United States District Court, D. Minnesota
H. Redden, Esq. and Fabian May & Anderson, PLLP, counsel
Kristin C. Nierengarten, Esq., Trevor S. Helmers, Esq. and
Rupp, Anderson, Squires & Waldspurger, counsel for
S. Doty, Judge United States District Court
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.
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.
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. 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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. Griffith Dep. at 24:13-18.
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.
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.
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, 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. ...