. Hartley reiterated that in the 2016-2017 school year he would be her sole evaluator. Id. After that exchange, the school year finished without incident and Hartley rated her “effective.” Id. at Ex. X.

         This Litigation. In November 2016, plaintiff filed her original complaint, which she amended in August 2017. The amended complaint asserts five counts: Count I, gender discrimination/sexual harassment under Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1); Count II, retaliation under Title VII; Count III, a violation of the FMLA, 29 U.S.C. § 2601; Count IV, gender discrimination/sexual harassment claim under the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (“ELCRA”), Mich. Comp. Laws § 37.2202(c); and Count V, retaliation under ELCRA.

         LEGAL ...


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