United States District Court, D. South Dakota, Southern Division
OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN
PART DEFENDANT'S MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT
ROBERTO A. LANGE, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Debra Leighton sued her employer Madison Central School
District (MCSD) under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of
1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. Doc. 1. She
asserted claims for disparate treatment because of sex,
discriminatory failure to hire, and retaliation. Doc. 1. She
also sought compensatory and punitive damages. Doc. 1. MCSD
moved for summary judgment on all claims, Doc. 29, or, in the
alternative, summary judgment on Leighton's claim for
punitive damages, Doc. 36. This Court grants MCSD summary
judgment on the disparate treatment and retaliation claims
because Leighton did not engage in protected conduct and the
disparate treatment claim is merely a repackaged retaliation
claim. Summary judgment is also appropriate on the punitive
damages claim because Title VII does not allow plaintiffs to
recover punitive damages from a school district like MCSD.
This Court denies MCSD's motion for summary judgment on
the failure-to-hire claim, however, because there is a
material question of fact concerning whether gender played a
role in MCSD's hiring decision.
began working for MCSD in 2012, when she was hired as a
part-time teacher at the Gracevale Hutterite Colony
(Gracevale). Doc. 34 at ¶3; Doc. 41 at ¶3; Doc. 32
at ¶3. Gracevale, which is located within MCSD's
boundaries, had a lengthy partnership with MCSD under which
MCSD operated a rural school near Gracevale to provide K-8
schooling for Gracevale children. Doc. 34 at ¶ 11; Doc.
41 at ¶ 11; Doc. 40 at ¶ 17; Doc. 49 at ¶ 1.
Vince Schaefer, MCSD's superintendent, delegated most of
the responsibility for leadership and staff supervision at
the Gracevale school to Cotton Koch, the middle school
principal for MCSD. Doc. 40 at ¶ 18; Doc. 49 at ¶1.
hired Leighton as one of two full-time teachers at the
Gracevale school for the 2013-2014 school year. Doc. 34 at
¶ 5; Doc. 41 at¶5. When Koch informed Leighton of
MCSD's decision, she was extremely happy and expressed
her emotions by hugging him. Doc. 34 at ¶ 9; Doc. 41 at
¶ 9. Leighton was to teach grades K-3 while Amy
Andersen, the other full-time teacher at the Gracevale
school, would teach grades 4-8. Doc. 34 at ¶ 10; Doc. 41
at ¶ 10; Doc. 40 at ¶¶ 21, 23;Doc.49 at¶
developed at the Gracevale school in early 2014. Doc. 34 at
¶ 12; Doc. 41 at ¶ 12. Gracevale was satisfied with
Leighton, but had complaints about Andersen's teaching.
Doc. 40 at ¶¶ 24, 28; Doc. 49 at ¶ 1; Doc. 32
at ¶ 5. One Gracevale representative even asked that
Andersen be fired. Doc. 40 at ¶27; Doc. 49 at ¶2.
MCSD also learned that Gracevale was dividing and that
approximately half of the Gracevale students would be moving
to a colony in the Rutland school district for the upcoming
2014-2015 school year. Doc. 40 at ¶ 20; Doc. 49 at
about February 5, 2014,  Koch held a meeting with Leighton and
Andersen to address problems at the Gracevale school and to
encourage Leighton and Andersen to get along better, support
each other, and follow the chain of command. Doc. 34 at
¶¶ 13-14; Doc. 41 at ¶¶ 13-14. During the
meeting, Koch referred to Leighton as a "princess"
because of how Gracevale thought she could do no wrong. Doc.
34 at ¶ 17; Doc. 41 at ¶ 17; Doc. 40 at ¶ 29;
Doc. 50 at ¶ 2; Doc. 43-1 at 3. Koch also told Andersen
that he would continue to support her, which prompted
Andersen to kiss Koch's hand and declare that he was
"the best boss ever." Doc. 40 at ¶ 30; Doc. 49
at ¶ 1; Doc. 34 at ¶ 15; Doc. 41 at ¶ 15. .The
kissing incident lasted no more than a few seconds and was
not initiated by Koch. Doc. 34 at ¶ 16; Doc. 41 at
February 10, 2014, Koch gave Leighton a written evaluation of
a class he saw her teach. Doc. 40 at ¶ 32; Doc. 49 at
¶ 1. The evaluation was positive, with Koch telling
Leighton "[g]reat job" and thanking her "for
all the work you do for our students." Doc. 40 at ¶
32; Doc. 49 at ¶ 1; Doc. 43-7. On February 20, 2014,
Leighton met with Koch to discuss her concerns about Andersen
and what had occurred during the February 5, 2014 meeting.
Doc. 40 at ¶ 34; Doc. 49 at ¶ 2; Doc. 43-3 at 2.
Among other things, Leighton told Koch that she had been
offended when Koch called her a princess and when Andersen
kissed Koch's hand. Doc. 40 at ¶ 34; Doc. 49 at
¶ 2. Koch replied that he did not mean the
princess comment in a negative way, that he did not think
anything of the kissing incident, and that Leighton would
need to get over it. Doc. 40 at ¶ 35; Doc. 49 at ¶
2. According to Leighton, she told Koch that she was
unsatisfied with his responses and wanted to take her
complaints about Andersen to Schaefer; Koch replied that
Leighton was not allowed to speak to Schaefer about Andersen,
and that if he found out that she had, he would terminate her
on the spot. Doc. 40 at ¶ 36. Koch denies threatening to
terminate Leighton and saying she could not speak to
Schaefer. Doc. 50 at ¶ 3. While Koch contends that he
lacks the authority to fire Leighton, Doc. 50 at ¶ 3,
Leighton asserts that she found Koch's alleged threat
realistic because he had the authority to recommend her
nonrenewal and because MCSD placed deference on
administrative recommendations, Doc. 40 at¶ 37; Doc.
43-1 at 18; Doc. 43-2 at 7.
March 10, 2014, the MCSD school board approved a reduction in
force (RIF) eliminating five teaching positions for the
2014-2015 school year, including Andersen's and
Leighton's positions at the Gracevale school. Doc. 34 at
¶ 26; Doc. 41 at ¶ 26; Doc. 40 at ¶ 39; Doc.
43-11; Doc. 31 at ¶9; Doc. 31-3 at 4. The collective
bargaining agreement between the MCSD and the Madison
Education Association contained a provision regarding a RIF.
Doc. 34 at ¶ 24; Doc. 41 at ¶ 24. Loss of student
enrollment is the usual reason for employing the RIF
procedure. Doc. 34 at ¶ 25; Doc. 41 at ¶ 25; Doc.
32 at ¶ 8. The reason given for the March 2014 RIF was
that Gracevale was splitting and that the MCSD would thus
lose about half of the students it served at the Gracevale
school. Doc. 40 at ¶ 40; Doc. 43-2 at 4; Doc. 31 at
¶ 8; Doc. 34 at ¶ 25; Doc. 41 at ¶ 25.
Leighton contends that Koch "had a part in the RIF
analysis." Doc. 40 at ¶ 42. Koch submitted an
affidavit saying that he had nothing to do with the RIF, but
that he did "provide information that based on what we
knew at the time, only 15 students would be returning to
school at Gracevale." Doc. 50 at ¶ 4.
contends that "within several weeks" of the RIF, it
reclassified certain positions such that MCSD could continue
supplying two teachers to Gracevale for the 2014-2015 school
year. Doc. 34 at ¶ 28; Doc. 41 at ¶ 28. There is
some disagreement about when MCSD began advertising for these
positions. According to Leighton, MCSD posted a job for one
full-time K-8 teacher at the Gracevale school shortly after
the RIF. Doc. 40 at ¶ 47. The closing date to apply for
this position was March 28, 2014. Doc. 40 at ¶ 47.
Leighton sent an undated letter to Koch and Schaefer saying
that she would not be applying for the position because she
did not believe that one teacher could meet the requirements
of the job description. Doc. 32-1; Doc. 43-16; Doc. 40 at
¶ 48. Leighton contends that on April 1, 2014, she saw
that MCSD had posted the following three jobs for the
2014-2015 school year: a full-time Title 1 and ELL teacher at
the Gracevale school; a full-time K-8 teacher at the
Gracevale school; and a junior kindergarten teacher at the
MCSD main campus! Doc. 40 at ¶49; Doc. 43-18; Doc.
43-17; Doc. 43-32. MCSD claims that it posted the K-8
position on March 14, 2014, and that the applications for
that position were due by March 28. Doc. 34 at ¶ 30; Doc.
32 at ¶ 9. MCSD claims that it posted the Title I and
ELL position on April 4, 2014, and that this position closed
on April 17, 2014. Doc. 34 at ¶ 31; Doc. 32 at ¶ 9.
April 3, 2014, Leighton met with Koch to inquire about the
K-8 and Title 1 positions at the Gracevale school. Doc. 40 at
¶ 54; Doc. 49 at ¶2; Doc. 43-32 at 1-2. Koch
informed Leighton that he was looking for someone who did not
clash with the Gracevale leadership. Doc. 40 at ¶ 54;
Doc. 49 at ¶ 2. On April 14, 2014, -Leighton applied for
the two teaching positions at the Gracevale school and the
junior kindergarten position at the MCSD main campus. Doc. 40
at ¶ 55; Doc. 43-20. Koch acknowledged during his
deposition that Leighton's application was'
sufficient and that he knew she was applying for the three
teaching positions as of April 14, 2014.Doc. 40 at ¶
56; Doc. 49 at ¶ 2; Doc. 43-1 at 8-9.
selected himself and two teachers he supervised to act as the
hiring committee for the Gracevale positions. Doc. 40 at
¶ 60; Doc. 50 at ¶ 7; Doc. 43-1 at 9. Koch had the
authority to choose whom to interview and to conduct the
interviews with the two other members of the committee. Doc.
40 at ¶ 58; Doc. 50 at ¶ 6; Doc. 43-1 at 11, 13.
Koch's testimony suggests that he alone chose whom to
interview for the Gracevale positions, Doc. 43-1 at 11, 13,
but he submitted a later affidavit stating that the other two
members of the hiring committee could also determine which
candidates to interview, Doc. 50 at ¶ 6. Under the usual
hiring process for MCSD, the hiring committee would recommend
a candidate to the superintendent, the superintendent would
send the recommendation to the school board if he approved of
the candidate, and the school board would then make the final
hiring decision. Doc. 34 at ¶ 38; Doc. 41 at ¶ 38.
Koch had given Leighton a "Meets Standards" rating
for the 2013-2014 school year, Doc. 40 at ¶ 51; Doc. 49
at ¶ 2, he decided not to interview Leighton for any of
the teaching positions, Doc. 40 at¶ 61; Doc. 50 at¶
8; Doc. 43-1 at 13. MCSD contends, and Leighton disputes,
that MCSD's first two choices for the K-8 position at
Gracevale were women; MCSD avers that both women accepted
other jobs before their employment could be presented to the
MCSD school board. Doc. 34 at ¶¶ 40-13; Doc. 41 at
¶¶ 40-43; Doc. 43-1 at 12-14. According to MCSD,
the hiring committee's third choice for the K-8 position
was Tom Nielsen. Doc. 34 at ¶ 44; Doc. 41 at ¶
44. When Koch called Nielsen around April 21, 2014, Nielsen
said he would accept the K-8 position if it were offered to
him. Doc. 43-1 at 14; Doc. 32 at ¶ 21; Doc. 40 at
¶¶ 63-64; Doc. 50 at ¶¶ 9, 11. The MCSD
school board ultimately approved offering a contract to
Nielsen during its May 2014 meeting and Nielson accepted the
position as a K-8 teacher at the Gracevale school. Doc. 40
at¶63; Doc. 32 at ¶ 21.
the Title 1 position at Gracevale, the hiring committee
recommended Andersen. Doc. 34 at ¶ 45; Doc. 41 at ¶
45; Doc. 50 at ¶ 66; Doc. 43-1 at 19. Koch informed
Andersen that she was being recommended for a contract but
asked her to keep this information confidential until the
school board acted upon the recommendation. Doc. 34 at ¶
47; Doc. 41 at ¶ 47; Doc. 40 at ¶ 65; Doc. 50 at
¶ 12. Emails from Schaefer in May and June of 2014
suggest that Andersen had accepted a contract offer for the
Title 1 position, although the MCSD school board had yet to
formally approve the contract. Doc. 43-25; Doc. 43-26; Doc.
43-30; Doc. 40 at¶¶ 66-67; Doc. 50 at ¶¶
12-14; Doc. 41 at ¶ 46; see also Doc. 43-37.
April 29, 2014, Leighton met with Koch to ask when the
interviews for the three positions for which she had applied
would begin. Doc. 40 at ¶ 62; Doc. 50 at ¶ 10. Koch
informed Leighton that the K-8 position was filled and that
the Title 1 position had been "tabled." Doc. 40 at
¶ 62; Doc. 50 at ¶ 10. He did not mention the
junior kindergarten position. Doc. 40 at ¶ 62; Doc. 50
at ¶ 10. On May 16, 2014, Andersen informed Leighton
that she had been offered the Title 1 position
three-and-a-half-weeks earlier. Doc. 40 at ¶ 65; Doc. 50
at ¶ 12. Koch sent a letter to Schaefer on May 19, 2014,
explaining that in addition to having Nielsen and Andersen
teach at Gracevale, MCSD had secured a full-year student
teacher for the Gracevale school for the 2014-2015 school
year. Doc. 40 at ¶ 68; Doc. 50 at ¶
15; Doc. 43-24. Koch explained that this would make the ratio
"three teachers to 15 students. It will also provide two
male teachers. This is a first for the Gracevale
Colony!" Doc. 40 at ¶ 68; Doc. 50 at ¶ 15;
Doc. 43-24. Just a few days later, however, MCSD learned that
Gracevale was considering using the open-enrollment option to
join the neighboring school district in Chester, South
Dakota. Doc. 43-26; Doc. 43-31; Doc. 40 at ¶ 70. On May
23, 2014, Schaefer sent an email to the MCSD school board
discussing the split in the Gracevale colony and the
With the division of the colony and new leadership who want
to make things happen this has become a difficult issue. We
are frustrated with how to approach and who to work with. At
this time we understand that at a level higher than the local
colony a decision was made to pursue open enrollment to
Chester with the primary reason being they refuse to accept
Amy Andersen as their teacher. We have hired Tom Nielsen and
Amy Andersen to be the teachers along with and [sic] yearlong
male student teacher for 16 students starting this fall.
43-26; Doc. 40 at ¶ 70. Koch sent an email to Schaefer
about Gracevale on May 26, 2014, stating:
I have been thinking (worrying) all weekend about this issue.
A couple of things that came to me 1. If we go to the colony
and tell them Andersen will be moved to town the trap we will
walk into will be hiring Debbie Leighton. I think they will
try to play that card. I will support whatever you decide on
43-27; Doc. 40 at ¶ 73; Doc. 49 at ¶
28, 2014, Leighton and her husband Brian met with Koch and
Schaefer to discuss Leighton's concerns about why she
wasn't interviewed for the teaching positions for which
she had applied. Doc. 40 at ¶ 74; Doc. 49 at ¶ 2.
Leighton suggested that she did not receive an interview
because she had complained about Koch calling her a princess
and Andersen kissing Koch's hand. Doc. 40 at ¶ 74;
Doc. 49 at ¶ 2. Koch explained Nielsen's hiring by
saying that Gracevale had wanted a "male figure" at
the school and someone with more math experience. Doc. 40 at
¶ 74; Doc. 49 at ¶ 2.
12, 2014, Schaefer sent an email to MCSD school board
president Tom Farrell explaining that he had decided not to
approve Andersen's contract for the Title 1 position at
Gracevale. Doc. 40 at ¶ 76; Doc. 49 at ¶ 2; Doc.
43-30; Doc. 34 at ¶ 49; Doc. 41 at ¶ 49. Schaefer
wrote that "[h]aving 'taken back' the contract
offered to Amy after a closed discussion with her effectively
removes her from that school setting." Doc. 40 at ¶
76; Doc. 49 at ¶ 2; Doc. 43-30.
9, 2014, Leighton signed a contract with the Chester school
district to teach at the Gracevale school. Doc. 30-2 at 3, 7;
Doc. 34 at ¶¶ 50-51; Doc. 41 at ¶¶
50-51.Her annual salary under the contract
would be $37, 250.00. Doc. 34 at ¶ 51; Doc. 41 at
¶ 51. On July 14, 2014, Leighton appeared before the
MCSD school board to voice her complaints about Koch,
Andersen, and not having received an interview. Doc. 40 at
¶ 78; Doc. 49 at ¶ 2; Doc. 43-32. She also
submitted written questions to the school board, one of which
stated: "We would like to know the views of the board
upon a female applicant being told that he wanted a male in
that position. Mr. Koch told us that he hired Mr. Nielsen
because he needed a male presence at the colony." Doc.
40 at ¶ 78; Doc. 49 at ¶ 2; Doc. 43-33.
mid-July, MCSD had accepted that Gracevale was going to open
enroll its students in the Chester school district. Doc. 40
at ¶ 82; Doc. 49 at ¶ 2. Because MCSD already had a
binding contract with Nielsen, it reassigned him to an open
middle school position. Doc. 40 at ¶ 82; Doc. 49 at
August 4, 2014, the MCSD school board held an executive
session with Koch to discuss Leighton's complaints. Doc.
40 at ¶ 84; Doc. 43-35; Doc. 43-2 at 10. The following
day, Farrell sent a letter to Leighton notifying her of the
executive session and explaining that while the board could
not answer her questions concerning personnel because such
information was confidential by law, the board "did have
in depth discussion and changes will be implemented to
protect the applicant as well as the district in the
future." Doc. 43-35; Doc. 40 at ¶ 85. Farrell
concluded by saying that the school board believed it had
given adequate attention to Leighton's concerns and that
the board would not review the matter any further. Doc. 40 at
¶ 85; Doc. 43-35.
August 6, 2014, Koch called one of Leighton's former
employers for a reference. Doc. 40 at¶ 86; Doc. 50
at¶ 18; Doc. 43-1 at 17; Doc. 43-36. He documented a
negative reference and completed a MCSD reference form for
Leighton, marking "Does NOT meet the standards of the
Madison Central School District." Doc. 40 at ¶ 86;
Doc. 50 at ¶ 18; Doc. 43-1 at 17; Doc. 43-36. Koch
testified that he conducted the reference check because he
felt attacked by Leighton and needed to know "did I do
the right thing, did I make the right choice." Doc. 40
at ¶ 87; Doc. 50 at ¶ 18; Doc. 43-1 at 17.
filed a discrimination charge with the EEOC in November 2014,
alleging that MCSD had discriminated against her based on her
gender and retaliated against her for engaging in protected
activity. Doc. 1 at ¶ 7; Doc. 8 at ¶ 7. MCSD's
response to the charge stated that "Koch may have told
Ms. Leighton that Gracevale had been asking for a male
teacher, because that was the fact." Doc. 43-39 at 1;
Doc. 40 at ¶ 91. Thereafter, Gracevale's president
and its school administrator submitted the following letter
to the EEOC:
In regards to Mr. Koch's claim in section II.9 [of
MCSD's EEOC response] that Gracevale Colony had been
asking for a male teacher this statement is not true. We the
Colony have been asked by Mr. Koch if we had any issues with
him hiring a male teacher, our response was there would be no
problem. We at no time asked for a male teacher.
Doc. 43-38; Doc. 40 at ¶ 91.
sued MCSD under Title VII in this Court, asserting claims for
"disparate treatment because of sex" (Count I),
discriminatory failure to hire (Count II), and retaliation
for opposing discrimination (Count III). Doc. 1. She sought
compensatory and punitive damages against MCSD as well as
attorney's fees. Doc. 1. MCSD moved for summary judgment
on all of Leighton's claims, ...