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Benner v. Saint Paul Public Schools

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

December 4, 2017

Aaron A. Benner, Plaintiff,
v.
Saint Paul Public Schools, I.S.D. #625, Defendant.

          Reid M. Goldetsky, for Plaintiff.

          Sarah E. Bushnell & Jeffrey M. Markowitz, Arthur, Chapman, Kettering, Smetak & Pikala, PA, for Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER

          SUSAN RICHARD NELSON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on Defendant Saint Paul Public Schools' (“SPPS”) Motion to Dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) [Doc. No. 5]. For the reasons set forth herein, and as stated at the motion hearing, SPPS's Motion is denied in part and granted in part.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the Court accepts as true the factual allegations in the complaint and construes all reasonable inferences arising therefrom most favorably to the plaintiff. Hager v. Ark. Dep't of Health, 735 F.3d 1009, 1013 (8th Cir. 2013) (citing Gross v. Weber, 186 F.3d 1089, 1090 (8th Cir. 1999)). Plaintiff Aaron Benner is a licensed teacher and an African American male. (Am. Compl. (“Compl.”) [Doc. No. 12] ¶ 6.) In 1995, he began working for SPPS, and he obtained tenure there in 1999. (Id. ¶ 4.) That year, however, he took a leave of absence from SPPS and went to work for a charter school, Community of Peace, where he remained until 2007, when he was rehired by SPPS. (Id.) Plaintiffs final year working for SPPS was the 2014-2015 academic year, (id.), when he taught fourth grade at SPPS's Johnson Elementary School (“Johnson”) in St. Paul. (Id. ¶ 7.) At the end of that year, Plaintiff alleges that he was constructively discharged. (Id. ¶ 37-38.)

         Central to this case is SPPS's “racial equity” policy, which Plaintiff opposes. According to Plaintiff-who was the only African American teacher at Johnson while he worked there, (id. ¶ 7)-pursuant to this policy, “African American students are not disciplined as severely as the Caucasian students.” (Id. ¶ 11.) This is because SPPS “wants to ensure [African American students] get as much classroom time as possible, ” (id.), and is “trying to keep [its] discipline numbers down to address [] racial disparities.” (Id. ¶ 12.) Plaintiff opposes the racial equity policy on two primary grounds. First, “he believes that how the policy was implemented was not helping the students and is racially discriminatory[, ] particularly [to] the African American male students.” (Id. ¶ 10.) Plaintiff also opposes it because of its impact on his job, stating that “[b]ecause Plaintiff did not support [SPPS]'s racial equity policy, he could not fulfill his employment duties, specifically, implementing] the goals and objectives of the District and the school and/or program to which [he was] assigned.” (Id. ¶ 14.)

         At a school board meeting on May 20, 2014, Plaintiff voiced his opposition to this racial equity policy. (Id. ¶¶ 11-12.) There, Plaintiff stated that “Dr. King would be very disappointed because here we are 51 years later and the concept of the matter at hand is skin color.” (Id. ¶ 12.) Plaintiff complained that with this policy, “if troubled students were African American[, ] they were not being held accountable for their behavior issues.” (Id.) Plaintiff also stated that “the school is setting the African American students up to fail” and expressed concern about the amount of violence at the school. (Id.) Plaintiff believes that his opposition put SPPS on notice that the racial equity policy was racially discriminatory. (Id.)

         According to Plaintiff, his opposition to the racial equity policy triggered a series of negative consequences, including investigations-some frivolous-into his conduct. He points to a clean record prior to September 2014, (id. ¶ 7), when, after voicing his opposition, he began getting investigated. (Id. ¶ 13.) The first of these investigations arose out of an incident involving student violence. (Id. ¶¶ 17-19.) On September 22, 2014, Plaintiff witnessed a male fourth-grader punch a female fourth-grader, knocking her out. (Id. ¶ 17.) Plaintiff notified Lisa Gruenewald, Johnson's principal, (id. ¶ 15), of the incident. (Id. ¶ 17.) A few days later, Plaintiff called the mothers of both students involved in the incident and found out that neither of them had been contacted by the school. (Id. ¶ 17-18.) The female student's mother “was beyond angry” to find out that she hadn't been notified directly by the school after her daughter had been physically assaulted. (Id. ¶ 17.) The female student's mother then contacted the school and was upset with Gruenewald for how the situation was handled. (Id. ¶ 19.)

         After the incident, SPPS commenced an investigation and disciplined Plaintiff for making contact with the student's mother. (Id.) On October 20, 2014, a disciplinary action was recorded in Plaintiff's file for purportedly “violating [SPPS's] data privacy policy.” (Id.) This policy states that teachers should “not discuss students or other staff members in public places, ” and that “data should be shared on a ‘need to know' basis.” (Id. ¶ 9.) Plaintiff, however, disputes any wrongdoing, and maintains that he did not violate SPPS's data privacy policy, but was merely “carrying out one of his duties of employment, namely, ‘maintaining contacts or communications with parents of students.'” (Id.) Plaintiff claims that SPPS's investigation and disciplinary action were retaliatory. (Id.)

         The second investigation into Plaintiff's behavior arose out of another instance of student violence. (Id. ¶ 20.) On October 24, 2014, a student broke a fellow student's eyeglasses, and, after being questioned by Plaintiff about the incident, bullied a separate student who had given Plaintiff details of the incident. (Id.) Plaintiff alleges that he was investigated, and-without the opportunity to speak with or meet with Grunewald-was “disciplined for inappropriately handling this bullying situation.” (Id.) This disciplinary action was again recorded in Plaintiff's file, and he was issued a disciplinary memorandum on December 2, 2014. (Id.)

         Plaintiff alleges that with respect to this second investigation, he was treated differently than similarly situated Caucasian teachers. (Id. ¶ 21-22.) For instance, he points to an incident in May of 2015, when a Caucasian teacher-who had the same supervisor and same employment duties as Plaintiff, (id. ¶ 22)-“berated and shamed” a student in front of class after the student had engaged in behavioral misconduct. (Id. ¶ 21.) However, even though this Caucasian teacher's behavior was reported to Gruenewald, SPPS did not investigate. (Id. ¶ 21-22.) Instead, Gruenewald met with the Caucasian teacher the next day-an opportunity denied to Plaintiff-and told her to “just be careful” with what she said to students. (Id. ¶ 21.)

         Shortly after the second disciplinary memo was placed in his file, a series of events led Plaintiff to believe that SPPS generally was treating him differently than similarly situated Caucasian teachers. For instance, on December 9, 2014, after Plaintiff had reported a student who threatened a teaching assistant (“TA”), Plaintiff emailed Gruenewald and an assistant administrative intern to follow up on several matters, including his report of threats against the TA. (Id. ¶¶ 24-25.) A few days later, on December 17, 2014, Human Resources approached Plaintiff to discuss an offer to transfer him to another elementary school immediately after winter break. (Id. at ¶ 26.) At first, Plaintiff was told that the offer would remain open for 48 hours, but, later that day, he was told that the offer would only remain open for 24 hours. (Id.) Plaintiff declined the offer, and believes SPPS was “trying to silence him, ” in particular because no other similarly situated employees were given only 24 hours to decide whether or not to transfer. (Id.) Moreover, Plaintiff alleges that, in contrast to other teachers, he routinely had students with disciplinary problems placed in his classroom from other grades without an explanation. (Id. ¶ 29.)

         The last two formal investigations into Plaintiff's conduct occurred in January and February of 2015. On January 13, 2015, Plaintiff called in sick to work, and SPPS initiated an investigation to determine if Plaintiff had in fact been sick. (Id. ¶ 31.) As part of this investigation, Plaintiff provided a doctor's note, but was “shocked that calling in sick would trigger a District investigation.” (Id.) As with his second investigation, Plaintiff claims that he was treated differently than Caucasian teachers, as “[n]o other teachers were subjected to a District investigation for calling in sick from Johnson Elementary.” (Id.) Finally, the fourth investigation occurred in February of 2015 after Plaintiff left the class unattended while he delivered a behavior referral to the behavior specialist. (Id. ¶ 32.) Plaintiff does not dispute this violation. (Id.)

         In the months that followed, Plaintiff continued to endure hostility from the school authorities and alleges that he was treated very differently than his fellow Caucasian teachers. For instance, on April 28 and 29 of 2015, a student assaulted Plaintiff. (Id. ¶ 34.) A few days later, on May 1, 2015, several of Plaintiff's students were asked, outside of Plaintiff's presence, whether Plaintiff had provoked the assaults by hitting students first. (Id. ¶ 35.) When Plaintiff learned of this, he e-mailed Gruenewald, stating that he needed to be included in the investigations. (Id.) Plaintiff did not receive a response to the e-mail, but, a few days later, Gruenewald informed Plaintiff that the student who assaulted him had been transferred to another fourth grade classroom. (Id.) Plaintiff alleges that he was “retaliated against” and “treated differently than other similarly situated employees because he was not allowed to give his side of the story during the investigation, ” and that “no other employees were subjected to this type of treatment when an assault occurred between students and staff.” (Id.)

         After all these incidents, in May of 2015, Plaintiff began to fear that he could be terminated at any time. (Id. ¶ 37.) Plaintiff believed that he could be fired because the disciplinary actions recorded in his file were, in fact, “‘fireable' offenses.” (Id.) Moreover, Plaintiff was apprehensive about his position, and whether he would be subject to further disciplinary action, as he “never knew if he would be investigated or disciplined for doing his job.” (Id.) Plaintiff also believed that the investigations and disciplinary actions were harassment and retaliation by SPPS “in an effort to force him to quit or resign.” (Id.)

         Seeking to avoid the serious consequences of termination-i.e., negative effects on on his future employment, his tenure status, and his retirement benefits, (id.)-Plaintiff began to look for other employment. (Id. ¶ 38.) On May 14, 2015, he was hired by the charter school where he previously worked, Community of Peace. (Id.) At the end of the school year nearly three ...


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