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Rives v. Whiteside School District No. 115

United States District Court, Seventh Circuit

January 2, 2014

TONYA RIVES, Plaintiff,
v.
WHITESIDE SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 115, Defendant.

ORDER

Stephen C. Williams United States Magistrate Judge.

This matter comes before the Court on Defendant Whiteside School District No. 115’s Motion for Summary Judgment, which was filed on April 19, 2013. (Doc. 65). Defendant asks the Court to grant its summary judgment motion on Plaintiff Tonya Rives’ claims of racial discrimination. (Doc. 65). Plaintiff brought claims under Title VII and § 1981, as well as a retaliation claim and a sexual harassment claim. (Doc. 44). The Court dismissed the retaliation claim and sexual harassment claim on September 20, 2013. (Doc. 91). Plaintiff initially failed to file any Response to the Motion for Summary Judgment, despite having been granted two extensions. (Docs. 68 & 69). In early July, the parties briefed the issue of whether Plaintiff should be allowed to file a Response. As part of that dispute, Plaintiff filed a proposed response (Doc. 74-1). Plaintiff later realized she forgot to attach exhibits to the proposed response, and moved to supplement it at Doc. 78 with exhibits. Plaintiff was then granted leave to file Doc. 74-1 without any change. (Doc. 79). Plaintiff filed a Response brief on July 18, 2013, but did not include any of the documents at Doc. 78. (Doc. 80). Plaintiff than later filed an Amended Response, to correct citation errors on August 15, 2013. (Doc. 85). No Reply was ever filed, and the time to do so has lapsed, making this Motion ripe for disposition. For the following reasons, Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED.

Factual Background

Defendant hired Plaintiff, a black female, on or about August 2006 as a full time middle school teacher. (Pl.’s Dep. p. 7). Her duties included creating and documenting lesson plans, instruction and assessment of students, participating in formal parent/teacher conferences, special education IEP meetings, and informal parent teacher communications. (Doc. 65-2, p. 5). Her classes included language arts, social studies, and study skills. (Doc. 65-2, p. 5).

Typically, new teachers must serve a four year probationary period before they are awarded tenure. See 105 ILCS 5/24-11. As Plaintiff’s four-year probationary period drew to a close, Defendant decided not to renew her contract, effectively terminating her employment. (Pl.’s Dep. p. 8). Linda Burke, Ron Trelow, and Marshaun (LeFlore) Johnson (hereinafter “Johnson”), as the administrators of Whiteside, made a recommendation to the School Board that Plaintiff’s contract not be renewed. (Trelow Dep. p. 12). Trelow, the principal of Whiteside, recalls that the administrative team sat down to discuss placements for the up-coming school year, and decided that Plaintiff was consistently unpredictable in dealing with people. (Trelow Dep. pp. 13-14). The School Board passed a resolution not to renew Plaintiff’s contract on March 31, 2010. (Doc. 65-2, p. 13). The School Board considered “concerns with unprofessional communication with some parents and inappropriate comments to students in class, ” when deciding to approve the resolution of non-renewal. (Doc. 65-2, p. 13). Plaintiff was sent a notice of non-renewal on April 6, 2010, which gave two reasons for her non-renewal: 1) unprofessional communication with parents; and 2) inappropriate comments to students. (Doc. 65-2. p. 62). The notice contains a hand-written note that Plaintiff refused to sign it. (Doc. 65-2, p.62). Plaintiff concedes that she received this documentation. (Pl.’s Dep. p. 9).

Non-tenured teachers should be evaluated every year in accordance with 105 ILCS 5/24A-8. (Doc. 65-2, p. 21). Plaintiff claimed in her deposition that she had only been evaluated on one occasion by Johnson, the assistant principal, in 2009. (Pl.’s Dep. p. 12). Plaintiff also testified that the Johnson evaluation was the only evaluation in her file when she reviewed it and had a copy made in April 2010. (Pl.’s Dep. p.14). Mike Murakami was with Plaintiff when she reviewed her personnel file, but does not recall the details of the incident and could not testify as to the contents of the file at that time. (Pl.’s Dep. p. 15-16) (Murakami Dep.). The secretary of the school initially made the copy of the file for Plaintiff. (Pl.’s Dep. p. 21). Plaintiff then gave her copy to Linda Baldwin of the teacher’s union for Baldwin to review. (Pl.’s Dep. p. 21). Plaintiff believes the evaluations were fabricated sometime between April 2010, when she reviewed her personnel file, and June 2010, when she received copies of those documents from the Illinois Department of Employment Security. (Pl.’s Dep. p. 102).

Defendant concedes that the evaluation for the 2006-2007 school year is missing and not present in Plaintiff’s file. (Trelow Dep. p. 71). Defendant produced an evaluation from Trelow dated January 15, 2008. (Doc. 65-2, pp. 37-40). This evaluation describes Plaintiff as “satisfactory, ” and notes deficiencies in category 15, demonstrates positive communication with others-parents, students, fellow employees; and category 19, keeps lesson plans written at least three days in advance, aligned with the District curriculum, and thorough enough for another teacher to follow. (Doc. 65-2, pp. 37-40). Trelow’s comments indicate that the “unsatisfactory” categories were regarding the availability of Plaintiff’s lesson plans for substitutes, and an incident where Plaintiff told a parent that “I see where she gets it from.” (Doc. 65-2, p. 39). The evaluation also contains a notation that Plaintiff refused to sign it because she did not agree with the evaluation. (Doc. 65-2, p. 40). Plaintiff alleges that this evaluation is a fabrication. (Pl.’s Dep. pp. 21-22).

Johnson evaluated Plaintiff on March 18, 2009. (Doc. 65-2, pp. 33-26). The Johnson evaluation overall categorized Plaintiff as “excellent, ” but noticed deficiencies in two areas-No. 22, occasionally rude to others, may lose control in difficult situations and/or unwilling to help others, and No. 23, only does the minimum to maintain certification. (Pl.’s Dep. pp. 65-67) (Doc. 65-2, pp. 33-36). Plaintiff believes she received deficient ratings in these categories due to personal conflicts between her and Johnson. (Pl.’s Dep. pp. 65-68). The existence of this evaluation is uncontested.

Trelow conducted another evaluation on March 25, 2010. (Trelow Dep. p. 85); (Doc. 65-2, pp. 42-47). Again, Plaintiff received a “satisfactory” rating overall. (Doc. 65-2, p. 46). Deficiencies were noted in category 15, demonstrates positive communication with others - parents, students, fellow employees; category 17, assumes responsibility beyond classroom duties during the school day, including, but not limited to, hallway supervision, recess duty, and bus dismissal; and category 25, takes pride in being a Whiteside team member and shows support by attending activities such as fundraises, holiday programs, sporting events, academic events, PTC, Band Parents, and Booster Club. (Doc. 65-2, pp. 43, 45). Additionally, the recommendation contained several comments from Trelow. Trelow referred to problematic incidents, such as Plaintiff telling her class that her toddler is smarter than them and that they’ll never make it. (Doc. 65-2, p. 45). He also refers to an incident where Plaintiff allegedly got into a screaming match with a parent after school. (Doc. 65-2, p. 45). Finally, the evaluation refers to an incident where Plaintiff left a confidential email from a parent up on her Prometheus board. (Doc. 65-2, p. 45). The evaluation also contains a note directed to Plaintiff about how Trelow had overheard her tell her students that she wouldn’t be teaching at Whiteside if she could get a job at a better school and that the students at Whiteside had too many problems and weren’t going to be successful. (Doc. 65-2, p. 47). Trelow also stated that he had received complaints from parents that Plaintiff told her class they were out of shape and then demonstrated her own prowess by doing squat thrusts. (Doc. 65-2, p. 47). Finally, Trelow criticizes her interaction with parents and states that he had another parent say that they left East St. Louis so they would not continue having these kinds of problems like they had with the East St. Louis School District. (Doc. 65-2, p. 47). Once again, the evaluation also contains a note indicating that Plaintiff refused to sign the evaluation. (Doc. 65-2, p. 46). Plaintiff alleges that this entire evaluation is a fabrication. (Pl.’s Dep. pp. 21-22).

Plaintiff also allegedly received two letters of reprimand, although Plaintiff denies either receiving the letters or that they were intended as reprimands. Plaintiff denies receiving the first letter, dated March 19, 2008, which detailed a number of issues including 1) concerns about student confidentiality, specifically telling the entire class that certain students are failing; 2) failure to treat and correct students in a respectful manner; 3) refusal to adhere to written policies, specifically, written policies regarding student incentive trips; and 4) failure to show up to class on time. (Doc. 65-2). Trelow testified that he specifically recalled the incentive trip incident that prompted his written comment. (Trelow Dep. p. 28). He recalled that Plaintiff told him she did not want to bring one of her students on an incentive trip, even though he met the written criteria for doing so, because she did not like the student. (Trelow Dep. pp. 28-29). Trelow also recalls having several conversations with Plaintiff about treating students respectfully, and estimates he received approximately five complaints from parents on that subject. (Trelow Dep. pp. 30-31).

Plaintiff admits that she received another letter from Trelow dated September 18, 2008. (Doc. 78-2, p. 8) (Pl.’s Dep. p. 76). At that time, Plaintiff was out sick and failed to leave her lesson plans or grade book for the substitute. (Pl.’s Dep. pp. 86-88). The letter describes this incident in detail, and also notes that Trelow had received complaints from parents about returning their calls. (Doc. 78-2, p. 8). After receiving the letter, Plaintiff had a meeting with Trelow, Burke, the superintendent, and Vicki Eshman, her union representative. (Trelow Dep. p. 90)(Eshman Dep. p. 13). At the meeting, Trelow attempted to review the relevant policy on preparing for substitutes, which requires a teacher to leave five different sub folders in easy to find locations, which include seating charts, class lists, notes, lesson plans, and miscellaneous activities. (Trelow Dep. pp. 91-93). Plaintiff argued that she had lesson plans, but conceded they were not kept in her classroom. (Trelow Dep. p. 93). Trelow also discussed the issue with parent contacts. Trelow refused to tell Plaintiff which parents were complaining. (Trelow Dep. p. 15). He believes that the number of parents complaining about this issue was more than two but less than ten. (Trelow Dep. p 16). Trelow told Plaintiff to return phone calls and emails within forty-eight hours going forward. (Trelow Dep. p. 16). Trelow recalls that Plaintiff became hysterical and began shouting during the meeting. (Trelow Dep. p. 93)(Eshman Dep. p. 14). Eshman eventually escorted Plaintiff out of the meeting because she felt the meeting was no longer productive. (Trelow Dep. p. 94) (Eshman Dep. p. 15).

Plaintiff repeatedly insisted throughout these proceedings that three of the five above described documents were fabrications, namely the two Trelow evaluations and the March 2008 letter. At the same time, the record contains a letter Plaintiff wrote to the school to rebut the allegations in her notice of non-renewal. (Doc. 65-2, p. 73-75). In it, she details the difficulties she has in controlling her class. (Doc. 65-2, pp. 73-74). The letter also contains a statement that “on the day Mr. Trelow visited my room to conduct my yearly evaluation, he said he overheard me having an inappropriate conversation with my class. I remember the exact conversation . . .” (Doc. 65-2, p. 74). The letter goes on to imply that those statements were taken out of context, but does not deny that the conversation took place. (Doc. 65-2, p. 74).

Additionally, there is evidence that Trelow had the opportunity to evaluate Plaintiff’s skill set as a teacher. Plaintiff included a statement that she made to Administrative Law Judge Flex, which clearly states that Trelow “observed me three different times.” (Doc. 78-3, p. 17). Plaintiff also admits that Trelow observed her on at least one occasion during her deposition. (Pl.’s Dep. p. 27).

Plaintiff also testified about incidents that could have been the basis for the events described in the contested documentation. Plaintiff admits that she raised her voice to the parents of a girl in her class during the 2006-2007 or 2007-2008 school year. (Pl.’s Dep. p. 92). Plaintiff raised her voice in response to the parent’s comment that the parent did not realize she would experience the same problems in Belleville as she had with the East St. Louis school district. (Pl.’s Dep. p. 93). Plaintiff denied that she ever got into a shouting match with a parent. (Pl.’s Dep. p. 94). There was another incident where the janitor reported to Trelow that Plaintiff was in a shouting match with a parent. Plaintiff testified that she and the parent were in agreement, but perhaps talking loudly during that incident. (Pl.’s Dep. p. 228-29). The parent “kind of went off on her daughter.” ...


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