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Redlin v. Grosse Pointe Public School System

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

April 16, 2019

Debra Redlin, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
Grosse Pointe Public School System, Defendant-Appellee.

          Argued: March 14, 2019

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan at Detroit. No. 2:16-cv-14051-Bernard A. Friedman, District Judge.

         ARGUED:

          Robert W. Palmer, PITT, MCGEHEE, PALMER & RIVERS, P.C., Royal Oak, Michigan, for Appellant.

          Mark W. McInerney, CLARK HILL PLC, Detroit, Michigan, for Appellee.

         ON BRIEF:

          Robert W. Palmer, Beth M. Rivers, PITT, MCGEHEE, PALMER & RIVERS, P.C., Royal Oak, Michigan, for Appellant.

          Mark W. McInerney, CLARK HILL PLC, Detroit, Michigan, for Appellee.

          Before: CLAY and STRANCH, Circuit Judges; PEARSON, DISTRICT JUDGE. [*]

          OPINION

          CLAY, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Debra Redlin appeals the district court's grant of summary judgment for Defendant Grosse Pointe Public School System. She argues on appeal that the district court erred because a genuine issue of material fact existed as to her claims that Defendant discriminated against her on the basis of her gender and retaliated against her in violation of Title VII and Michigan's Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act ("ELCRA"), and as to her Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA") retaliation claim. For the reasons set forth below, we AFFIRM IN PART and REVERSE IN PART the district court's grant of Defendant's motion for summary judgment and REMAND the case for trial.

         BACKGROUND

         Factual Background

         Plaintiff was hired as an Assistant Principal at Grosse Pointe South High School ("GPSHS") in September of 2012. In 2014, Deputy Superintendent Jon Dean informed another Assistant Principal, Terry Flint, that he planned to conduct a spot-check on a social worker suspected of being intoxicated at work. Dean told Flint not to warn the social worker in advance of the spot-check, but Flint disobeyed this order and warned the social worker. Dean found out that Flint had done so, but Flint denied it when Dean confronted him. Later, Flint confessed, and a letter of concern was placed in his file as punishment.

         In the summer of 2014, Moussa Hamka became principal of GPSHS. Plaintiff had difficulties with certain changes instituted by Hamka, including transferring Plaintiff's secretary and requiring her to share Flint's secretary. Plaintiff was also dissatisfied with Hamka's reapportionment of work between her and Flint.

         In December of 2014, Flint made some statements to Plaintiff about his evaluation of GPSHS media specialist C.M.[1] Although Flint disputes her account of the incident, Plaintiff took the statements to mean that Flint was "trying to nail"-i.e., be very harsh on-C.M. in his evaluation.[2] (R. 26-2, Plaintiff Depo., Page ID# 469-71.) Plaintiff told C.M. to "keep an eye on her evaluation." (Id., Page ID# 471-72.) C.M. then discussed the matter with Hamka, and Hamka had Plaintiff write a statement about the incident. Plaintiff was told that she would be disciplined for telling a staff member about an ongoing review by another administrator.

         After the incident with C.M., Plaintiff complained to Dean about Hamka's comments and conduct toward her. Dean understood this to be a complaint relating to gender discrimination and harassment, which Plaintiff elected to resolve through an informal process. As part of an informal investigation by Dean and Director of Secondary Education Maureen Bur, a meeting occurred between Dean, Bur, Hamka, and Plaintiff, wherein Hamka apologized for past comments and for making Plaintiff feel uncomfortable (but did not admit harassment). At this meeting, Plaintiff and Hamka "committed to work together in a collaborative, supportive fashion." (R. 20-12, 12/11/2014 Dean Email, Page ID# 330.) After their investigation, Dean and Bur concluded that no harassment had occurred. Plaintiff declined to pursue her complaint through a formal process.

         Following this meeting and the resolution of Dean and Bur's investigation, Dean and Plaintiff met to discuss what Plaintiff had done wrong in warning C.M. about Flint's evaluation and what her punishment would be. Dean agreed to hold Plaintiff's discipline in abeyance, since he knew she was applying for administrative positions in other districts. Plaintiff took Dean's statement-that she would be disciplined "[u]nless [she] g[o]t another position by the end of the year"-as a threat suggesting that Dean wanted her to leave the district. (R. 26-2, Plaintiff Depo., Page ID# 519-20.) Dean also threatened to place a letter of suspension in Plaintiff's file.

         In March of 2015, Plaintiff heard a rumor that Hamka and a teacher named L.L. had been in Hamka's office together after school hours. Plaintiff discussed the rumor with Flint. Flint confirmed that he and others were aware of the rumor. Around the same time, Dean and Bur independently heard rumors about Hamka and L.L. and visited GPSHS to investigate them. Upon finding out that Flint and Plaintiff were both aware of the rumor but had not come forward about it, Dean told the assistant principals that they had acted inappropriately. However, neither Plaintiff nor Flint received punishment immediately after the incident.

         At her year-end evaluation, Plaintiff received a "minimally effective" rating for the 2014-2015 school year in her personnel file, but an "effective" rating was sent to the State of Michigan as a "placeholder" pending Plaintiff's job search. (R. 26-5, Dean Depo., Page ID# 732-33.) By contrast, Flint simply received an "effective" rating. Plaintiff was given a negative evaluation due to her conduct in warning C.M. about Flint's evaluation and in inappropriately handling the rumor regarding L.L. and Hamka. As a result of this review, Plaintiff received only a one-year contract instead of a two-year rolling contract. She was subject to termination if, at the end of the following school year, she did not receive an "effective" evaluation. She also became ineligible for any merit pay or step increases for which she might otherwise have been eligible. Finally, Plaintiff was placed on an Individualized Development Plan ("IDP")[3] for the year following this "minimally effective" evaluation.

         In June of 2015, Gary Niehaus became the district's superintendent. Niehaus decided to transfer Plaintiff to Parcells Middle School because of her gender complaint against Hamka and her warning to C.M. about Flint's evaluation.

         At some point in summer of 2015, Dean asked Plaintiff to resign, and Plaintiff refused.

         At Parcells Middle School, to which she was transferred, Plaintiff was paid at the lower rate for middle school assistant principals for two years. Niehaus claims this was in error, and Plaintiff was given backpay for the two-year period consistent with a high school assistant principal's salary.

         Plaintiff took FMLA leave from November 17, 2015 to March 14, 2016 due to stress. Dean informed Plaintiff that because she had missed so much of the school year, she would not be able to receive a full year-end evaluation but would instead receive an "interim evaluation" for the 2016-2017 school year. (R. 26-21, 4/13/2016 Dean Email, Page ID# 856.) However, unbeknownst to Plaintiff, Niehaus later ordered that Plaintiff be given a full evaluation. Plaintiff received an "effective" rating on this evaluation, meaning she was once again given a two-year contract and taken off the IDP.

         Procedural History

         Plaintiff filed an EEOC charge in December of 2015 alleging gender discrimination and retaliation for her previously filed complaint of gender discrimination and harassment, and the EEOC issued a "right to sue" letter on August 17, 2016. Plaintiff filed suit against Defendant in the Eastern District of Michigan on November 15, 2016, alleging that Defendant 1) discriminated against Plaintiff due to her gender and sexually harassed her in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq.;[4] 2) retaliated against Plaintiff for engaging in protected activity in violation of Title VII; and 3) retaliated against Plaintiff for requesting and taking leave in violation of the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 ("FMLA"), 29 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq. Plaintiff amended her complaint to add allegations that Defendant 4) discriminated against Plaintiff due to her gender and sexually harassed her in violation of Michigan's Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act ("ELCRA"), Mich. Comp. Laws § 37.2101 et seq.; and 5) retaliated against Plaintiff for engaging in protected activity in violation of the ELCRA.

         After discovery, Defendant moved for summary judgment on all claims. The district court granted Defendant's motion, and Plaintiff timely appealed.

         DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff challenges the district court's order granting summary judgment for Defendant. Plaintiff argues that her claims of sex discrimination and retaliation in violation of Title VII (and analogous Michigan law) present genuine issues of material fact, as does her FMLA retaliation claim, and that summary judgment was therefore improper.

         All of Plaintiff's claims on appeal concern whether the district court erred in granting summary judgment, which we review de novo. Holloway v. Brush, 220 F.3d 767, 772 (6th Cir. 2000) (en banc). Summary judgment is proper where "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 moving party bears the burden of proving that there is no such genuine issue. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). Whether a fact is "material" depends on whether its resolution might affect the outcome of the case. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). In considering a summary judgment motion, this Court must "consider the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving parties, drawing all justifiable inferences in their favor." Payne v. Novartis Pharm. Corp., 767 F.3d 526, 530 (6th Cir. 2014) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255). "The ultimate question is whether the evidence presents a sufficient factual disagreement to require submission of the case to the jury, or whether the evidence is so one-sided that the moving parties should prevail as a matter of law." Id. (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255).

         I. Title VII and ELCRA Gender Discrimination Claims

         Plaintiff claims that Defendant violated Title VII and the ELCRA by discriminating against her on account of her gender. She claims this discrimination took the form of a transfer from GPSHS to Parcells Middle School, a "minimally effective" rating in her evaluation for the 2014-2015 school year, and other negative treatment.

         Under Title VII's anti-discrimination provision, it is "an unlawful employment practice for an employer . . . to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin." 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). Under § 202 of the ELCRA, "[a]n employer shall not . . . [f]ail or refuse to hire or recruit, discharge, or otherwise discriminate against an individual with respect to employment compensation, or a term, condition or privilege of employment, because of religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, height, weight, or marital status." Mich. Comp. Laws § 37.2202(1)(a).

         A plaintiff may show discrimination by direct evidence, or a plaintiff lacking direct evidence of discrimination may succeed on a Title VII claim by presenting indirect evidence under the framework first set forth in McDonnell Douglas Corp v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802-03 ...


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