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Leighton v. Madison Central School District #39-2

United States District Court, D. South Dakota, Southern Division

September 28, 2018




         Plaintiff 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.

         I. Facts

         Leighton 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.

         MCSD 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¶ 1.

         Problems 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 ¶ 1.

         On or about February 5, 2014, [1] 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 ¶ 16.

         On 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.[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.[3] 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.

         On 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.

         MCSD 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.[4] 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.[5] Doc. 34 at ¶ 31; Doc. 32 at ¶ 9.

         On 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.[6]Doc. 40 at ¶ 56; Doc. 49 at ¶ 2; Doc. 43-1 at 8-9.

         Koch 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.

         Although 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.[7] 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.

         As for 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.[8] 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.

         On 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.[9] 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 open-enrollment possibility:

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.

         Doc. 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 both teachers.

         Doc. 43-27; Doc. 40 at ¶ 73; Doc. 49 at ¶ 2.[10]

         On May 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.

         On June 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.

         On July 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.[11]Her annual salary under the contract would be $37, 250.00.[12] 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.

         By 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 ¶ 2.

         On 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.

         On 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.

         Leighton 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.

         Leighton 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, ...

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