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Benner v. St. Paul Public Schools

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

May 3, 2019

Aaron A. Benner, Plaintiff,
v.
St. Paul Public Schools, I.S.D. #625, and Lisa Gruenewald, in her official and individual capacities, Defendants.

          J. Ashwin Madia, Cody Blades, and Joshua Newville, Madia Law LLC, for Plaintiff.

          Sarah Bushnell, Jeffrey Markowitz, and Kari Marie Dahlin, Arthur Chapman Kettering Smetak & Pikala, PA, for Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          SUSAN RICHARD NELSON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This case aptly illustrates the adage that there are always “two sides to every story.” On the one hand, Plaintiff Aaron Benner (“Benner”) claims that, after he (a tenured African-American elementary school teacher) spoke against Defendant St. Paul Public Schools' (“SPPS”) “racial equity policy” during a widely-covered May 2014 school board meeting, SPPS worked with his new Principal (Defendant Lisa Gruenewald) to “paper” his then-impeccable record with “bogus” investigations and disciplinary measures, so as to make him a ripe target for termination. After enduring this “retaliation” for the entire 2014-2015 school year, and fearing that he could be fired at any moment, Benner resigned from SPPS in August 2015 and instead began working at a local charter school. In Benner's view, all of this occurred because, as an African-American school teacher publicly standing against a District policy aimed at aiding African-American students, he presented a unique “threat” to SPPS's policy goals.

         On the other hand, Defendants contend that any “disciplinary measures” they took against Benner were wholly unrelated to either his race or his public policy stances, and that each “disciplinary measure” was fully justified by Benner's (allegedly improper) in-school actions. Moreover, Defendants argue, Benner was not “forced” to resign, or otherwise “retaliated against.” Rather, Defendants submit, at the end of the 2014-2015 school year Benner simply chose a job that better suited his career aspirations.

         Defendants now move for summary judgment as to all four of the claims Benner has brought against them, arguing that the factual record is sufficiently clear for the Court to rule in their favor as a matter of law.

         The Court largely disagrees; the factual disputes in this case are simply too wide, and too important, for the Court to deny Benner a jury trial as to all of his claims. However, because of controlling legal standards, Defendants are entitled to summary judgment on two of the claims Benner has brought against them (Title VII retaliation and First Amendment retaliation). The other two claims (Minnesota Whistleblower Act retaliation and Title VII race discrimination) will proceed to trial. The Court explains its reasoning at greater length below.

         I. BACKGROUND

         For ease of understanding, the Court will divide this factual narrative into four parts. First, the Court will discuss the relevant factual events up through, and including, Benner's May 20, 2014 speech to the St. Paul school board. In so doing, the Court will also provide some background on the “suspension gap” and “racial equity” issues that undergirded Benner's speech. Second, the Court will detail the various investigations, reprimands, and alleged hardships that Benner endured during the 2014-2015 school year, while he was a fourth-grade teacher at John A. Johnson Elementary School in St. Paul. Third, the Court will recount how these incidents resulted in Benner leaving SPPS. Finally, the Court will review this litigation's procedural history.

         Because this case is in a summary judgment posture, the Court will consider this factual background “in the light most favorable” to Benner, and will “mak[e] every reasonable inference” in Benner's favor. Bradford v. Palmer, 855 F.3d 890, 892 (8th Cir. 2017).

         A. Relevant Events Prior to the 2014-2015 School Year

         1. The “Suspension Gap” and SPPS's “Racial Equity” Response

Before delving into the details of this case, the Court will first discuss the educational policy problem known as the “suspension gap, ” and how SPPS was attempting to remedy this problem during the years relevant to this litigation. This background is essential to understanding why Benner believes his May 20, 2014 speech posed a “threat” to SPPS's then-leadership, such that they would have any reason to “retaliate” against him.

         It is well established that, in many urban school districts across the country, including SPPS, the suspension rate for African-American students is vastly disproportionate to the percentage of African-American students in the school district. (See Defs.' Ex. 7 [Doc. No. 78-1] (“May 29, 2013 Minnesota Spokesman-Reporter Article”) (noting that, according to a UCLA research report, “St. Paul was among several U.S. urban school districts . . . where it was found that Black students in 2009-10 were suspended at least three times more often than Whites, and almost twice as often as Latinos”); cf. Michael Rocque & Raymond Paternoster, Understanding the Antecedents of the “School-to-Jail” Link: The Relationship Between Race and School Discipline, 101 J. Crim. L. & Criminology 633, 651 (2011) (finding that, even as early as elementary school, “[b]lack students [are] . . . more than two times as likely to receive at least one disciplinary report compared with students of all other races”).) This disparity is often called the “suspension gap.” (See, e.g., Defs.' Ex. 6 [Doc. No. 78-1] (“Summer 2012 City Journal Article”) at 5.) There is a vigorous public debate over the causes of this gap, as well as over what, if anything, should be done about it. Compare, e.g., Derek W. Black, Reforming School Discipline, 111 Nw. U. L. Rev. 1, 47-57 (2016) with Gail Heriot & Alison Somin, The Department of Education's Obama-Era Initiative on Racial Disparities in School Discipline: Wrong for Students and Teachers, Wrong on the Law, 22 Tex. Rev. L. & Pol. 471 (2018).

         In recent years, SPPS has undertaken numerous policy efforts to try and reduce its “suspension gap.” Many of these policy efforts were spearheaded by Valeria Silva, who was SPPS's Superintendent from 2009 to 2016. (See Defs.' Ex. 20 [Doc. No. 78-1] (“Aug. 25, 2016 American Public Media Article”) at 12; accord Silva Dep. [Doc. No. 89-5] at 41 (describing these policies as one of her “top priorities”).) For example, in 2009, SPPS began training its teachers in Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (“PBIS”), which ask teachers to focus on positive reinenforcement for good behavior rather than negative, “punitive” consequences for bad behavior. (See Defs.' Ex. 9 [Doc. No. 78-1] (“May 2, 2014 Twin Cities Daily Planet Article”).) In 2010, SPPS also hired a consultancy called the Pacific Education Group (“PEG”) to help train the district's (mostly white) teachers and administrators as to how racial awareness could reduce the need for disciplinary measures, especially with respect to African-American students. (See id.; see also Pl.'s Ex. 156-159 [Doc. Nos. 89-111 to 89-114] (learning materials provided by PEG).)[1]

         Most importantly for present purposes, though, in July 2013 SPPS adopted an official “racial equity” policy. (See Pl.'s Ex. 22 [Doc. No. 89-34] (“SPPS Racial Equity Policy”).) At the time, local press reports described the policy as “groundbreaking.” (See Pl.'s Ex. 161 [Doc. No. 89-115] (“July 15, 2013 Pioneer Press Article”).) Although the exact content of this policy was somewhat amorphous, “racial equity” appeared to be a multi-faceted effort aimed at “eliminating” SPPS's “institutional racism, ” so as to “increase achievement . . . for all students, while narrowing the gaps between the highest-and-lowest-performing students.” (SPPS Racial Equity Policy at 1 (emphasis in original); see also July 15, 2013 Pioneer Press Article (“[The policy] says the district will work to recruit and retain a ‘racially conscious and culturally competent' staff and embrace ‘culturally responsive' practices in the classroom and beyond.”).) As part of this policy, SPPS also appeared to encourage its administrators and principals to collect race-specific data and then focus on reducing the racial disparities measured in that data, particularly with respect to African-American and white students. (See, e.g., Pl.'s Ex. 158 [Doc. No. 89-113] (“Guide for Principals Implementing Racial Equity”) at 2.) For instance, one internal SPPS document from the 2013-2014 school year appeared to encourage school administrators to reduce “suspensions” and “office discipline referrals” for “African-American male students” and/or “students of color” by specific numeric percentages over the course of the school year. (See Pl.'s Ex. 155 [Doc. No. 89-110] (“SPPS PBIS Behavior Goals”); accord Silva Dep. at 150-51.) Similarly, during at least one school year, SPPS provided a financial bonus to principals who “reduced suspensions for students of color.” (See May 2, 2014 Twin Cities Daily Planet Article (describing this policy, before then noting that it was “discontinued” after the 2012-2013 school year); accord Silva Dep. at 98-99).)

         SPPS's “racial equity” policy provoked controversy, at both a local and national level. (See generally Defs.' Ex. 4-20 (various national and local newspaper articles describing community responses to the policy).) In recent years, moreover, SPPS appears to have modified (but not eliminated) its policy in response to a variety of critiques and suggestions. (Id.)

         2. Benner Begins to Critique SPPS's Implementation of “Racial Equity”

         With this context in mind, the Court now turns to Aaron Benner. Benner is an African-American elementary school teacher who began his teaching career with SPPS in 1995. (See Defs.' Ex. 2 [Doc. No. 78-1] (“Benner Resume”).) After receiving tenure from SPPS in 1999 (see Defs.' Ex. 1 [Doc. No. 78-1] (“Letter Conferring Tenure”)), Benner took a leave of absence to teach at a local charter school called Community of Peace Academy. (See Benner Resume.) However, in 2007, Benner returned to SPPS. Upon his return, Benner taught at Benjamin E. Mays Elementary School for five years, before then transferring to John A. Johnson Elementary School (“JAJ”) in the summer of 2013. (Id.)

         Benner is, by all accounts, a respected and enthusiastic classroom instructor. (See, e.g., Pl.'s Ex. 53 [Doc. No. 89-51] (“Benner Evaluations”) (highly positive evaluations that Benner received during the years 1996-1999); Defs.' Ex. 31-32 [Doc. No. 78-1] (Benner's nomination for “2005 Minnesota Teacher of the Year”); Defs.' Ex. 34-36 [Doc. No. 78-1] (enthusiastic letters of recommendation Benner received in 2014 and 2015).) Moreover, until the 2014-2015 school year, Benner had never received any kind of formal discipline from his supervisors within the SPPS system, and there is no indication that he was in any way reprimanded during the years he taught at Community of Peace. (See Pl.'s Ex. 109 [Doc. No. 89-80] (“Defs.' Responses to Pl.'s Requests for Admission”) at 5.)[2]

         Benner is also notable because he is one of the few African-American teachers in a school district that is over one-third African-American. (Compare Silva Dep. at 44 (describing SPPS as “about 30 to 40 percent African-American, 20 to 30 percent Hmong kids, and about 20 to 30 percent white kids”) with id. at 166 (noting that “86% of [SPPS's] teachers are white”); see also Benner Dep. [Doc. No. 89-1] at 320 (observing that he is “one of the few black male teachers in St. Paul, ” which he compared to “being a unicorn”).) At JAJ Elementary, for instance, Benner was one of two African-American teachers (out of 30 teachers total) and was the only African-American male teacher. (See Pl.'s Ex. 107 [Doc. No. 89-79] (“Def.'s Answers to Pl.'s Requests for Admission”) at 4; see also Pl.'s Ex. 1 [Doc. No. 92] (“2014-2015 JAJ Attendance Records”) (showing number of teachers at JAJ Elementary).)

         In any event, sometime during 2011, Benner began to notice that disruptive behavior, particularly among African-American boys, was not being treated with as much seriousness as he believed necessary. (See Benner Dep. at 10-25.) Benner voiced concerns about this issue in both private and public forums. For instance, after experiencing an African-American student “assault” him on the playground and face virtually no punishment, Benner went to a SPPS school board meeting on December 13, 2011 to speak against lax disciplinary policy, and attempts to blame “insensitive white teachers, ” rather than the “Black community, ” for African-American students' misbehavior. (See Defs.' Ex. 25 (“Audio Recording of December 13, 2011 Meeting”) at 23:55 to 27:00; see also Defs.' Ex. 24 [Doc. No. 78-1] (“Minutes of December 13, 2011 Meeting”) at 5 (summarizing Benner's remarks as “hold children to higher standards, hold Black community responsible for crisis of achievement gap, have serious dialogue with the community”).) At the time he made this statement, Benner had “never heard of racial equity, ” or “PEG.” (Benner Dep. at 18-19.)

         Benner's frustration over this issue grew upon SPPS's adoption of the aforementioned “racial equity policy” in 2013, while Benner was in his first year at JAJ Elementary. In particular, Benner contended that this policy was leading to “quotas” on African-American suspensions and punishments (but not for students of other races), which Benner believed to be both illegal and ineffective. (See, e.g., Benner Dep. at 215, 222-225, 237-45 (describing specific examples of unequal disciplining of students by race during his time in Ben Mays and JAJ Elementary, and further explaining that “it was impossible to maintain a safe classroom and close the achievement gap and teach when kids are not being held accountable”); see also Ritten Dep. [Doc. No. 89-119] at 17-22, 58-62, 77 (fellow teacher of Benner's who testified that, under SPPS's “racial equity policy, ” teachers were essentially told to “decrease the amount of [behavior] referrals to black students, ” and that this policy helped contribute to “chaos” in JAJ Elementary); Rapp Dep. [Doc. No. 89-7] at 101-03 (same).) Benner also believed that, by not suspending students for certain misbehaviors (or even recording the disciplinary referrals), SPPS was effectively engaging in “fraud” with respect to its disciplinary statistics. (See, e.g., Benner Dep. at 222-23.)

         At the time, Benner faced some private criticism for his position. For example, Benner accuses the then-interim Principal of JAJ Elementary, Judy Kaufman, of telling him in spring 2014 that he would be “out of a job” if he did not “get on board with the racial equity policies.” (Benner Dep. at 38-39; accord Rapp Dep. at 97-98, 112-13 (confirming that Benner contemporaneously told her about this incident); but see Kaufman Dep. [Doc. No. 89-9] at 57 (denying that she made any such comment to Benner).)

         Near the end of the 2013-2014 school year, however, Benner made his disagreement with SPPS's “racial equity” policies even more public. Specifically, Benner joined forces with four other SPPS teachers (none of whom were African-American) to propose a countervailing policy to “racial equity, ” called the “high expectations policy.” Among other things, the teachers' plan advocated creating a culture of “empowerment and unity around high expectations and high standards for all students, regardless of race, income, or ethnicity, ” instead of a “climate of fear, divisiveness, and uncertainty among educators around discipline and race, ” which was apparently fostered by PEG-style “racial awareness” trainings. (Pl.'s Ex. 114 [Doc. No. 89-84] (“May 6, 2014 E-Mail in Support of High Expectations Policy”) at 1.) In a May 6, 2014 e-mail announcing their proposed policy, Ian Keith (another member of the group of five) encouraged anyone who supported the teachers' ideas to “join them” at an upcoming school board meeting, on May 20, 2014, where the teachers would share brief remarks in support of their proposal. (Id.)

         This organizing effort was immediately noticed by SPPS's top leadership, including then-Superintendent Silva, and one of SPPS's then-school board members, Keith Hardy. For instance, the night of Keith's original e-mail, Hardy forwarded Keith's message to Silva with the line, “I don't understand why the continuous rancor. The board will stand behind you and your team.” (Pl.'s Ex. 113 [Doc. No. 89-83] (“May 6, 2014 Hardy E-mail to Silva”).) Silva, in turn, forwarded the message to her cabinet and stated, “be aware.” (Pl.'s Ex. 114 [Doc. No. 89-84] (“May 7, 2014 Silva E-mail to Cabinet”).) Further, after two of Silva's advisors told her that she should “get ahead of this, ” Silva approved a plan to “reach out to those that have a different narrative [than the five teachers], ” so that they could share their perspective at the school board meeting. (Id. at 9 (“May 7, 2014 Silva E-mail to Bierman”).) Notably, during this series of e-mail exchanges, one of Silva's assistant superintendents, Theresa Battle, specifically stated that SPPS “need[ed] a counter narrative to Aaron Benner, ” and recommended that Silva ask if “other African American men . . . will come and speak” in support of SPPS's “racial equity” efforts. (Id. at 7 (“May 7, 2014 Battle E-mail to Silva”).)[3]

         Seemingly as a result of these e-mails, several individuals, ranging from SPPS students to local community leaders, agreed to speak in defense of SPPS's “racial equity” policies at the May 20 school board meeting. (See generally id. (e-mail exchanges between SPPS administrators, school board members, and others, in response to Keith's original May 6 message).)

         3. Benner Reports His Concerns with SPPS's “Racial Equity” Policy at the May 20, 2014 School Board Meeting

         On the night of May 20, 2014, Benner and his four compatriots (along with some supporters of theirs) arrived at the school board meeting. To their surprise, the meeting room was full. (See Benner Dep. at 222 (“We really thought that nobody would be there, at the school board meeting.”).) Indeed, as the video evidence in the record confirms, the meeting room was packed with boisterous attendees, many of whom were wearing “purple” in a display of solidarity with SPPS's “racial equity policy.” (See generally Defs.' Ex. 27 (“Video Recording of May 20, 2014 Meeting”) at 0:00 to 1:10:00; see also Benner Dep. at 216 (“The district, either through an e-mail or fliers, told people to wear purple . . . to show that you're in unity against these teachers [proposing the High Expectations Policy].”).) Benner's new principal, Lisa Gruenewald (who would officially start at JAJ Elementary in the fall), was among those in attendance. (See Gruenewald Dep. [Doc. No. 89-2] at 30.) Benner also noticed that “people on the superintendent's cabinet [were] all wearing purple, ” and that “black pastors that [Benner] went to high school with” were “just sitting there [waiting to] hear[] [him] speak.” (Benner Dep. at 217-18.)

         Nevertheless, during the time for public comment, Benner stood up and passionately delivered the following two-minute statement, which he characterized as a “complain[t] about the separate but equal new illegal policies in St. Paul.” (Id. at 215.)[4]:

Good evening. ‘I have a dream that my four children will one day be judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin.' Now, obviously those are not my words, but those of the late Dr. King in 1963. So, here we are, 51 years later, and currently in our schools, lack of character is now being excused due to students' skin color.
I made a similar plea to the School Board two and a half years ago and I'm here again because I believe we are crippling our black children by not holding them to the same expectations as other students. I am here because black students can, and should, behave in any classroom, regardless of the race, gender, or ethnicity of their teacher. I am here again because we can do a better job in St. Paul of helping our black students and others. We need a no excuses, failure is not an option, tough love approach for our most troubled youth, as outlined in the high expectations policy proposal.
The direction of the St. Paul Public Schools today makes Dr. King's wish a distant dream, as bad behavior is attributed to a litany of excuses, such as, relationships aren't established between teachers and black students; PBIS is not taught with fidelity; teachers and their ‘white privilege'; and, my favorite excuse, ‘culturally responsive teaching' is not being used.
What does ‘culturally responsive teaching' look like in the classroom? Not too many people seem to know, as this term was [only] coined in 1994.
However, I do know that cussing out your teacher is not black culture; refusing to do work is not black culture; not following directions is not black culture; hitting other students is not black culture; and assaulting your teacher is not black culture.
So, I'm asking this school district to ask the black community, my community, what is black culture, and which behaviors will not be tolerated in our schools. We must engage our parents. Do not be afraid to be called a racist. We must engage our parents. We are losing our black kids to the streets. It's already hard for these kids. Don't make excuses for them, because the police will not have excuses when they lock them up. Please, I don't want to come back here - I don't want to be back here in two-and-a-half years with the same message.

(Video Recording of May 20, 2014 Meeting at 17:44 to 20:00; see also Defs.' Ex. 28 [Doc. No. 78-1] (“Benner Speech Transcript”).)

         After Benner and his four compatriots finished speaking, around two dozen other individuals gave remarks in favor of SPPS's “racial equity” policy, and related efforts. (See Defs.' Ex. 26 [Doc. No. 78-1] (“May 20, 2014 Minutes”) (listing all of the speakers during the hour-long public comment portion of meeting).)

         The opening sentence of an article in the next day's Minneapolis Star-Tribune aptly summarized the meeting's tone: “A group of St. Paul teachers went before the school board Tuesday to air concerns about lax discipline policies - only to be drowned out by parents and minority leaders who commended the district for its racial equity work.” (Pl.'s Ex. 116 [Doc. No. 89-86] (“May 21, 2014 Star-Tribune Article”).) Notably, in describing the “drowned out” “group of St. Paul teachers, ” the Star-Tribune solely quoted Benner. (See id. (“But Aaron Benner, a fourth-grade teacher at [JAJ Elementary] who is black, said that the district was doing a disservice to the children by not holding them to the same standard as students from other ethnic groups. ‘Refusing to do work is not black culture,' he said. ‘Assaulting your teacher is not black culture.'”).)

         Silva forwarded the article to the school board, among many others, that day. (See, e.g., Pl.'s Ex. 116 (“May 21, 2014 Silva E-mail to Polsfuss”) at 1.) In response, SPPS's Chief Academic Officer, Matthew Mohs, e-mailed Silva and others with the comment, “Aaron Benner is a master at being quotable.” (See Pl.'s Ex. 115 [Doc. No. 89-85] (“May 21, 2015 Mohs E-mail to Silva”).) Silva replied to Mohs with the word, “Yes.” (See Pl.'s Ex. 116 at 13 (“May 21, 2015 Silva E-mail to Mohs”).)

         More still, a few weeks later, Silva requested that one of her aides create a video clip of the May 20 Benner speech to share with the consultants from PEG. (See Pl.'s Ex. 119 [Doc. No. 89-89] (“June 17, 2014 Video Clip E-mail Chain”); see also Silva Dep. at 89-90 (explaining these e-mails).)[5]

         Although Silva contended at her deposition that this focus on Benner had nothing to do with either his race or outspoken opinions, she did acknowledge that, when it came to critiquing the district's “racial equity” policies, Benner was “the most vocal African-American teacher” in the District. (Id. at 47.)

         4. Benner and Others Attempt to Work with SPPS the Summer Following the School Board Meeting, To No. Avail

         About a month after the school board meeting, Silva e-mailed Benner and his four colleagues. In her e-mail, Silva thanked the teachers for their comments, and invited them to participate in an SPPS committee called “Solutions in Action, ” which sought to “work[] with [the community] to develop programs and practices to reduce disproportionate suspensions and referrals, while creating engaging classrooms for all students.” (Defs.' Ex. 29 [Doc. No. 78-1] (“June 10, 2014 Silva E-mail to Teachers”).) The teachers participated in the Solutions in Action committee that summer. (See Silva Dep. at 29-31.)

         Notably, during one of those meetings, Silva spoke with Benner and requested that the two of them have a “one-on-one meeting, ” where they could discuss each other's viewpoints. (See Benner Dep. at 229; Silva Dep. at 32.) Silva did not request an analogous “one-on-one meeting” with any of the other teachers in the group of five. (See Benner Dep. at 229 (“[Silva] could have asked the other teachers in the summer of 2014, but she only asked to see me, which I [found] kind of peculiar.”).) Still, Benner agreed to meet Silva at St. Paul's annual “Rondo Days” celebration, in mid-July 2014. (Id.) During the meeting, which lasted “almost two hours” and which both parties describe as “friendly, ” Benner further expounded upon his May 20 speech, and explained to Silva why he believed “the racial equity policies, [and their] implementation in St. Paul, [was] against the law.” (Benner Dep. at 233-34; cf. Silva Dep. at 33 (stating that Benner “was concerned that PEG and the District were setting low expectations for African-American students”).) Silva disagreed with Benner's assessment, and further chided Benner that “[my] mostly all black cabinet” “thinks you're crazy.” (Benner Dep. at 230.) At the end of the meeting, though, Silva gave Benner her phone number and encouraged him to contact her, and not the media, if he had “any problems.” (Id. at 231; accord Pl.'s Ex. 33 [Doc. No. 89-37] (“July 20, 2014 E-mails Between Benner and Silva”) (e-mail in which Benner confirmed that he had Silva's correct cell phone number).)

         In early August 2014, following the “Solutions in Action” meetings, the five teachers jointly sent Silva and other SPPS leaders a lengthy e-mail explaining why they still did not agree with key aspects of SPPS's “racial equity” approach. (See Pl.'s Ex. 124 [Doc. No. 89-91] (“Aug. 7, 2014 Teachers E-mail to Silva et al”).) Benner also sent his own e-mail to Silva and two other SPPS administrators. (See Pl.'s Ex. 123 [Doc. No. 89-90] (“Aug. 6, 2014 Benner E-mail to Silva et al.”).) In his e-mail, Benner stated, among other things, “I have made no secret about my criticism of PEG and the district's racial equity policies, ” and, “progress will truly be made when the district drops PEG as consultants.” (Id.)

         Silva and (then-school board member) Hardy exchanged frustrated e-mails about the teachers' criticism. For example, in response to Benner's e-mail, Hardy wrote Silva, “Oh Aaron…Time for him to attack student underachievement instead of fighting PEG, ” to which Silva replied, “Time for you to tell him that!” (Pl.'s Ex. 123 at 1 (“Aug. 7, 2014 Hardy to Silva E-mail Exchange”).) Similarly, in response to the teachers' joint e-mail, Silva exclaimed, “again, I will tell you that they never took the time to believe.” (Pl.'s Ex. 124 at 1 (“Aug. 8, 2014 Silva E-mail to Hardy”).)

         A few weeks after his e-mail, Benner again reached out to Silva, this time with a request that she meet with him and “several black teachers . . . who would love to have a chance to speak with you regarding the achievement gap and the disparity in suspensions.” (Pl.'s Ex. 125 [Doc. No. 89-92] (“Aug. 12, 2014 Benner E-mail to Silva”) at 3-4.) Benner explained that his “role in the meeting would be to ensure that all voices are heard and no attacks are made.” (Id.) Silva did not respond to Benner. However, it appears from internal emails that Silva discussed Benner's e-mail with Hardy and other SPPS administrators, and ultimately decided that it would be unfair to other teachers to give Benner such “incredible access” to the superintendent. (See Pl.'s Ex. 125-126 [Doc. Nos. 89-92 to 89-93] (“Aug. 12 and Aug. 13, 2014 Internal SPPS E-mail Exchanges”); see also Silva Dep. at 102 (“The discussion was, at the time, don't give him . . . more time. We already had had enough time to discuss this.”).)

         B. The 2014-2015 School Year

         1. A Brief Primer on Investigations and Teacher Discipline in SPPS in general, and at JAJ Elementary School in Particular

         Now, before discussing the various investigations, disciplinary measures, and other alleged hardships Benner subsequently endured during the 2014-2015 school year, it is worth reviewing how teacher discipline functions in SPPS, particularly with respect to tenured faculty like Benner.

         For starters, outside of “incident[s] of a serious nature, ” such as sexual assault, SPPS attempts to employ a “progressive discipline system” with its teachers. (See Defs.' Ex. A [Doc. No. 77-1] (“SPPS 2013-2015 Terms and Conditions of Teacher Employment”) at 81.) Specifically, the four “levels of discipline, ” to be applied “progressively, ” are “(a) oral reprimand, (b) written reprimand, (c) suspension without pay, and (d) discharge.” (Id.) When a teacher receives any kind of written discipline, SPPS's Human Resources department (“HR”) will note that in the teacher's “record, ” or “file, ” for at least two years. (Id. at 82.)

         The disciplinary process usually begins when a school principal contacts HR with a complaint about one of their teachers. (See Clukey Dep. [Doc. No. 89-3] at 15; Yang Dep. [Doc. No. 89-12] at 14.) HR will then decide if they should “investigate” the incident. (See Collins Dep. [Doc. No. 89-6] at 15.) If HR decides to investigate and consider disciplinary action, its representative must abide by the “Seven Tests of Just Cause, ” which include basic due process considerations like, “interview witnesses, ” “remember that evidence must be truly substantial, not flimsy or slight, to form a basis for taking disciplinary action, ” and, notably, “consider [whether the discipline] is reasonably related to the employee's record.” (Pl.'s Ex. 100 [Doc. No. 89-77] (“Seven Tests of Just Cause”) at 3-4; see also Yang Dep. at 13 (confirming that HR investigators are expected to abide by these standards).) At the conclusion of the investigation, the HR investigator must either find the complainant's allegation “substantiated, ” “unable to be substantiated, ” or “not substantiated.” (See Clukey Dep. at 21-23 (explaining that, although there “should be no discipline” when allegations are “not substantiated, ” HR operates in a “grey area” when allegations are merely “unable to be substantiated”).) The HR investigator then proposes a form of discipline to the principal, which the principal may choose to accept or not. (See id. at 19, 25.) A teacher has the right to “grieve, ” or appeal, any reprimand they receive, by way of their union-appointed representative. (See SPPS 2013-2015 Terms and Conditions of Teacher Employment at 82.)

         Although HR and school principals largely operate on their own with respect to “oral reprimands” and “written reprimands, ” a school's “Assistant Superintendent”[6] will still receive updates about these kinds of reprimands at weekly staff meetings. (See Collins Dep. at 15-22.) Moreover, a principal may talk directly with their Assistant Superintendent about teacher disciplinary matters. (See id. at 22-25; Gruenewald Dep. at 37-38.) The District's Superintendent is generally not involved in HR decisions. (See Silva Dep. at 107-08.) However, on occasion, the Superintendent may also receive updates about teacher disciplinary matters. (Id.)

         For perspective, it bears mentioning that, of the 10 incidents concerning tenured teachers at JAJ Elementary that the school's principal reported to HR between 2012 and 2016 (not including the incidents involving Benner, discussed infra), HR only investigated five, and, of those five, only four resulted in any kind of “formal discipline.” (See Pl.'s Ex. W [Doc. No. 89-21] (“2012-2016 JAJ Teacher Discipline Statistics”).)[7] Examples of tenured teacher conduct meriting “formal discipline” included (a) “neglect of students who engaged in physical fight leading to one being injured while teacher was elsewhere gathering materials” (oral reprimand); (b) “teacher was aggressive toward students and had to be physically held back from charging toward student” (teacher resigned after HR recommended termination); and (c) “teacher instructed students to ‘go fight in the hallway,' which turned into a physical fight” (written reprimand). (Id.)

         Importantly, if a teacher does receive a formal “reprimand” for their actions, that discipline letter may contain language providing “cause” for the school district to discharge that teacher. See Minn. Stat. § 122A.41, subd. 4(a) (stating that a tenured teacher “must not be discharged or demoted except for cause after a hearing”) (emphasis added). Although SPPS “rarely” fires tenured teachers (see generally Vollmer Dec. [Doc. No. 77]), Minnesota law does state that the following “infractions” may constitute “cause” for termination: “immoral character, ” “conduct unbecoming a teacher, ” and “insubordination.” Id. at subd. 6(a)(1).

         2. In October 2014, Benner Is Investigated and Formally Disciplined for the First Time in his Career, After He Allegedly Reveals “Confidential Information” to a Student's Mother

         On Monday, September 22, 2014, while walking to his classroom, Benner witnessed an “African-American boy grab an African-American girl's hair, pull[] her steady, punch[] her, [and] hit her in her face, ” such that the girl was knocked “out cold.” (Benner Dep. at 49.) Neither student was in Benner's class. (Id.) Nonetheless, Benner took the young girl to the nurse's office, and then told his Principal, Lisa Gruenewald, about the attack. (Id. at 50.) The following Sunday, Benner decided to call the girl's mother to check in on the girl; Benner had the mother's phone number because he had taught the girl's sister earlier in his career. (Id.) When he called the mother, Benner learned that the school had not told the mother about the incident, and that the mother was accordingly “irate.” (Id. at 51; accord Gruenewald Dep. at 55-56 (admitting that, although the school tried to contact the mother, they could not reach her).) The mother later called the school and expressed her displeasure. (See Benner Dep. at 52; Abdur-Salaam Dep. [Doc. No. 89-8] at 27.)

         Gruenewald, Benner, and the school's Assistant Principal, Jamal Abdur-Salaam, met about this issue the next week. (See Benner Dep. at 52-53; Abdur-Salaam Dep. at 25-26.) During this meeting, Gruenewald alleges that Benner admitted that, not only did he inform the girl's mother of the incident itself, but he revealed the name of the male assailant, too. (See Defs.' Ex. 39 [Doc. No. 78-1] (“Benner First Investigation File”) at 11 (Gruenewald meeting notes); accord Gruenewald Dep. at 45.) This distinction matters because, although the former allegation would not be a violation of SPPS's student privacy policy, the latter allegation would constitute a violation. (See Gruenewald Dep. at 47-53; Yang Dep. at 15-18.) Benner has strongly and consistently denied that he ever made the latter comment to Gruenewald or to anyone in JAJ Elementary. (See, e.g., Benner Dep. at 56.)

         After this meeting, Gruenewald reached out to HR (and possibly Collins) about disciplining Benner, on grounds that Benner (allegedly) violated SPPS's student privacy policy. (See Gruenewald Dep. at 47-48; see also Collins Dep. at 50-51 (stating that he remembers Gruenewald discussing this event with him at the time, but that he “would not have been part of the investigation at all”).)[8] HR investigator Amylee Yang, in turn, decided to initiate an official investigation. (See Yang Dep. at 15-18.) Although Benner denied sharing the name of the assailant with the girl's mother during his interview with Yang and Gruenewald on October 8, and Yang did not speak to the girl's mother at any point during her investigation, Yang nonetheless marked Gruenewald's allegations against Benner “substantiated” (as opposed to “unable to be substantiated”), and found that Benner had, in fact, violated SPPS's student privacy policy. (See generally Benner First Investigation File.) In so finding, Yang relied entirely on Gruenewald's recollection of the initial meeting. (See Yang Dep. at 21, 30 (testifying that she relied on Gruenewald's recollection because “it's not [HR's] practice to reach out to parents” during investigations).)[9]

         As a consequence, on October 20, 2014, HR (with Gruenewald's approval) sent Benner a “Letter of Directive” (“LOD”). (See Benner First Investigation File at 2; accord Gruenewald Dep. at 58.) This letter marked the first official discipline Benner had received in his 19-year teaching career. The LOD directed Benner to “not disclose any private, confidential, or non-public data to others if a compelling professional purpose is not being served or [is] not required by law, ” and further stated that “[f]ailure to follow these expectations will be considered insubordination and could result in disciplinary action, including, written reprimand, suspension without pay, or discharge.” (See Benner First Investigation File at 2.)[10]

         3. Benner Is Investigated and Disciplined, Again, In November 2014, This Time for Allegedly “Singling Out” a ...


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