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Walker v. South Washington County Schools

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

November 29, 2016

Michelle Walker, Plaintiff,
South Washington County Schools, Independent School District #833 and Julie Nielsen, Defendants.

          David H. Redden, Esq. and Fabian May & Anderson, PLLP, counsel for plaintiff.

          Kristin C. Nierengarten, Esq., Trevor S. Helmers, Esq. and Rupp, Anderson, Squires & Waldspurger, counsel for defendants.


          David S. Doty, Judge United States District Court

         This matter is before the court upon the motion for summary judgment by defendants South Washington County Schools, Independent School District #833 (the District), and Julie Nielsen. Based on a review of the file, record, and proceedings herein, the court denies the motion.


         This employment action arises out of the non-renewal of plaintiff Michele Walker's contract. The District hired Walker, an African American, in 2011 as a school psychologist in the special education department. She was subject to a three-year probationary period during which the school board could non-renew her employment at will. Walker was responsible for coordinating and completing evaluations to determine whether students are eligible for special education services. Walker was one of very few minorities employed by the District. Nielsen Dep. at 108:1-5.

         In her first year, the 2011-2012 school year, Walker worked at Royal Oaks Elementary School and Bailey Elementary School. A progress review dated February 7, 2012, indicates that Walker was proficient in her duties.[1] Redden Decl. Ex. 1 at 1. According to her supervisor at the time, Theresa Blume-Thole, Walker was “professional, structured, genuine and committed to her profession.” Id. at 1. Blume-Thole further commented that Walker needed “additional time to transition effectively, gain knowledge and confidence as a facilitator.” Id.

         During the 2012-2013 school year, Walker worked most days at Middleton Elementary School and one day a week at Woodbury High School. Defendant Julie Nielsen, Middleton's principal, supervised Walker at Middleton. In a November 2012 progress review, Nielsen indicated that Walker was proficient in her job. Nierengarten Aff. Ex. 2 at 1. Nielsen commented that Walker (1) established “positive relationships with staff in the building and presents herself in a calm, confident, matter of fact manner, ” (2) did “an excellent job preparing reports for parent meetings, ” and (3) prepared timely reports. Id. at 1-2. Overall, Nielsen was “pleased with [Walker's] performance.” Id. at 2. Nielsen also commented, however, that Walker needed to “at times ... act with more intensity and/or a quicker pace.” Id. at 1. She noted that Walker's “biggest challenge will be keeping up on the paperwork” but noted no specific instance in which Walker had failed to meet expectations in this regard. Id.

         In a February 2013 performance evaluation, Walker's supervisor at Woodbury High School, Todd Herber, indicated that Walker's performance with respect to “professional responsibilities” was basic and that she was proficient with respect to her special education duties. Id. Ex. 4 at 1. Herber observed Walker conduct an evaluation meeting with a case manager, student, and grandparent and noted that Walker did a “nice job” during the meeting and shared that the case manager appreciated Walker's “professionalism” and “timeliness.” Id. at 2. Herber concluded the evaluation by stating that Walker was a “skilled employee who ha[s] demonstrated her skills in working with our parents and case managers.” Id. Referencing a situation in which Walker felt harassed by a colleague, Herber also noted that “she needs to be able to navigate conflicts with her colleagues and seek common ground.” Id.; see Nierengarten Aff. Ex. 6.

         In March 2013, Dr. Nancy Meyer, a District special education supervisor, rated Walker as proficient and commented favorably about her work. Redden Decl. Ex. 2; Nielsen Dep. at 102:2-9. Meyer encouraged Walker to share her knowledge and ideas with colleagues because she can be “soft-spoken when in a larger group.” Redden Decl. Ex. 2 at 1.

         In the summary evaluation for the 2012-2013 school year, Nielsen and Herber rated Walker between basic and proficient in the domain of professional responsibilities and proficient in the domain of special education. Nierengarten Aff. Ex. 5 at 1. They recommended that Walker continue on as a probationary teacher in the following school year. Id. Nielsen requested that Walker be assigned to Middleton full time. Redden Decl. Ex. 4.

         Walker worked exclusively at Middleton during the 2013-2014 school year, her third and final year as a probationary teacher. Nielsen remained her supervisor, except for the period between August and November 2013, when Nielsen was on special assignment with the District. Nielsen Dep. at 68:2-11. Karen Toomey served as acting principal during Nielsen's absence. Id. at 68:12-24. After observing Walker, Toomey submitted a progress review rating her as proficient in all areas. Redden Decl. Ex. 3 at 1. Toomey commented that Walker was “a supportive team player who works well with her colleagues” and that she demonstrated “warmth, caring and respect” when working with families. Id. Toomey recommended that Walker take more initiative and a more active role so that others could “benefit from her expertise and skills.” Id.

         In early 2014, Walker applied for a program within the Minneapolis public schools as part of her effort to earn an administrative degree. Nielsen Dep. at 117:1-8. Nielsen recommended Walker for the program, commenting that Walker would be an “excellent candidate.” Redden Decl. Ex. 5 at 1.

         In a February 2014 progress review, Nielsen rated Walker above proficient in all areas and commented positively about her performance. Nierengarten Aff. Ex. 8 at 1-2. Nielsen also noted that Walker needed to work on “scheduling meetings, updating agendas and getting checklists out to teacher[s] prior to the time that they are due back.” Id. at 1. She noted, however, that Walker was “very receptive” to that feedback. Id. Dr. Meyer again observed Walker in February 2014 and rated her as proficient. Id. Ex. 9 at 1.

         In March 2014, Nielsen completed a summary evaluation of Walker rating her as basic in the domain of professional responsibilities and proficient in the domain of special education. Id. Ex. 12. Nielsen recommended that Walker be elevated to continuing contract status, which meant that she would no longer be a probationary employee terminable at will. Id.; Griffith Dep. at 21:15-25.

         Despite her recommendation, Nielsen testified that she was “on the fence” about recommending continuing contract status for Walker. Nielsen Dep. at 111:23-112:2. She spoke to Denise Griffith in the human resources department about her concerns. Id. at 112:18-24. Nielsen told Griffith that Walker had difficulty with interpersonal relationships and that she was not meeting state-mandated evaluation deadlines.[2] Griffith Dep. at 24:13-18.

         According to defendants, Walker's performance declined dramatically following Nielsen's decision to recommend continuing contract status. First, Walker was absent for a training session she was scheduled to conduct with a colleague, Tara Dahlager. Walker acknowledges that she was absent for the session, but explains that she was ill and that she notified Dahlager by email the prior evening that she would be unable to attend the session. Walker Dep. at 176:12-178:3. Although it appears that Walker may have sent the email to the wrong address, the record supports Walker's claim that she attempted to notify Dahlager of her absence. See Nierengarten Aff. Ex. 13. There is no evidence in the record that Nielsen investigated the incident to determine why Walker missed the training or whether she attempted to notify Dahlager of her absence.

         Second, Walker's colleague, Karen Holine, reported that Walker lied about timely completing an evaluation plan, which resulted in a confrontation during a meeting. Holine Dep. at 39:1-25, 40:1-5, 54:22-55:18; Walker Dep. at 184:11-18. Walker denies that she did not complete the plan on time. Walker Dep. at 183:20-187:17. The record is insufficient to resolve the issue. It is clear, however, that Nielsen did not investigate the matter to determine whether Walker had been dishonest. See Nielsen Dep. at 156:17-157:1.

         Third, Walker had a heated exchange with another colleague, Becky Max, during a meeting to discuss whether an African American student should be retained in kindergarten for the following school year or be evaluated to determine whether he qualified for special education services. Max, who Walker believed disliked her, [3]apparently favored retention, which Walker opposed. Walker felt that Max's position was racially motivated. Walker Dep. at 208:1-10, 228:6-229:10. Following a meeting in which the student was discussed, Max sent Walker an email noting that Walker had been abrupt and rude at the meeting. Redden Decl. Ex. ...

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