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Wilson v. Miller

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

January 20, 2015

Cynthia Wilson, Plaintiff,
Jayne Miller (individually and in her official capacity) and Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, Defendants

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Lisa M. Lamm Bachman, Esq., Foley & Mansfield, PLLP, Minneapolis, MN, on behalf of Plaintiff.

Ann E. Walther, Esq., Rice, Michels & Walther LLP, Minneapolis, MN, on behalf of Defendants.

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On November 6, 2014, the undersigned United States District Judge heard oral argument on Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment [Docket No. 55] and Plaintiff's Motion for Leave to Amend Complaint

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and to Amend Scheduling Order [Docket No. 38]. Plaintiff Cynthia Wilson (" Wilson" ) alleges Defendants Jayne Miller (" Miller" ) and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (" MPRB" ) retaliated against her for exercising her First Amendment rights. For the reasons set forth below, Defendants' summary judgment motion is granted in part and Plaintiff's motion to amend the Complaint and Scheduling Order is denied as moot.


The MPRB is a semi-autonomous department of the City of Minneapolis headed by a superintendent who reports to an elected board of commissioners. Defs.' Mem. Supp. Summ. J. [Docket No. 57] 2. Since 2010, Miller has held the position of MPRB superintendent. Id. Wilson, an African American, has been employed by the MPRB in various capacities since 1989. Am. Compl. [Docket No. 24] ¶ 6.

Wilson alleges that Miller and the MPRB retaliated against her for engaging in activity protected by the First Amendment. She contends that her comments in an interview for a newspaper article in September 2012 and her questions during an MPRB open budget meeting in December 2012 motivated Defendants to take retaliatory action against her. The retaliatory acts included announcing an open position on a limited basis internally, negative comments on her performance review, failing to hire her for a new position, two suspensions without pay, a Performance Improvement Plan, and a written reprimand. Wilson also alleges that Defendants discriminated against her in violation of the Minnesota Human Rights Act.

A. Wilson's Discipline Before the Protected Speech

In January 2011, before Wilson engaged in the protected speech, the MPRB attempted to terminate Wilson for substandard performance for improperly supervising an employee who had systematically stolen money from the MPRB. Walther Aff. [Docket No. 58] Ex. G at 10. Wilson challenged her termination with the Civil Service Commission (" Commission" ). Id. 1. The Commission determined that termination was excessively harsh as Wilson's previous performance evaluations had been good to excellent. Id. 20. She was reinstated to her position after a 30-day suspension. Id. When Wilson returned from her suspension, she refused to comply with a MPRB policy requiring employees to pay for their personal calls, and received a one-day suspension for insubordination. Walther Aff. Ex. Q. During this time period, the MPRB also extended Wilson's standard probationary period because she needed improvement in four of seven areas reviewed. Walther Aff. Ex. S. The two main bases for this extension were the manner in which she addressed persons, i.e. her tendency to be rude and disrespectful, and her refusal to follow the MPRB's policies. Id.

B. The Environmental Analysis Report

In October 2011, Miller hired an independent consulting firm, Dr. Betty Webb Consulting, Inc., to analyze the MPRB and address its organizational challenges and opportunities. Am. Compl. ¶ 24. The firm provided a report, the Environmental Analysis Report, to MPRB management in January 2012 based on interviews with over 100 individuals. Walther Aff. Ex. OO at 6. The report stated:

There is widespread discontent and complaints about the unfavorable treatment of African American employees in particular and to some extent other employees of color. In our interviews with employees of color, it does not take long before the issues of race surface. And, when discussing these issues, people express

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an unwillingness to bring these issues up with their superiors for fear of punishment or retaliation. Many express fear of speaking up or of questioning practices. They assume that not only will it not be responded to but that they will also likely be punished -- a climate of fear.

Id. 9.

C. Wilson's Newspaper Interview and Alleged Retaliation

On September 13, 2012, the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder published an article highlighting complaints of racial discrimination within the MPRB. Am. Compl. ¶ 29. The article quoted Wilson, who discussed her concerns about race discrimination. Id. Miller was also quoted in the article and was therefore likely aware of Wilson's participation in the article. Id.

During September 2012, the MPRB announced an opening for the position of Deputy Chief Superintendent externally, and on a limited basis internally. Id. ¶ 30. Wilson was interested in the position but did not learn of it until after the position had closed. Id. She alleges that the MPRB's failure to more prominently announce the position was retaliation for her comments in the article. Id. ¶ 51.

D. Wilson's Speech at an Open Budget Meeting and Alleged Retaliation

1. The MPRB Open Budget Meeting

On December 18, 2012, Wilson attended an open budget meeting during which MPRB employees were encouraged to ask questions and make comments regarding the budget process. Id. ¶ 31. At the meeting, Wilson asked Miller whether public funds were allocated to address the problem areas identified in the Environmental Analysis Report by Dr. Betty Webb Consulting, Inc. Id. According to Wilson, Miller became visibly angry and persuaded Wilson to meet with her privately to discuss the issues. Id.

Wilson alleges Miller's frustration with Wilson's comments during the open budget meeting impacted her annual performance review which occurred on December 28, 2012, ten days after the open budget meeting. Walther Aff. Ex. U. Heidi Pope, Wilson's manager, was responsible for Wilson's performance review. Bachman Aff., October 16, 2014, [Docket No. 64] (" Second Bachman Aff." ) Ex. 18, Ex. 20. However, as part of the standard annual review ...

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