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Eilen v. Minneapolis Public Schools

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

April 10, 2019

Linda J. Eilen, Plaintiff,
v.
Minneapolis Public Schools, a/k/a Special School District #1; and Kristiana Ward, individually and in her official capacity, Defendants.

          Philip G. Villaume and Jeffrey D. Schiek, Villaume & Schiek, P.A., Bloomington, MN, for plaintiff Linda J. Eilen.

          Margaret A. Skelton and Timothy S. Christensen, Ratwick, Roszak & Maloney, P.A., Minneapolis, MN, for defendants Minneapolis Public Schools and Kristiana Ward.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Eric C. Tostrud United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Linda J. Eilen teaches in the Minneapolis Public Schools. In this lawsuit, she alleges that Defendants took several adverse employment actions against her during a single school year and that these adverse actions violated the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), Minnesota's Whistleblower Act, and 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Following nine months or so of discovery, Defendants seek summary judgment on all of Eilen's claims. Their motion will be granted because Eilen has not identified facts to support essential elements of each of her claims.

         I[1]

         Eilen's claims arise entirely from the 2015-2016 school year when Eilen taught, and defendant Kristiana Ward served as principal, at Bryn Mawr Elementary School. See Compl. ¶¶ 5-43 [ECF No. 1-1]. Understanding Eilen's claims requires describing in some detail a series of personal events and work-related meetings and incidents that occurred during that academic year, but it helps to start with a few more general background facts. Eilen has worked as a teacher for the Minneapolis Public Schools (“MPS”) since the early 1980s, and she began teaching first grade at Bryan Mawr in 2012. See Skelton Aff. Ex. 2 (“Eilen Dep.”) at 14, 19, 34 [ECF No. 22-2]. Ward served as Bryn Mawr's principal beginning in 2015. Skelton Aff. Ex. 1 (“Ward Dep.”) at 9-10 [ECF No. 22-1]. By the time Ward arrived, Eilen already had established a reputation within the school as a strong teacher, and Eilen began serving as the Bryn Mawr building steward for the teachers' union during the 2015-2016 academic year. Id. at 12-13; see also Mem. in Opp'n at 2-4 [ECF No. 24] (collecting colleague observations).

         A

         Eilen and members of her family experienced a series of health challenges in September 2015 that resulted in Eilen's absence from work. Eilen was absent from work one day in early September for her daughter's surgery, and she also was out on September 17 and 18-a Thursday and Friday-for her son's surgery. Eilen Dep. At 58. The following day, Saturday, September 19, Eilen herself was admitted to an emergency room with a medical issue, id. at 59, and she was unable to return to work for over a week, until Tuesday, September 29, see Skelton Aff. Ex. 4 at 1-2 [ECF No. 22-4]. Principal Ward stayed in contact with Eilen during this time. The day before her son's surgery, Ward emailed Eilen about at least one complaint that Ward had received from parents, Eilen Dep. at 57, and during Eilen's hospitalization and subsequent recovery, Ward called and emailed Eilen about her job duties and conveyed similar verbal communications through Eilen's fiancé, id. at 62; Villaume Aff. Ex. N [ECF No. 25-14]. Eilen did not seek FMLA leave at that time. Eilen Dep. at 88-89.

         Eilen returned to work on Tuesday, September 29, and Ward and Eilen met the next day to discuss a number of concerns parents had voiced about Eilen's classroom relating to communication with families and assignments given to students. Skelton Aff. Ex. 5 [ECF No. 22-5]; Ward Dep. at 31-33. Ward testified that her intention for that meeting with Eilen was to communicate the parents' complaints to Eilen and to come up with a plan for responding. Ward Dep. at 33-34. Ward observed during her deposition that “when parents make a complaint, there's always multiple sides to the story. So it's really good for teachers to be aware of what those complaints are so that I can either support or help develop a plan or kind of help support the teacher and the parent.” Id. at 33-34. Eilen worked the remainder of that week but was out again several days at the beginning of the next week with further medical issues. Skelton Aff. Ex. 4 at 2.

         Ward continued to receive complaints from parents of Eilen's students, and the two had a “due-process meeting” on October 9.[2] Ward Dep. at 35-36. In particular, parents had expressed concerns about a lack of communication from Eilen and the lack of a consistent teacher presence while multiple substitute teachers cycled through Eilen's classroom during her absence. Id. Eilen shared with Ward certain medical documentation relating to her own recent absences and ongoing medication needs, as well as documentation of her children's surgeries, and the two discussed the impact of her medical absences on her students' learning. Eilen Dep. at 81-82. The two also discussed that Eilen's medical absences had caused her to miss a training that was required before she could use a newly acquired phonics curriculum; in the interim, Eilen had been using other research-based phonics programs. Id. at 60-62. (Ultimately, Eilen never completed the training because MPS stopped using the curriculum shortly thereafter due to concerns that it was culturally insensitive. Id. at 61.)

         Two events relevant to Eilen's claims occurred following the October 9 meeting. First, Eilen applied, and was approved, for intermittent FMLA leave dating back to September 18. Id. at 89. Second, a letter was sent to the parents of Eilen's students on October 13 describing expectations for the classroom moving forward. Villaume Aff. Ex. K [ECF No. 25-11]; Ward Dep. at 39. The letter was signed by Principal Ward. Villaume Aff. Ex. K. Ward testified that the letter was not intended as punishment for Eilen, merely as support, so that:

the parent complaints could stop coming in and they could understand. You know, I was really trying to help her get back into the classroom without parents coming-because if I had one form of communication stating what the expectations were happening, then parents wouldn't just keep coming saying, well, today this; today that. I was really trying to be, actually, helpful in creating one line of communication coming from the principal really supporting Ms. Eilen and the first-graders.

Ward Dep. at 39. Regardless of Ward's intentions, Eilen found the letter humiliating. Eilen Dep. at 83.

         B

         The next series of events relevant to Eilen's claims began not quite two months later, on December 2, 2015, when Ward emailed Eilen about a complaint that Ward had received relating to Eilen's alleged failure to comply with a student's Individualized Education Program and Behavior Intervention Plan, as well as Eilen's interactions with the student's family member during a meeting regarding those subjects. Skelton Aff. Ex. 7 [ECF No. 22-7]. Ward and Eilen held a due-process meeting regarding these issues on December 3. See Eilen Dep. 91-92. Ward drafted a notice of deficiency before the meeting, but after the meeting Eilen received only a notice of concern.[3] Id. at 95. Eilen perceived the notice of concern as disciplinary. Id. at 96. It is not entirely clear whether Ward also considered the notice to be a form of discipline. Ward Dep. at 41. Eilen's union considered it a non-disciplinary coaching letter that was not subject to the union's grievance procedures. Eilen Dep. at 95-96; Skelton Aff. Ex. 8 [ECF No. 22-8].

         The following week, on December 9, Eilen, in her capacity as union steward, facilitated a meeting between Ward, others in the Bryn Mawr administration, and staff to discuss teachers' complaints about Ward's management of the building and her treatment of staff. Eilen Dep. at 29-30. This meeting followed a visit to Bryn Mawr a few months earlier by representatives of the national and local teachers' unions, which Eilen had helped organize. Ward Dep. at 21. Eilen later reflected in an email to staff that the union leaders' visit had made clear that Bryn Mawr staff required support. Id. Ward insists that she was calm throughout the December 9 meeting, id. at 27-28, but Eilen alleges that Ward was at times “incredibly angry at what was being brought forward, ” Eilen Dep. at 31. Eilen believed, in light of their past tensions, that Ward was holding her responsible for all of the concerns voiced in the meeting as though Eilen was the instigator, although in fact it was other staff members who had brought their disparate concerns to Eilen as their building steward. Id. Eilen never initiated a formal grievance relating to the issues discussed at the December 9 meeting and never brought those concerns to anyone at the district level. Id. at 32-33. She did tell other union officials that she feared retaliation for the work she was doing on behalf of union members. Villaume Aff. Ex. B (“Nordgren Dep.”) at 22-23 [ECF No. 25-2].

         C

         A few weeks later, on Monday, January 11, 2016, Eilen sustained a broken clavicle, a concussion, and other injuries when her car was rear-ended. Eilen Dep. at 97, 100. As a result, she did not teach January 11 through January 13. Skelton Aff. Ex. 4 at 2. She returned to work that Thursday and Friday, and also taught the first two days of the following week. Id. But at the end of the work day on Tuesday, January 19, Eilen notified Ward that, beginning Wednesday, January 20, she would only work half days until she could see her doctor the following Tuesday, January 26. Skelton Aff. Ex. 11 [ECF No. 22-11]. The day after her medical appointment, January 27, Eilen informed Ward and the leave coordinator for MPS that she would be taking another period of FMLA leave as she continued to recover from her car accident. Skelton Aff. Ex. 12 at 4 [ECF No. 22-12]. On February 8, MPS approved Eilen's request for FMLA leave effective January 20 through April 20. Skelton Aff. Ex. 14 [ECF No. 22-14]; Skelton Aff. Ex. 15 [ECF No. 22-15].

         Eilen remained on leave through February but notified MPS's leave coordinator on March 2 that she expected to return to work that month ahead of schedule. Skelton Aff. Ex. 16 at 4 [ECF No. 22-16]. Specifically, Eilen said that she would receive a return-to-work plan from her physician the next week and did not yet know whether her doctor would permit her to work full-time immediately or would instead prefer a ramp-up period of half-day work. Id. Two days later, Eilen informed Ward that she was tentatively expecting to return the week of March 21. Skelton Aff. Ex. 17 at 2-3 [ECF No. 22-17]. Ward responded promptly, requesting a specific return date so that the school could communicate appropriately with the students and their families and writing: “Glad you are feeling better and we look forward to your return.” Id. at 2. In follow-up correspondence, Ward asked Eilen to confirm whether she would indeed return on March 21, because the timing of her return date would determine whether the long-term substitute assigned to Eilen's classroom would hold an open house for families as she had planned, or whether Ward should instead inform the families of Eilen's return date. Id. at 1.[4] Around the same time that Eilen and Ward were corresponding to plan Eilen's return, Eilen was corresponding with MPS's leave coordinator about whether there would be any problem with gradually returning to full-time work. Skelton Aff. Ex. 16 at 1-3. The leave coordinator informed Eilen, “[a] lot will depend on what hours and restrictions that your doctor issues for your return to work. Until I see what your doctor ...


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