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Seabrook v. Independent School District #535

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

February 21, 2017

Regina Seabrook, Plaintiff,
Independent School District #535 and Brenda Lewis, Defendants.

          Karin Ciano, Esq. and Karin Ciano Law PLLC, and William L. French, Esq. and William L. French, Attorney at Law, counsel for plaintiff.

          John P. Edison, Esq., Michael J. Waldspurger, Esq. and Rupp, Anderson, Squires & Waldspurger, counsel for defendants.



         This matter is before the court upon the motion for judgment on the pleadings by defendants Independent School District No. 535 and Brenda Lewis. Based on a review of the file, record, and proceedings herein, and for the following reasons, the court grants the motion.


         This discrimination dispute arises out of the school district's decision to fire plaintiff Regina Seabrook. In June 2012, the school district hired Seabrook, an African-American woman, to develop the Student and Family Engagement (SAFE) Program. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 5, 8-9. SAFE was intended to serve as a social and academic resource for under-served youth and their families. Id. ¶ 9. On July 1, 2012, Seabrook began her employment under the supervision of Brenda Lewis. Id. ¶ 10.

         Seabrook alleges that Lewis never evaluated her performance, although she did so for “persons from non-protected classes.” Id. ¶ 12. Seabrook further claims that she did not have regularly scheduled meetings with Lewis, was not invited to department meetings, and generally felt ignored. Id. ¶ 15.

         Over the course of her employment, Seabrook's title and the location of her office were changed twice, but she does not allege that she suffered any reduction in pay or benefits because of these changes. Id. ¶¶ 10, 13, 17-18. Despite the change in title, she continued to work on the SAFE program in addition to other responsibilities. Id. ¶¶ 13-14.

         On July 16, 2015, Seabrook filed a sexual harassment complaint against Lewis with the school district. Id. ¶ 19; see Munoz Decl. Ex. 1. In the complaint Seabrook stated that, from the summer of 2012 to the fall of 2013, Lewis made inappropriate sexual comments to her. Am. Compl. ¶ 19; see Munoz Decl. Ex. 1.[1] In August, superintendent Michael Munoz informed Seabrook that her complaint had been dismissed following an investigation. Am. Compl. ¶ 20. Seabrook generally alleges that, thereafter, Lewis retaliated against her by “giving her directives out of context, brow-beating her repeatedly, and scripting all conversations she had with school principals” and that the work environment became hostile and abusive.[2] Id. ¶ 21.

         On October 5, 2015, the school district placed Seabrook on paid administrative leave for insubordination.[3] Id. ¶ 23. Soon after, Munoz, Lewis, and the executive director of human resources, Brooke Bass, met with Seabrook, presumably about her alleged insubordination. Id. ¶ 24. Seabrook claims that Munoz yelled at her, intimidated her, and told her that no one liked her or wanted to work with her. Id. Munoz, Lewis, and Bass then allegedly pressured Lewis to sign an agreement that would have prevented her from seeking relief from discrimination under state and federal law. Id. Seabrook refused to do so. Id. On December 8, 2015, Seabrook returned to work. Id. ¶ 26.

         On March 27, 2016, Seabrook filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleging discrimination on the basis of race and sex and retaliation. Id. ¶ 27; Munoz Decl. Ex. 3. The EEOC investigated the claim and dismissed the complaint on April 1. Am. Compl. ¶ 27; Munoz Decl. Ex. 4, at 1. On May 27, the school district fired Seabrook, and on June 21, the school board voted to eliminate the SAFE Program. Am. Compl. ¶ 28. Munoz told Seabrook that she was fired due to budget cuts. Id. Seabrook alleges that his explanation was untrue and pretext for race and sex discrimination. Id.

         On August 19, Seabrook filed an amended complaint alleging that the school district engaged in (1) sex and race discrimination in violation of Title VII and the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA); (2) retaliation in violation of Title VII and the MHRA; (3) a hostile and abusive working environment; and (4) sexual harassment. She also alleges that Lewis engaged in race discrimination in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981.[4] Defendants now move for judgment on the pleadings.


         I. Standard of Review

         The same standard of review applies to motions under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(c) and 12(b)(6). Ashley Cty., Ark. v. Pfizer, Inc., 552 F.3d 659, 665 (8th Cir. 2009). Thus, in order to survive a motion for judgment on the pleadings, “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Braden v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 588 F.3d 585, 594 (8th Cir. 2009) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). A plaintiff need not make out a prima face case under Title VII to survive a motion to dismiss, but must plead some facts giving rise to a plausible claim. Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A., 534 U.S. 506, 511-12 (2002). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff [has pleaded] factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citing Bell Atl. Corp v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 556 (2007)). Although a complaint need not contain detailed factual allegations, it must raise a right of relief above the speculative level. See Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. “[L]abels and conclusions or a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action” are not sufficient to state a claim. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).

         The court does not consider matters outside the pleadings under Rule 12(c). Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(d). The court may, however, consider matters of public record and materials that are “necessarily embraced by the pleadings.” Porous Media Corp. v. Pall Corp., 186 F.3d 1077, 1079 (8th Cir. 1999) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Here, the court properly considers Seabrook's complaints to the school district and EEOC.

         II. Service of Process

         Defendants argue that the complaint should be dismissed for improper service. To properly serve a school district, a plaintiff must serve the summons and complaint on the school district's chief executive officer or a member of the school board.[5] See Fed.R.Civ.P. 4(j)(2); Minn. R. Civ. P. 4.03(e)(4). To properly serve an individual defendant, a plaintiff must deliver the summons and complaint to the defendant personally, to the defendant's residence or usual place of abode with a person of suitable age and discretion who resides there, or to an agent authorized to receive service. Fed.R.Civ.P. 4(e); Minn. R. Civ. P. 4.03(a). Here, Seabrook served John Carlson who is the school district's executive director of finance, not its chief executive officer or a member of the board as required by statute. But where a plaintiff has, in good faith, substantially complied with the rules for service of process and the defendant has not been prejudiced, a court may find that service was adequate. Devin v. Schwan's Home Servs., Inc., No. Civ. 04-4555, 2005 WL 1323919, at *3 (D. Minn. May 20, 2005).

         Seabrook's process server made a good faith effort to comply with the rules for service. The school district's human resources department directed him to John Carlson's office to serve the summons and complaint. Grimes Decl. ¶ 6. Carlson identified himself as a senior administrator and stated that he would accept the summons and complaint and deliver them to the proper parties. Id. ¶ 7. The process server reasonably relied on Carlson's representation, and defendants do not claim they were prejudiced by the technical error. See Van Hoven Co. v. Stans, 319 F.Supp. 180, 182 (D. Minn. 1970) (“It is sufficient ... that a responsible person who declared himself to be in charge of the office was served, particularly where ...

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