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Woken v. Parish

May 15, 2006

ETHEL M. WOKEN, PLAINTIFF,
v.
ST. JOSEPH PARISH, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Richard Mills, U.S. District Judge

OPINION

This case is before the Court on the Defendant's motion for summary judgment.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

A. Introduction

Plaintiff Ethel M. Woken, who worked as an eighth grade teacher at St. Joseph School in Springfield, Illinois, brought this lawsuit pursuant to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, 29 U.S.C. § 623, et seq. ("ADEA"). She alleges that her employment with St. Joseph School was terminated because of her age.

Defendant St. Joseph Parish/St. Joseph School ("the Defendant" or "the School") seeks the entry of summary judgment in its favor on the Plaintiff's complaint. The Defendant alleges that summary judgment is appropriate in this case because the Plaintiff cannot make out a prima facie case under the ADEA. Even if the Plaintiff were able to assert a prima facie case, moreover, the School claims that it has articulated several legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for its decision not to offer her a contract. The School contends that the Plaintiff is unable to show that its proffered reasons were a pretext for age discrimination.

Plaintiff Ethel Woken, who was born on April 26, 1947, worked as an eighth grade teacher for the School from August 1987 to May 1, 2003. During her employment, the Plaintiff always worked pursuant to an annual teacher contract. The annual contracts were not guaranteed year to year (August 15 to June 15), and did not automatically renew.

Father Tom Holinga, who was born in 1948, has been the Pastor of St. Joseph's Parish since July 2002 and has been affiliated with the Springfield Diocese for more than 31 years. As pastor, Father Holinga is responsible for the administration of the parish, which includes the School. Jennifer Burke, who was born in 1970, has been the principal of the School since 1996. The school principal reports to the parish pastor, who in turn relies on the principal to operate the school and report any concerns or problems to him. Theresa Hansen has been employed as the school counselor for the Defendant since 1996. Ms. Hansen is a licensed clinical social worker with a bachelor's degree in psychology and sociology, and a master's degree in social work.

The Plaintiff claims that she was not offered a teaching contract for the 2003-04 school year because of her age. She claims that Ms. Burke and Father Holinga discriminated against her on that basis. The Plaintiff was never subjected to any derogatory or negative comments based on her age.

B. Plaintiff's Duties, Responsibilities and Performance Expectations

The Plaintiff and other teachers are required to follow the policies and procedures set forth in the St. Joseph School Faculty Staff Handbook and in the Diocesan Handbook of Catholic Education. The Plaintiff's job description contained in documents identified as DEF 91-93 accurately describes her duties and responsibilities as an eighth grade teacher for the School. According to the job description, the Plaintiff's responsibilities included: motivating and involving students in activities; conducting periodic evaluations; counseling pupils as needed; discussing academic and social progress with parents; keeping required records; participating in professional activities of the school and in-service programs; performing extra-curricular duties related to her position and other duties as assigned. The Defendant alleges that for the 2002-03 school year, the Plaintiff had an attachment to her contract outlining additional performance requirements, which she accepted and agreed to.*fn1

The Plaintiff's performance evaluations also stated requirements and expectations for her performance. The Plaintiff and other teachers received year-end evaluations rating their performance in six areas: Catholic identity; personal/professional characteristics; classroom management; instructional skills and practices; administrative/staff relationships; and professional development.

C. Plaintiff's Performance During 1999-2000

The Defendant alleges that according to Ms. Burke's observation, the Plaintiff's performance began to decline in the 1999-2000 school year. The Plaintiff disputes that her performance declined. Specifically, the School asserts that Ms. Burke observed changes in the Plaintiff's teaching style, ability and emotional stability, and also observed that Plaintiff's rapport with students and parents declined. According to Burke, the Plaintiff also developed a pattern of sending students to the office instead of handling discipline herself. The Plaintiff disputes these allegations and further claims that these were not issues that were ever addressed to her by Ms. Burke. The School further alleges that eighth grade students also complained about the Plaintiff to school counselor Hansen. The Plaintiff disputes this assertion, contending that the statement is impossible for her to answer because it does not identify who complained or what they complained about.

The Defendant next asserts that Ms. Burke and other employees smelled a strong odor of alcohol on the Plaintiff during the 1999-2000 school year. The Plaintiff denies ever being under the influence of alcohol when she was teaching. Moreover, she notes that the School has not identified the other employees.

On May 3, 2000, Ms. Burke and Parish Pastor Father Patrick Render met with the Plaintiff to discuss the performance issues, noticeable odor of alcohol and to place her on a remediation plan for the following school year. The remediation plan provided for additional expectations for the Plaintiff throughout the next school year. This was the first time the School had to place a teacher on a remediation plan and have an attachment to a teacher contract. The Plaintiff also received a performance evaluation for the 1999-2000 school year in which she was rated "needs improvement" on 20 out of 55 total items.

D. Plaintiff's Performance during 2000-01

Throughout her employment, the Plaintiff was required to work cooperatively with other faculty members and school staff; counsel students; and be "firm, kind and patient;" be "self-disciplined with a high standard of personal conduct" and "exhibit good judgment." The Plaintiff was also required to maintain good control in the classroom, hallways and all other areas of the school/church grounds. The job description further provided that Plaintiff should make "an effort to detect conditions that hinder the growth and development of the child;" work "cooperatively with other faculty members [and] school staff;" evaluate "the learning capabilities of the students in relation to the subject matter;" counsel students, discuss their academic and behavioral difficulties with parents, and suggest remedial action and special referrals as needed.

The Defendant next alleges that as part of the remediation plan attached to her 2000-01 teacher contract, the Plaintiff was required to consult with the school counselor, Ms. Hansen, on a monthly basis, but she did not do so. Additionally, the Plaintiff was required to meet with Ms. Burke on a regular basis, but she did not do so.*fn2 The Defendant claims that during the school year, multiple students complained to Hansen about the Plaintiff. The Plaintiff notes that this statement is impossible to answer because the School does not identify who made the complaint or what they complained about. The School states that Ms. Hansen found it difficult to resolve these issues because the Plaintiff was unwilling or reluctant to cooperate or participate in discussions. The Plaintiff denies that she was unwilling or reluctant to meet with Ms. Hansen. The School claims that in November 2000, Ms. Hansen tried to arrange a meeting with herself, Plaintiff and a student to discuss some of the student's concerns, but Plaintiff declined to meet. The Plaintiff disputes this assertion. She vaguely recalls the incident in November 2000 reflected in Ms. Hansen's contemporaneous handwritten notes, but does not recall specifically if the meeting ever took place.

The Defendant alleges that on January 18, 2001, students reported to Ms. Hansen that the Plaintiff accused them of cheating and screamed loudly at them in front of the class.*fn3 The Plaintiff does not recall the January 18 incident reflected in Hansen's contemporaneous handwritten notes, but states it was not unusual for students to cheat.

The School claims that during a discussion between Ms. Hansen, the Plaintiff and a student on February 19, 2001, Hansen noticed an odor of alcohol on Plaintiff, which she reported to Ms. Burke. The Plaintiff denies ever being under the influence of alcohol while teaching.

The School alleges that on March 21, 2001, Ms. Hansen met with the Plaintiff and another teacher to discuss academic modifications for one of Plaintiff's students with auditory and cognitive processing difficulties. She declined to follow the modifications that Hansen recommended and the child's difficulties persisted.*fn4

At the end of the 2000-01 school year, the Plaintiff received a performance evaluation from Jennifer Burke, which Plaintiff signed. In the areas of "Catholic Identity," the Plaintiff was evaluated as "Unsatisfactory/Needs Improvement" for each of the following categories: participation in catechesis program; religion taught daily at a prime time; and reinforces religion lessons throughout the day. In the area of "personal/professional characteristics," the Plaintiff was evaluated as "Unsatisfactory/Needs Improvement" for each of the following categories: interest and enthusiasm for teaching; fairness toward students; uses discretion and consideration when speaking of or with others; informs parents through a written newsletter. In the area of "classroom management," the Plaintiff was evaluated as "Unsatisfactory/Needs Improvement" for each of the following categories: maintains discipline in accordance with school policies and procedures; ability to discipline children keeping their dignity intact; treats children the way she expects to be treated. In the area of "instructional skills and practices," the Plaintiff was evaluated as "Unsatisfactory/Needs Improvement" for each of the following categories: effectively uses class time and provisions for individual differences among students. In the area of "professional development," the Plaintiff was evaluated as "Unsatisfactory/Needs Improvement" for each of the following categories: consistently expands professional knowledge.*fn5

The School and the Plaintiff entered into a contract for the Plaintiff to teach the eighth grade in the 2001-02 academic year.

E. Plaintiff's Performance During 2001-02

The Defendant alleges that Ms. Burke and other faculty/staff personnel observed an odor of alcohol on the Plaintiff during the 2001-02 academic year. Several times prior to February 2002, Ms. Burke personally observed a strong odor of alcohol, hand tremors, bloodshot eyes on the Plaintiff and that Plaintiff took frequent restroom breaks. Ms. Hansen also detected an odor of alcohol on the Plaintiff prior to February 2002. On February 14, 2002, Ms. Burke and Ms. Hansen smelled a strong odor of alcohol on the Plaintiff's breath and observed her hands shaking. Burke noticed the Plaintiff emitted a strong odor of alcohol; hand tremors; and very red, bloodshot and glazed looking eyes as late as 10:45 a.m. on February 14. Hansen first smelled the odor of alcohol when she spoke with the Plaintiff at approximately 11:00 a.m. that day. School secretary Pat Florent also reported smelling a very strong odor of alcohol and observing the Plaintiff's hand tremors on February 14. Ms. Hansen reported the odor to Ms. Burke, and both Hansen and Burke then spoke with Plaintiff. Ms. Burke immediately notified the Parish Pastor, Father Dan Nolan, of the Plaintiff's condition on that morning.*fn6 In Ms. Hansen's presence, Ms. Burke informed the Plaintiff that she would have to leave school for the day, and Plaintiff agreed.*fn7 Another faculty member had to step in and take the Plaintiff's class on a scheduled field trip to the Lincoln Library.

Following the February 14, 2002 incident, Father Nolan instructed Ms. Burke to document what happened on that date, and told her that the Plaintiff must get an alcohol assessment. The School alleges that Ms. Burke and Father Nolan met with the Plaintiff regarding the incident, and the Plaintiff apologized and said that she understood why she was sent home and that she had too much to drink. In disputing this allegation, the Plaintiff again denies that she was ever under the influence of alcohol while teaching. Father Nolan instructed the Plaintiff to get an alcohol evaluation and provided her with a choice of specific programs. He told her that the parish would pay for the alcohol assessment; she could take time off for the assessment if necessary; and the school would make a decision regarding further action following the assessment. Ms. Burke and Father Nolan also informed the Plaintiff that she must follow any recommendations for treatment stated in the evaluation. The Plaintiff did not get the evaluation in February or the first half of March 2002. Ms. Burke and Father Nolan met with the Plaintiff twice between February 14 and the end of March 2002 regarding the assessment, and eventually told Plaintiff she would be suspended if she did not get the evaluation by March 22, 2002.

The Plaintiff received the alcohol evaluation on March 20, 2002. The evaluation recommended that she attend individual treatment sessions from April to November 2002. The Plaintiff attended sessions from May to November 2002. She did not stop drinking alcohol after attending the sessions.

(1) Contract and Attachment for 2002-03 Academic Year

On May 30, 2002, Father Nolan and Ms. Burke met with the Plaintiff to discuss her performance review and contract for the following year. Prior to that meeting, they had decided to offer the Plaintiff a contract for another year, but again with a remediation plan attached to the contract. Ms. Burke did not consider the possibility of not offering the Plaintiff a contract for the 2002-03 academic year, because the school was still working with the Plaintiff and was very much invested in her as a teacher, and because Plaintiff was attending treatment sessions. However, in deciding to offer her a new contract, Ms. Burke felt they were giving the Plaintiff one more chance to turn things around. At the May 30, 2002 meeting, Ms. Burke and Father Nolan presented the Plaintiff with the contract and attachment for the 2002-03 academic year, and they explained the remediation plan to her. In addition to the regular contract requirements and those stated in the faculty handbook and Diocesan policies, the contract attachment required that the Plaintiff not come to school under the influence of alcohol or with any type of residual odor of alcohol.

The contract attachment also required the Plaintiff to exercise great discretion when speaking to or about students; closely follow and enforce the school's disciplinary, dress code, and academic policies; and satisfactorily perform all of the duties and responsibilities of the position. It provided that if the Plaintiff failed to meet the terms of the contract and its attachment, she could be terminated immediately. Throughout the May 30, 2002 meeting, the Plaintiff expressed no concerns or questions about the contract or its attachment. She signed the contract and attachment.

(2) 2001-02 Performance Evaluation

During the May 30, 2002 meeting, Ms. Burke also discussed her evaluation of the Plaintiff's performance for the 2001-02 school year. In that performance evaluation, Burke identified concerns with the Plaintiff's performance other than alcohol abuse. Ms. Burke and Father Nolan explained they did not believe the Plaintiff followed the Catechesis program (daily religion classes) or properly prepared her students to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation, which is a very important component of the Catholic Church and faith. The Plaintiff disputes this allegation by stating that she denies she was not following the Catechesis program. Failure to cooperate with the Director of Religious Education or prepare eighth grade students for Confirmation is contrary to the duties and responsibilities of the eighth grade teacher at St. Joseph School--as stated in the job description, the faculty handbook, the Diocesan policies and the contract. The Plaintiff denies failing to cooperate with the Director of Religious Education. The Defendant alleges that Plaintiff disagreed with how the Director of Religious Education, Sister Mary Ellen, prepared and implemented the confirmation materials and program. The Plaintiff responds by stating that there were certain portions of the program with which she disagreed.

The Plaintiff did not send newsletters to parents on a regular bimonthly basis during the 2001-02 school year. During the performance review, Ms. Burke discussed this with the Plaintiff and informed her that she must do so in the 2002-03 academic year. The failure to send newsletters is contrary to school policy and the duties and responsibilities of an eighth grade teacher.

According to the job description for a junior high teacher at the School, Plaintiff was required to respect the "confidentiality of personal and restricted information regarding students, faculty and school;" and exhibit a "high standard of personal conduct" and "good judgment." The School alleges that during the performance review, Ms. Burke also discussed the Plaintiff's lack of discretion when speaking to or about students. The Plaintiff did not deny making the statements identified in the evaluation; instead, she said she could not remember and asked who told Ms. Burke about them. Additionally in March 2002, a parent and student complained to school counselor Hansen that Plaintiff made inappropriate comments about the student to the class by disclosing the student's private health condition and accusing the child of lying. Ms. Hansen spoke with the Plaintiff who admitted she should have discussed the matter with the student privately, but felt the student should have been more responsible. The School claims that Plaintiff does not remember the incident of March 2002. The Plaintiff denies these allegations that she inappropriately spoke about students.

The Defendant alleges that the 2002-03 performance review also encouraged the Plaintiff to maintain a neat and orderly classroom. During the review, Ms. Burke discussed with the Plaintiff the fact that she did not consistently enforce school discipline and behavior policies. The Plaintiff denies that Burke expressed these concerns to her.

The School claims that during the review, Ms. Burke encouraged the Plaintiff to spread her field trips out throughout the year and to tie them in better with the curriculum. The Plaintiff disputes this allegation. The junior high teachers were required to make an effort to detect conditions that hinder the growth and development of their students; to be sensitive to the needs of the age group; demonstrate and use available teaching aids in presenting subject matter; and determine the "method, amount, complexity and kind of instruction which will achieve maximum progress." The School alleges that during the May 30, 2002 meeting, Ms. Burke and Father Nolan also said that the Plaintiff should be more accommodating of special students with special learning needs in her classroom, and that excessive use of worksheets was not acceptable. The Plaintiff denies this allegation.

The Plaintiff was encouraged by Ms. Burke to attend and participate in more school related activities. In order to teach at St. Joseph School, the Plaintiff was required to maintain her State Certification. According to her job description, the Plaintiff was required to possess "competence in . . . her field" through "further education and in-service training." The Plaintiff had to obtain 120 Continuing Professional Development Units ("CPDU") over a five-year period in order to renew her teaching certificate and keep it valid and active. In order for teachers to earn the necessary number of units, the school pays for the cost of seminars, and will obtain a substitute to allow teachers to miss school if the seminar is held during school hours. During the May 30, 2002 performance review, Ms. Burke encouraged the Plaintiff to attend classes and seminars for CPD credit, and to expand her knowledge base.

F. Plaintiff's Performance During 2002-03

Father Tom Holinga replaced Father Nolan as Pastor of St. Joseph's during the summer of 2002. The Defendant alleges that almost immediately upon taking over as Pastor, Father Holinga noticed that the Plaintiff consistently sent students out of her classroom. The Plaintiff denies "consistently" doing this. She claims that while she sent students into the hall from time to time, there were other teachers who did the same thing. The School contends that Jennifer Burke also noticed issues with the Plaintiff's performance almost immediately after school began in August 2002. The Plaintiff disputes there were issues relating to her performance.

(1) Classroom Management & Safety Concerns

The Plaintiff was required and expected to manage her classroom on a day-to-day basis. According to the Faculty/Staff Handbook, the "administrator is responsible for insuring adequate supervision of students during the entire time they are on the parish and school premises . . . all teachers share this responsibility with the administrator; and each teacher is legally responsible for the supervision of his/her students." The handbook expressly states that "students must never be left unattended;" "teachers are not to leave their class to make copies, use the restroom, etc." and "no child is permitted to be in any classroom without the supervision of a teacher."

The Defendant alleges that Ms. Burke observed that the Plaintiff left her classroom unattended on an almost daily basis throughout the 2002-03 school year, in violation of school policy. Burke discussed this issue with the Plaintiff during the 2002-03 school year and in prior years. During the 2002-03 school year, Ms. Burke observed that Plaintiff did not keep a neat and orderly classroom, contrary to her job description and requirements. Specifically, Burke observed that Plaintiff did not implement effective procedures for lining up, traveling quietly in the hallways, retrieving student belongings, or gathering and recording daily assignments. The Plaintiff attributes her inability to manage the classroom to two students. The Plaintiff denies these allegations.

The eighth grade teacher was required to supervise her students at all times and maintain orderly conduct and promote self-discipline among her students. The School alleges that throughout the course of the 2002-03 school year, Ms. Burke and Father Holinga both developed concerns for the students' safety. The Plaintiff disputes this allegation and denies that she did anything that would jeopardize the safety of the students in her care. Moreover, neither Father Holinga nor Burke ever suggested to the Plaintiff that the students in her care were not safe. The Faculty/Staff Handbook provides: "no student is allowed to be isolated from the class in any place where s/he cannot be directly supervised by the teacher. No students should be placed in the hallway." The School claims that Ms. Burke observed the Plaintiff frequently yelling and sending students out of the classroom. The Plaintiff denies that she frequently yelled at her students and further states that Burke was rarely in her classroom and would therefore not have had an opportunity to witness these incidents. The Plaintiff admits that she was sometimes "short" with her class. She claims that other teachers were as well. The School asserts that Father Holinga observed the Plaintiff's students unattended in the hallway every day after a period of time. The Plaintiff disputes that she frequently left students alone in the hall.

The Defendant further claims that Ms. Burke also witnessed eighth grade students being loud and disruptive, but the Plaintiff would not take control of the situation. The Plaintiff denies that she did not discipline her students. According to Ms. Burke, the Plaintiff's students used foul language in the classroom without the appropriate correction or discipline by the teacher. The Plaintiff denies failing to discipline her students for foul language. The School claims that parents of some students also reported to Burke that students were allowed to use foul language without being disciplined by the Plaintiff. The Plaintiff states that no such incidents were reported to her; moreover, Ms. Burke has provided no factual background for these allegations. The seventh grade teacher who had the same students the previous year did not have similar ...


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