United States District Court, D. South Dakota, Central Division
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For Mark Dunn, Plaintiff: Hannah Elizabeth Dunn, LEAD ATTORNEY, PRO HAC VICE, Oakland, CA; Sara Frankenstein, LEAD ATTORNEY, Kyle L. Wiese, Gunderson, Palmer, Nelson & Ashmore, LLP, Rapid City, SD.
For Lyman School District 42-1, Defendant: Jessica L. Filler, LEAD ATTORNEY, Naomi R. Cromwell, Richard Paul Tieszen, Wade Lee Fischer, Tieszen Law Office, Pierre, SD.
OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT
ROBERTO A. LANGE, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
Plaintiff Mark Dunn (Dunn) filed an Amended Complaint against Defendant Lyman School District (School District) alleging violations of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq. , (Count I), a breach of fiduciary duty and duty of loyalty (Count II), and intentional infliction of emotional distress (Count III). Doc. 22. The School District moved for summary judgment, Doc. 41, which Dunn opposed, Doc. 51. For the reasons explained below, this Court denies the School District's motion for summary judgment on Count I, but grants the motion on Counts II and III.
This Court takes the facts in the light most favorable to Dunn as the non-moving party and draws the facts primarily from Plaintiff's Objections to Defendant's Statement of Undisputed Material Facts and Counter Statements of Material Facts. Doc. 50. Dunn began working as a guidance counselor for the School District in 1995. Doc. 50 at ¶ 1. He remained in this position until May 2010, when he voluntarily retired with the hope of being rehired the following year so that he could collect retirement benefits and a salary. Doc. 50 at ¶ 2. The School District paid Dunn for his accumulated sick leave and gave him his severance. Doc. 50 at ¶ 4; Doc. 41-25. The School District made no guarantee it would rehire Dunn. Doc. 50 at ¶ ¶ 3, 5. In June 2010, the School Board (Board) voted to rehire Dunn for the 2010-2011 school year, with only one Board member voting in opposition. Doc. 50 at ¶ 6. Dunn was sixty years old when he was rehired. Doc. 50 at ¶ 8. Because South Dakota regulations required a ninety-day break in service between Dunn's retirement and his return to employment, Dunn could not begin working for the School District until September 1, 2010. Doc. 50 at ¶ ¶ 9-10.
Because of reduced tax collection caused in part bye a recession, the state of South Dakota in 2011 cut its education funding by approximately fifteen percent. Doc. 50 at ¶ ¶ 11, 17; Doc. 41-4 at 5; Doc. 41-9 at 4; Doc. 41-10 at 2. As a result, Bruce Carrier, the School District superintendent at that time, proposed a reduction in force of certain positions to the Board. Doc. 50 at ¶ ¶ 12-14, 17. Those identified in the proposed reduction in force--Dunn, Renee Miller, and Beth Bacon--were three of the older employees in the School District. Doc. 50 at ¶ 21. The proposed reduction in force never occurred, however, and the School District offered Dunn a new contract for the 2011-2012 school year. Doc. 50 at ¶ ¶ 16, 21, 25. Dunn's 2011-2012 contract did not include compensation for work before or after the school year. Doc. 50 at ¶ 25. Nor did the 2011-2012 contract include the extra-duty assignment of National Honors Society (NHS) advisor and the corresponding compensation. Doc. 50 at ¶ 25. Dunn had been the NHS advisor for several years, but the position became
unpaid in 2011. Doc. 50 at ¶ ¶ 18, 19. Marsha Hullinger, a School District secretary, assumed the position for the 2011-2012 school year after agreeing to do so without compensation. Doc. 50 at ¶ ¶ 18-19. The School District reinstated pay for the position for the 2012-2013 school year. Doc. 50 at ¶ 18.
Doug Eppard (Eppard), a School District employee since 1997 who was most recently the high school principal, became superintendent for the School District in the summer of 2011. Doc. 50 at ¶ ¶ 28, 30; Doc. 41-12 at 2. Cooper Garnos (Garnos), another School District employee, became principal of the high school and elementary school in 2011. Doc. 50 at ¶ ¶ 29, 30. During the 2011-2012 school year, Dunn worked with college students Andrea Diehm (Diehm) and Brittany Reuman, nee Fuhrman, (Brittany) while they completed guidance counseling internships with the School District. Doc. 50 at ¶ ¶ 31-32. Brittany performed her internship during the fall semester while Diehm performed a practicum during the fall semester and an internship during the spring semester. Doc. 50 at ¶ ¶ 31-32. Around Christmas of 2011, Brittany became engaged to Drew Reuman (Drew), the son of Board President Marlene Reuman (Reuman). Doc. 50 at ¶ ¶ 89, 90. Brittany had been dating Drew when she applied for the internship and once they became engaged, she hoped to find permanent employment near Lyman where Drew worked. Doc. 50 at ¶ ¶ 89-90. Both Brittany and Diehm received their masters degrees in the spring of 2012. Doc. 50 at ¶ 33.
Eppard testified in his deposition that during the 2011-2012 school year, he spoke with his wife, Principal Julie Eppard, and Garnos about Dunn's job performance. Doc. 50 at ¶ ¶ 36-37; Doc. 41-12 at 4. When pressed for specifics, however, Eppard had trouble recalling the details of the conversations and the exact dates they took place. Doc. 50 at ¶ ¶ 36-37; Doc. 41-12 at 4-5. Similarly, although Garnos testified that he spoke with Eppard on several occasions about Dunn's lack of a connection with students and his level of commitment and community involvement, Garnos was unable to name any particular students with whom Dunn had difficulty connecting. Doc. 50 at ¶ 38; Doc. 52-5 at 5, 10. Garnos further testified that he had not communicated his concerns to Dunn either verbally or in writing and that Dunn had never refused to do something Garnos asked of him. Doc. 50 at ¶ 38; Doc. 52-5 at 4-5, 9.
In January 2012, Eppard and the Board discussed not renewing Dunn's contract. Doc. 50 at ¶ 53; Doc. 41-12 at 13. Eppard testified that during these discussions, several Board members expressed concern that Dunn was not a very good guidance counselor. Doc. 50 at ¶ ¶ 45, 46; Doc. 41-12 at 13-14. Board member Meta Halverson testified that the Board discussed looking for someone who would be more helpful to the students. Doc. 50 at ¶ ¶ 46-48; Doc. 41-10 at 4-5. Eppard told the Board that there were two interns in the community who would be very good candidates. Doc. 50 at ¶ 53; Doc. 41-12 at 14. Eppard did not recall any Board member asking about Dunn's age, his receipt of retirement benefits, or whether he was going to retire. Doc. 50 at ¶ 53; 41-12 at 14; see also Doc. 41-11 at 2. At some point in either early 2012 or before, however, the Board did discuss that Dunn had retired in 2010 and was no longer a tenured employee. Doc. 50 at ¶ 53; Doc. 41-10 at 4.
In February 2012, Eppard called Dunn into his office and asked him whether he " was planning to retire that year or what [his] plans were." Doc. 50 at ¶ 40; Doc. 41-4 at 3; Doc. 52-2 at 18-19. Dunn responded that he planned to continue
working for the School District rather than retiring and inquired why Eppard wanted to know. Doc. 50 at ¶ 40; Doc. 41-4 at 3; Doc. 52-2 at 18. Eppard explained that there was a " 50/50" chance that Dunn's contract would not be renewed and reminded Dunn that he had lost his tenure when he retired and was then rehired. Doc. 50 at ¶ 40; Doc. 41-4 at 3; Doc. 52-2 at 18. According to Dunn, Eppard also informed Dunn that the possible nonrenewal of his contract had " nothing to do with [Dunn's] job performance, that [Dunn] had done everything [he] had always been asked to do and done it well, but that [Eppard] had two good, young counseling interns living in the [D]istrict that [Eppard] did not want to lose to another district."  Doc. 50 at ¶ ¶ 42, 45; Doc. 41-4 at 3; see also Doc. 41-4 at 4. Eppard never called Dunn " old," mentioned Dunn's age, or told Dunn that the School District needed someone " much younger," however. Doc. 50 at ¶ ¶ 41, 42; Doc. 41-4 at 3-4, 12, 17.
According to the " Age Discrimination Fact Summary" Dunn filed, Eppard met with Dunn in early March 2012 to inform Dunn that he would be recommending nonrenewal of Dunn's contract at the Board meeting on March 12, 2012, because it was " time for a change at Lyman." Doc. 52-18; Doc. 50 at ¶ ¶ 42, 74; Doc. 41-4 at 4. Eppard told Dunn that he could resign at that time because it " would be better for [Dunn] to do that." Doc. 50 at ¶ 74; Doc. 52-18. Eppard in fact recommended at the March 12, 2012 meeting that the Board not renew Dunn's contract. Doc. 50 at ¶ 43; Doc. 41-12 at 15. Although the Board had the ultimate authority to make staffing decisions, it considered Eppard's recommendations and typically relied on his statements concerning a teacher's performance. Doc. 50 at ¶ 43; Doc. 41-10 at 2; Doc. 52-2 at 2; Doc. 52-7 at 2, 4. Neither Halverson nor Reuman independently investigated Dunn's performance. Doc. 50 at ¶ 45; Doc. 41-10 at 2; Doc. 52-7 at 2. The Board then voted not to offer Dunn a contract for the following year. Doc. 50 at ¶ 44. Six out of the nine members on the Board in 2010 when Dunn was rehired were also on the Board in 2012 when Dunn's contract was nonrenewed. Doc. 50 at ¶ 54. The same Board members who voted to rehire Dunn in 2010 voted to nonrenew his contract in 2012. Doc. 50 at ¶ 55.
On March 13, 2012, Dunn was given written notice that the Board had not renewed his contract. Doc. 50 at ¶ 58. The notice did not give any reason for the nonrenewal. Doc. 41-19. That same day, the School District advertised for the guidance counselor position. Doc. 50 at ¶ 60. On March 14, 2012, Brittany applied for the guidance counselor position. Doc. 50 at ¶ 92. A hiring committee consisting of Eppard, Julie Eppard, Garnos, and School District counselor Julie Muirhead (Muirhead) interviewed three applicants for the position, including Diehm and Brittany. Doc. 50 at ¶ 61; Doc. 41-12 at 18. The hiring committee asked standard questions during each interview and ranked the applicants thereafter. Doc. 50 at ¶ 62. On April 9, 2012, the Board voted to offer the position of guidance counselor and assistant girls' basketball coach to Brittany. Doc. 50 at ¶ 63. Reuman, the future mother-in-law of Brittany, had participated in the decision to nonrenew Dunn's contract. Doc. 50 at ¶ 91; Doc. 52-7 at 4. Reuman
removed herself from the process of hiring a guidance counselor by not discussing the applicants with other Board members or Brittany, leaving the Board meeting when the applicants were discussed, and abstaining from the vote. Doc. 50 at ¶ 64.
On May 17, 2012, the day for staff to turn in their keys, Dunn asked Eppard for copies of all his performance evaluations from his personnel file. Doc. 50 at ¶ 86; Doc. 52-16 at 3. Although Dunn was entitled to his performance evaluations under School District policy, Eppard was unable to locate them. Doc. 50 at ¶ ¶ 85, 87; Doc. 52-2 at 12. Later that day, Garnos came to Dunn's office and stated that he wanted to review Dunn's performance evaluation with him. Doc. 50 at ¶ 87; Doc. 52-16 at 3; Doc. 55-3 at 4. Dunn refused to sign the performance evaluation because he believed that it was not on the appropriate form and did not comply with the Negotiated Agreement. Doc. 50 at ¶ 80; Doc. 52-16 at 3. Garnos observed that Dunn was visibly upset. Doc. 50 at ¶ 103; Doc. 52-5 at 6. Thereafter, Dunn met with Garnos, Eppard, and School District business manager Renelle Uthe. Doc. 50 at ¶ 82. Uthe was there as a witness and she signed Dunn's performance evaluation attesting that he had refused to sign it himself. Doc. 50 at ¶ 82; Doc. 52-25; Doc. 55-1.
In June 2012, Dunn filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleging age discrimination against the School District. Doc. 41-22. Eppard responded with a letter to the EEOC explaining the reasons he felt were pertinent to the nonrenewal of Dunn's contract. Doc. 50 at ¶ 109; Doc. 41-23. The EEOC dismissed Dunn's complaint, stating that although it was " unable to conclude that the information obtained establishe[d] violations of the statutes[,]" it was " not certify[ing] that the [School District was] in compliance with the statutes." Doc. 41-24.
III. Standard of Review
Under Rule 56(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment is proper when " 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." Summary judgment is not " a disfavored procedural shortcut, but rather . . . an integral part of the Federal Rules as a whole, which are designed 'to secure the just, speedy and inexpensive determination of every action.'" Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 327, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 1). On summary judgment, courts view " the evidence and the inferences that may be reasonably drawn from the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party." EEOC v. CRST Van Expedited, Inc., 679 F.3d 657, 686 (8th Cir. 2012) (quoting Mayer v. Countrywide Home Loans, 647 F.3d 789, 791 (8th Cir. 2011)). A party opposing a properly made and supported motion for summary judgment must cite to particular materials in the record supporting the assertion that a fact is genuinely disputed. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1); Gacek v. Owens & Minor Distrib., Inc., 666 F.3d 1142, 1145 (8th Cir. 2012). Although Dunn asserts that there is a " long-standing Eighth Circuit rule that summary judgment should seldom be used in employment-discrimination cases[,]" Doc. 51 at 9, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit held in an en banc decision that there is no " 'discrimination case' exception to the application of summary judgment[.]" Torgerson v. City of Rochester,
643 F.3d 1031, 1043 (8th Cir. 2011) (en banc). Thus, this Court applies the same summary judgment standard to discrimination cases as it does to all others.
The ADEA forbids discrimination against employees, age forty and over, because of their age. 29 U.S.C. § § 623(a)(1), 631(a). To prove his claim under the ADEA, Dunn must show by a preponderance of the evidence that age was the " but-for" cause of the adverse employment action.
Gross v. FBL Fin. Servs., Inc., 557 U.S. 167, 177, 129 S.Ct. 2343, 174 L.Ed.2d 119 (2009) (" [T]he plaintiff [in an ADEA case] retains the burden of persuasion to establish that age was the 'but-for' cause of the employer's adverse action." ); Buehrle v. City of O'Fallon, 695 F.3d 807, 813 (8th Cir. 2012) (" Under the ADEA standard, a plaintiff must 'establish that age was the " but-for" cause of the employer's adverse action.'" (quoting Gross, 557 U.S. at 177)). Dunn may have his ADEA claim survive summary judgment " either by providing direct evidence of discrimination or by creating an inference of unlawful discrimination through the
McDonnell Douglas [Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 93 S.Ct. 1817, 36 L.Ed.2d 668 (1973)] analysis."  Bone v. G4S Youth Servs., LLC, 686 F.3d 948, 953 (8th Cir. 2012). Dunn contends that he has direct evidence of discrimination and, alternatively, that he can satisfy the McDonnell Douglas test.
1. Direct Evidence
The Eighth Circuit has explained that direct evidence in this context " is not the converse of circumstantial evidence . . . [but] is evidence showing a specific link between the alleged discriminatory animus and the challenged decision, sufficient to support a finding by a reasonable fact finder that an illegitimate criterion actually motivated the adverse employment action." Bone,
686 F.3d at 953 (quoting Torgerson, 643 F.3d at 1044) (internal quotation marks omitted). This evidence " must be 'strong' and must 'clearly point to the presence of an illegal motive' for the adverse action." Id. (quoting Griffith v. City of Des Moines, 387 F.3d 733, 736 (8th Cir. 2004)). Direct evidence " may include evidence of actions or remarks of the employer that reflect a discriminatory attitude, comments which demonstrate a discriminatory animus in the decisional process, or comments uttered by individuals closely involved in employment decisions." King v. United States, 553 F.3d 1156, 1161 (8th Cir. 2009) (quoting King v. Hardesty, 517 F.3d 1049, 1058 (8th Cir. 2008)) (internal quotation marks omitted). However, " stray remarks in the workplace, statements by nondecisionmakers, and statements by decisionmakers unrelated to the decisional process do not constitute direct evidence." Id. at 1160-61 (quoting Schierhoff v. GlaxoSmithKline Consumer Healthcare, LP, 444 F.3d 961, 966 (8th Cir. 2006)) (internal quotation marks omitted).
Dunn argues that Reuman's testimony concerning a 2010 Board meeting constitutes direct evidence that age discrimination motivated the Board's decision to nonrenew his contract in 2012. Specifically, he points to the following deposition testimony from Reuman:
Reuman: At that time when [Dunn] retired we accepted his retirement. And then we discussed whether we were going to rehire him back. And that was not all in the same meeting.
Dunn's Counsel: Okay. So maybe you could just help me understand when those meetings occurred. And what was discussed at each meeting.
Reuman: Well, the first meeting he retired. And then we discussed--and he wanted to do the retire rehire. So we discussed whether we wanted to do that. And that is when we decided that we would advertise for the position. Then the next meeting and I can't tell you if it was the next month or two months later that we had--we had advertised for the position, and like I told you, the one applicant that we were interested withdrew ...