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Wong v. Board of Education of Community Consolidated School District 15

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

March 10, 2015

ELIZABETH WONG, Plaintiff,
v.
BOARD OF EDUCATION OF COMMUNITY CONSOLIDATED SCHOOL DISTRICT 15, SCOTT THOMPSON, MARY SZUCH, JOHN FENTON, and JAMES GARWOOD, Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

GEORGE M. MAROVICH, District Judge.

After she was suspended from her job and her annual contract not renewed, plaintiff Elizabeth Wong filed suit against defendants Board of Education of Community Consolidated School District 15 (the "Board"), Scott Thompson ("Thompson"), Mary Szuch ("Szuch"), John Fenton ("Fenton") and James Garwood ("Garwood"). In Count I, plaintiff alleges defendants retaliated against her for exercising her free speech rights guaranteed by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. In Count II, she alleges retaliatory discharge under Illinois law. In Count III, plaintiff alleges retaliation in violation of the Illinois Whistleblower Act. In Count IV, plaintiff alleges that defendants intentionally interfered with her employment relations. In Count V, plaintiff alleges the Board violated Title VII. In Count VI, plaintiff alleges that the Board violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by discriminating against her due to her association with a disabled person. Finally, in Count VII, plaintiff seeks relief under ยง 1983 for interfering with her liberty without due process.

Defendants have filed a motion for summary judgment. For the reasons set forth below, the Court grants in part and denies in part the motion for summary judgment.

I. Background

The following facts are undisputed unless otherwise noted.[1]

Defendant Board governs a school district ("District 15") serving students in kindergarten through the eighth grade. Defendant Scott Thompson has been Superintendent of District 15 since July 2010. Defendant James Garwood is the Assistant Superintendent for Administrative Affairs. Mary Zarr ("Zarr") is the Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum, Special Services and School Improvement. Defendant James Fenton is the Board's Director of Personnel.

The Board operates many elementary and middle schools. It staffs each school with a principal, assistant principal and teachers. The principals and assistant principals are hired on one-year contracts.

The Board hired plaintiff Elizabeth Wong ("Wong"), who had nearly twenty years of teaching experience, as an Assistant Principal. Specifically, for the period July 1, 2008 through June 30, 2009, the Board employed Wong on a one-year contract as an Assistant Principal at Carl Sandburg Junior High School ("Sandburg"). Likewise, from July 1, 2009 through June 30, 2010, the Board employed Wong on a one-year contract as Assistant Principal at Sandburg. During the time she worked for District 15, Wong did not have tenure. Without tenure, Wong's continued employment was contingent upon the Board's renewing her employment contract.

At Sandburg, Wong reported to Principal Edward Nelson ("Nelson"). Nelson lacked the power to hire, fire or reassign Wong and also lacked the power to change her benefits. During Wong's first year at Sandburg (the 2008-2009 school year), nothing relevant to this suit seems to have occurred. The events related to this lawsuit began by the middle of the next school year (the 2009-2010 school year).

In November 2009, Wong contacted Assistant Superintendent Zarr to discuss Principal Nelson. Wong reported to Zarr that Nelson had been calling her on her cell phone at night and that he sounded intoxicated. (In all, Nelson placed between 18 and 21 phone calls to Wong's cell phone between January 2009 and April 13, 2010.[2]) Plaintiff has put forth admissible evidence (and defendant has disputed with admissible evidence) that during her conversation with Zarr, Zarr told plaintiff that the calls were "sexual harassment, " a characterization with which plaintiff agreed. It is undisputed that Wong told Zarr that she wanted to handle the situation with Nelson and that she just wanted Zarr to know what she was dealing with. At about the same time, Wong sent to a friend an email in which she wrote, "I stated [to Zarr] that I'm pushing back on Ed right now, and that I don't know how things will play out down the line. So I needed someone to know what was behind all of this."

Wong also discussed Principal Nelson with the District's Director of Personnel, Fenton. In January 2010, Wong told Fenton her concerns about Principal Nelson's drinking and his phone calls to her. That month, Wong met in person with Fenton and Assistant Superintendent Zarr to discuss Nelson.

Wong also discussed Nelson's drinking with Nelson. On February 8, 2010, Wong met with Principal Nelson. Wong told Nelson she smelled alcohol on his breath and urged him to get medical attention for his drinking problem. Wong told Nelson she was meeting with the cabinet (by which she apparently meant the Superintendent and his assistants). Also in early 2010, Wong told Nelson that his calls to her cell phone were unwelcome.

In the meantime, District 15 was considering staffing for the next school year. To that end, then-Superintendent Dan Lukich, Assistant Superintendents Zarr and Garwood and Director of Personnel Fenton met with all of the district's assistant principals to discuss their career goals. Wong's meeting to discuss her career goals with Lukich, Zarr, Garwood and Fenton was held on February 13, 2010. This meeting was essentially an interview, and Wong told the group that she was interested in becoming a principal at an elementary school. At the end of the meeting, Lukich mentioned Principal Nelson's drinking.

Days later, on February 17, 2010, Wong sent her mentor an email, in which she wrote, "I don't feel it affects me much" in reference to Principal Nelson. The next day, Wong wrote her mentor that she had "a very good relationship" with Nelson. Wong wrote, "I'm not worried about this school. The school is functioning very well with the efforts from both of us. I am very, very, very concerned about this individual person's well-being... Not harmful to our students, but harmful to himself." On February 28, 2010, Wong sent another friend an email, in which she wondered, "What is my Christian, moral responsibility in all of this????? I know you might think this is surprising, but despite all of the drama, Ed and I work very well together and have become professional friends... I do not believe that the school or the kids are in harms [sic] way at all." On March 3, 2010, Wong sent an email to Assistant Superintendent Zarr. Wong had attached to her email to Zarr a draft letter to Principal Nelson. In the draft letter to Nelson, Wong described herself and Nelson as "quite a team" and stated that they had "developed a friendship."

In March 2010, Assistant Principal Garwood and then-Superintendent Lukich met with Wong. The purpose of the meeting was to tell Wong that she would be transferred to Whiteley Elementary School for the following school year (on a one-year contract beginning July 1, 2010 and ending June 30, 2011). Wong was one of seven assistant principals transferred within the district at the end of the 2009-2010 school year. The reasons for Wong's transfer were to bolster her credentials to support her long-term goal of becoming a principal, to give her experience at an elementary school, to alleviate her concerns about Nelson and, partly, to separate her from Nelson. The day after Wong was notified about the transfer, she told Fenton she would prefer to stay at Sandburg with Nelson.

In late April and early May 2010, Wong contacted Fenton three times to report that she thought Nelson was under the influence of alcohol during the school day. On two of those occasions (and other times without prompting from Wong), Fenton and Garwood went to Sandburg to determine whether Nelson was under the influence of alcohol. Fenton and Garwood found no evidence of Nelson's being under the influence of alcohol. At some point, Wong reported to Fenton that Sandburg staff members had told Wong that Nelson smelled of alcohol during the work day, but Fenton did not ask other employees whether they had observed Nelson under the influence of alcohol during the work day. Plaintiff put forth admissible evidence (which defendant has disputed with admissible evidence) that, during the same time period, Fenton told Wong that it was not District 15's best-kept secret that Nelson had a drinking problem and was a skirt chaser.

In May 2010, Principal Nelson met with District 15 administrators (it is not clear from the record which ones). Nelson was told that he had been accused of having been under the influence of alcohol during the work day and that violations of the district's alcohol-free workplace policy would result in discipline. The district put a letter to that effect in Nelson's file.

At some point thereafter (when is not clear in the record), Wong asked Fenton if she could be transferred to Whiteley early (before the end of the school year). The request was granted, but it is not clear from the record whether Wong actually left Sandburg early.

On June 2, 2010, Wong sent Farr an email, in which she stated, "As my last day at Carl Sandburg grows nearer, staff at S.C. are confiding more and more things to me. Evidently, there has been quite a history of sexual harassment over the past 6 years. Nothing recent, but over the past 6 years. Things you should be aware of." Zarr telephoned Wong and told her she needed to report it. Wong backed off. On June 10, 2010, Wong sent Zarr an email in which Wong wrote, "Just a few minutes ago [Nelson] told me that today is National St. Nipples Day. Okay, then. Oh my... not cool... Don't think he meant anything by it. Just not filtering too well lately." The same day, Wong sent to a friend an email in which she stated, "Thank God for Mary Zarr. She coached and encouraged me through it all." By June 28, 2010, Wong sent her friend an email, in which Wong stated, "But I am more trusting of our current administration than any other that I have ever worked for. They have shown care for all individuals in this situation, more than you would likely see in most districts."

On June 16, 2010, Wong saw for the first time her contract for the 2010-2011 school year. When she read her contract, Wong learned that assistant principals at elementary schools do not receive the $2, 000.00 per year stipend that assistant principals at middle schools receive for their additional duties. Wong's position as Assistant Principal of Whiteley carried the same prestige, responsibility, benefits and base salary as her prior position. Still, factoring in the loss of the stipend and her merit-based salary increase, Wong's compensation for the 2010-2011 school year was $178.00 less than her compensation for the 2009-2010 school year.

The new contract year began on June 30, 2010. Wong, in her new position at Whiteley Elementary, reported to defendant Mary Szuch, the Principal. Another change for the 2010-2011 contract year was that Superintendent Lukich left the district. He was replaced by defendant Scott Thompson, the new Superintendent.

After Wong's transfer to Whiteley, Wong interacted with Nelson one last time. Nelson and Wong spoke at a new teacher luncheon on August 11, 2010. Although the parties have not put into the record any details about the interaction, it is undisputed that Wong complained to Fenton the same day. The next day, Fenton met with Nelson. By August 20, 2010, Fenton sent Nelson a letter in which he instructed Nelson not to have further contact with Wong and not to retaliate against her. Nelson had no contact with Wong after August 11, 2010.

In the meantime, Wong had been working at Whiteley for a few months. Principal Szuch was impressed with some aspects (the parties do not say which aspects) of Wong's performance and complimented Wong on those. Other aspects of Wong's performance, however, concerned Szuch. By September 17, 2010, Szuch was concerned by Wong's behavior and began taking notes about Szuch. Szuch kept the notes to herself and did not put them in Wong's personnel file at Whiteley. Although Szuch sincerely believed the concerns she had with Wong's performance, Szuch never put Wong on a performance improvement plan. The school year continued.

In early November 2010, Wong met with Thompson, the new Superintendent. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss Wong's goal of becoming a principal. Although the record does not contain evidence of what Wong and Thompson discussed, it is undisputed that Wong left the meeting with the impression that Thompson thought Wong "did not act to address the behaviors that were compromising the well-being of students at Sandburg, " as Wong described it at her deposition. On November 5, 2010, Wong sent Thompson an email, attached to which was a four-page, single-spaced document Wong had prepared outlining the time line of events at Sandburg.

In early February 2011, Wong and Szuch had a disagreement (the details of which are not in the parties' statements of fact) over the handling of an early dismissal of students due to snow. On February 6, 2011, Wong sent to Fenton an email in which Wong requested a meeting with a mediator to discuss the incident. On February 8, 2011, Assistant Superintendent Garwood called ...


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