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Litaker v. Hoover Board of Education

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division

September 29, 2017

ROBIN LITAKER, Plaintiff,
v.
HOOVER BOARD OF EDUCATION, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          MADELINE HUGHES HAIKALA, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Robin Litaker worked for the Hoover Board of Education for 21 years. The Hoover Board selected Ms. Litaker as the principal of Trace Crossings Elementary School in 2010. Ms. Litaker received favorable ratings for her first two years at Trace Crossings, and the Board gave her a three-year contract in June 2012. Five months later, former Hoover Superintendent Andy Craig transferred Ms. Litaker from her position as the principal at Trace Crossings to the Board's Central Office. Mr. Craig did not give Ms. Litaker a formal Central Office position, and he did not offer her a position as principal at another school in the district. Instead, after giving her odd jobs in the Central Office, Mr. Craig had his assistant superintendent, Dr. Ron Dodson, inform Ms. Litaker that she would have to serve as the assistant principal at the district's alternative school. Ms. Litaker was not qualified for that position. Ms. Litaker refused the assistant principal position, and she resigned.

         After her resignation, Ms. Litaker sued the Board, Mr. Craig, and former Assistant Superintendent Carol Barber. Ms. Litaker contends that the Board and Mr. Craig discriminated against her because of her gender in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and that the Board, Mr. Craig, and Ms. Barber violated her Fourteenth Amendment due process rights. In addition to these federal claims, Ms. Litaker asserts state law claims for breach of contract and defamation. Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, the defendants have asked the Court to enter judgment in their favor on all of Ms. Litaker's claims. (Doc. 19; Doc. 20). For the reasons stated below, the Court grants in part and denies in part the defendants' motions.

         I. SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD

         “The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). To demonstrate that there is a genuine dispute as to a material fact that precludes summary judgment, a party opposing a motion for summary judgment must cite “to particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations (including those made for purposes of the motion only), admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1)(A). “The court need consider only the cited materials, but it may consider other materials in the record.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(3). When considering a summary judgment motion, the Court must view the evidence in the record and draw reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. White v. Beltram Edge Tool Supply, Inc., 789 F.3d 1188, 1191 (11th Cir. 2015).

         II. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Ms. Litaker began her 21-year career with the Hoover city school system in 1992 as a teacher at Trace Crossings Elementary School. (Doc. 21-1, p. 5). In 1998, while teaching at Trace Crossings, she was honored as Alabama's State Teacher of the Year. (Doc. 27-1, ¶ 3). Ms. Litaker worked at other Hoover schools as a teacher and assistant principal before returning to Trace Crossings as the principal in 2010. (Doc. 21-1, p. 5; Doc. 21-4, p. 7). When the Board selected Ms. Litaker to serve as the principal at Trace Crossings, she and former Superintendent Andy Craig, on behalf of the Board, entered a two year probationary contract. (Doc. 21-1, pp. 42, 111-115; Doc. 21-4, p. 10). Ms. Litaker received positive evaluations during her first two years at Trace Crossings. (Doc. 21-2, pp. 101-108).

         When Ms. Litaker arrived at Trace Crossings in 2010, she reported to Mr. Craig and Assistant Superintendent Carol Barber, who oversaw elementary and middle school principals. Mr. Craig and Ms. Barber told Ms. Litaker that Trace Crossings “had multiple, serious issues and a toxic working environment.” (Doc. 27-1, ¶ 7). According to Ms. Litaker, the problems were both instructional and administrative. (Doc. 27-1, ¶¶ 7-9). A third-party audit indicated that the school had “instructional, achievement and diversity issues.” (Doc. 27-1, ¶ 7). The audit stated that Trace Crossings teachers were not using the state-mandated curriculum or board-approved instructional materials. (Doc. 27-8, pp. 19-20). Other problems included failure to properly observe teachers and follow state protocol with respect to keeping standardized tests in secure locations. (Doc. 27-1, ¶ 8). In addition, some teachers were charging students for tutoring sessions against Board policy; some teachers skipped units of study or did not turn in lesson plans; other teachers did not receive training for the school's math, reading, and science curriculum; and most teachers did not receive appropriate professional development. (Doc. 27-1, ¶ 8). Ms. Litaker testified that “[she] was told to go into the school and fix these things.” (Doc. 21-1, p. 18).

         Some teachers at Trace Crossings were upset when Ms. Litaker became principal because she held the teachers “accountable to the same standards” as other Hoover teachers with respect to turning in lesson plans and teaching to a written curriculum. (Doc. 21-1, pp. 17-18). According to Ms. Litaker, Trace Crossings's assistant principal, Dr. Debra Smith, made her (Ms. Litaker's) first year at Trace Crossings very difficult. Dr. Smith had applied for the principal position that Ms. Litaker received. (Doc. 21-6, p. 18). Dr. Smith told teachers not to listen to Ms. Litaker. (Doc. 21-1, pp. 9-11; Doc. 27-1, ¶ 11). After Ms. Litaker discussed the situation with Mr. Craig and Ms. Barber, Ms. Barber stated that “they intended to ‘chase [Dr. Smith] off' by sending her to Crossroads Alternative” school. (Doc. 27-1, ¶ 12).

         Despite these challenges, Ms. Litaker received a positive evaluation at the end of her first year as Trace Crossings's principal. (Doc. 21-1, p. 116). In the review dated January 13, 2011, Ms. Barber gave Ms. Litaker 3 out of 4 or 4 out of 4 in every area on the review form. (Doc. 21-1, pp. 116-119). Ms. Barber gave Ms. Litaker the highest possible score for “collaboration processes and skills.” Her review states:

As a first year principal, inherited a faculty/staff where culture, climate, and practices had to change. Began process of change by meeting with people-individually, in small groups, and in larger groups. Listened to people. Identified areas where she would not allow any negotiations; identified areas where input was needed and encouraged. Planned transition activities to gain teacher and parent support. Established expectations and standards, yet building support and gaining teacher buy-in to new expectations and practices. Works hard to build on existing teacher strengths; acknowledges these strengths and delegates and empowers those to act. [Assistant Principal], currently in the school, applied for the principal position and was most upset w[hen] this did not occur. Filed an EEOC [charge]; district prevailed in the hiring of Ms. Litaker. Principal continues to work with this AP even though there appears to be a great deal of negative behavior involved. This skill area is an area of strength for Ms. Litaker.

(Doc. 21-1, p. 116). Ms. Litaker also received the highest possible score for “planning.” Her review states:

Principal is developing ownership of new ideas as they evolve. Principal encourages input into decisions for the school[]. Principal is strategically planning for change, moving slowing and trying to take faculty and pa[r]ents with her as changes are implemented. Principal is establishing goals and identifying activities to support school goals. Input for change is encouraged from faculty/staff, students, and parents. Principal is using data from a variety of sources to establish goals and objectives (assessment data, survey data, parent and staff meetings, etc.).

\(Doc. 21-1, p. 117). In addition, Ms. Litaker received the highest possible score for “problem solving.” With respect to this category, Ms. Litaker's evaluation states:

Principal develops ownership of ideas by delegating, empowering others, and sharing. Input into solving problems is encouraged and acknowledged. Principal labels problems; brainstorms solutions with individuals/groups involved; develops ownership of solutions by allowing input into the solutions; shares data to help direct solutions; and builds consensus regarding the best solution for the problem. Principal has emphasized assessment data with faculty; helping teachers to understand profiles and to plan strategically for improvement.

(Doc. 21-1, p. 117). Ms. Barber also gave Ms. Litaker the highest score for “school operations and management.” Ms. Litaker's evaluation states:

Principal is analytical in assessment of building practices and procedures. This is an area of strength for Ms. Litaker. She understands how to effectively schedule personnel to achieve maximum efficiency; establishes routines to benefit students and faculty; and establishes rapport with student[s] by creating a safe and secure learning environment (physically safe and emotionally safe)! Principal uses a critical eye to determine appearance of building and grounds and holds staff accountable for expressed expectations. Principal establishes high expectations and is willing to work with personnel as they change practices to meet changed expectations; however, will hold people accountable for agreed upon standards.

(Doc. 21-1, p. 118). In the 2011 review, Ms. Barber stated that Ms. Litaker “constantly references mission and vision for [Trace Crossings] and expects teachers to use this as a screen for making decisions.” (Doc. 21-1, p. 119).

         Ms. Litaker asserts that in her second year at Trace Crossings, things were much improved: “the faculty was working together much better, many of the instructional issues has been solved, and the school had a pleasant environment that was conducive to learning.” (Doc. 27-1, ¶ 13). In addition, during her second year, the school's test scores increased, and although some teachers remained loyal to Dr. Smith, according to Ms. Litaker, “the toxic environment and morale issues were gone.” (Doc. 27-1, ¶ 14).

         Ms. Litaker's annual review for her second year as principal of Trace Crossings is consistent with Ms. Litaker's assessment. (Doc. 21-1, pp. 120-123). In the February 8, 2012 review, Ms. Barber again gave Ms. Litaker the highest possible score in the areas of collaboration processes and skills, planning, and school operations and management. (Doc. 21-1, pp. 120-123). With respect to “organizing for results, ” Mr. Barber wrote:

Principal is in 2nd year of principalship; has undertaken major shift in school culture; has created a new vision for school; holds people accountable for practices to support vision/mission. Principal has created additional planning opportunities for teachers, based upon results of survey data from teachers. Principal reviews survey data and responds with adjustments to organizational practices when possible. School has participate[d] in a Total Quality Review Analysis and is using results from this process to design school improvement practices.

(Doc. 21-1, p. 120). With respect to “innovation, ” Ms. Barber reported:

Principal is insightful in her vision for school and how to achieve the vision. School has embraced a[] teaming model for school operations. Common core curriculum has been rolled out early. Teachers are expected to share common practices for differentiation, assessment, etc. Principal has set the bar high for teacher expectations; is insistent that teachers also have opportunities to learn new practices. Mechanism to support and help teachers achieve outcomes are constantly being provided and evaluated.

         (Doc. 21-1, p. 121). With respect to “fiscal leadership and management, ” Ms. Barber stated:

Reviews were conducted by the District Internal Auditor and the District Accounting Manager for the period from October 1, 2010 through May 31, 2011. No exceptions were noted. Ms. Litaker and Mrs. Drake, bookkeeper for [Trace Crossings], are to be commended for the significant improvement in fiscal responsibility that has occurred at [Trace Crossing] over the past two year[s].

(Doc. 21-1, p. 122). Ms. Barber gave Ms. Litaker 3 out of 4 in the area of “management of professional responsibilities.” (Doc. 21-1, p. 122). With respect to this portion of the evaluation, Ms. Barber stated that:

Principal is punctual to work; has a phenomenal work ethic; submits reports and paperwork in a timely manner. Principal models professionalism when dealing with teachers, students, and parents. Principal is willing to hold people accountable even if it means she may experience some level of discomfort from staff/parents. Principal will tackle tough situations if it is in the best interests of students!

(Doc. 21-1, p. 122).

         Based on Ms. Litaker's performance during the two-year probationary period, in the summer of 2012, Mr. Craig offered, and Ms. Litaker accepted, a three-year principal's contract. The Board approved the contract on June 18, 2012, and the contract became effective July 1, 2012. (Doc. 21-1, pp. 44, 124-129; Doc. 21-2, p. 6; Doc. 21-4, pp. 10, 12).

Ms. Litaker's principal contract provides in relevant part:
. . .
Section 5. Transfer. The Board, upon the written recommendation of the Superintendent, is authorized to transfer the Contract Principal without loss of salary to any other administrative position in the school system.
. . .
Section 8. Evaluation. The Contract Principal shall be evaluated annually according to the process defined by the State Board of Education. The Contract Principal agrees to participate in the evaluation process and to complete any professional development plan resulting from the evaluation process. The failure of the Superintendent to ensure the Contract Principal is evaluated shall result in a one-year extension of this contract, for no more than a total of three years.
. . .
Section 12. Amendment, Modification, or Waiver. This Contract shall not be amended, modified, or waived except in writing authorized, agreed upon, and executed by the Contract Principal and the Board, upon the written recommendation of the Superintendent.

(Doc. 21-1, pp. 125, 127).

         On July 3, 2012, Ms. Litaker received an email regarding the previous school year's test scores, and she knew that Trace Crossings would not make AYP. (Doc. 27-1, ¶¶ 18, 22). AYP is an acronym for adequate yearly progress. (Doc. 21-4, p. 11). Ms. Litaker immediately notified Mr. Craig of the test scores. (Doc. 27-1, ¶ 18). Because the test results showed unusually low math scores for fourth grade students, Ms. Litaker suspected that a testing infraction may have caused the problem. (Doc. 27-1, ¶¶ 18, 20). According to Ms. Litaker, student achievement did not match the testing data, and teachers received several sets of directions before giving the math portion of the test. (Doc. 27-1, ¶ 19).[1] Mr. Craig appointed Dr. Deborah Camp to investigate and report to the State Department of Education information about the suspected testing infraction. (Doc. 27-1, ¶ 20). Dr. Camp was the district's Director of Elementary Curriculum Instruction. (Doc. 27-8, p. 5).[2]

         Ms. Litaker requested a meeting with Mr. Craig, Dr. Camp, Assistant Superintendent of Instruction Dr. Ron Dodson, and Ms. Barber to discuss a plan to address the low test scores. (Doc. 27-1, ¶¶ 20-21). Ms. Litaker proposed additional training for kindergarten, first, and second grade math teachers. (Doc. 27-1, ¶ 22). Ms. Litaker requested, and the Board approved, additional funding for this professional development. (Doc. 27-1, ¶ 24). Ms. Litaker also asked Central Office administrators to help conduct walkthroughs in math classrooms to observe teachers and identify struggling students. (Doc. 27-1, ¶ 23).

         Three Hoover schools did not make AYP for the 2011-2012 school year: Berry Middle, Brock's Gap Intermediate, and Trace Crossings. By the end of the 2012-2013 school year, Ms. Litaker no longer was at Trace Crossings, and the Board transferred Berry's female principal to the principal position at Greystone Elementary. The male principal at Brock's Gap remained in his position. (Doc. 27-1, ¶ 26). Ms. Litaker testified that for the 2010-2011 school year, three schools with male principals-Hoover High, Hoover Freshman Campus, and Simmons Middle School-did not make AYP; each male principal remained in his position for the 2011-2012 school year. (Doc. 27-1, ¶ 26).[3]

         As Ms. Litaker began her efforts to address AYP at Trace Crossings, Mr. Craig contends that he received reports from Ms. Barber and Mary Veal, the Hoover school district's Director of Human Resources, about an “increasing number” of issues at Trace Crossings. (Doc. 21-4, p. 12). Ms. Veal reported to Mr. Craig a number of complaints from Trace Crossings teachers “about the leadership of the school, things being managed in regards to student discipline . . . [and] low morale.” (Doc. 21-6, p. 9). Ms. Veal testified that “there appeared to be a lack of trust, and people were concerned about going to Ms. Litaker.” (Doc. 21-6, p. 9). Ms. Veal also reported complaints about teachers being asked to work outside of their contract hours. (Doc. 21-4, p. 25). Ms. Litaker states that no one informed her of these complaints until the depositions that took place as part of this case in 2015. (Doc. 27-1, ¶¶ 10, 30).[4]

         According to Ms. Barber, when she visited Trace Crossings in the fall of 2012, she observed “a distinct coldness in the building. . . . [T]eachers weren't talking to one another. . . . [T]here was no collaboration. . . . Teachers weren't working together as they should in an elementary school.” (Doc. 21-2, p. 8). Ms. Barber sensed that Ms. Litaker was overwhelmed and that the situation was not improving. (Doc. 21-2, p. 24). Although Ms. Barber reported these concerns in her deposition in July of 2015, neither she nor Mr. Craig disciplined Ms. Litaker in 2012, and they did not provide her with a written performance improvement plan or inform her that the problems at Trace Crossings could lead to her removal from the school. (Doc. 21-2, p. 23; Doc. 21-5, ¶ 3; Doc. 27-1, ¶ 34).

         Ms. Barber's visits were part of the walkthroughs of math classrooms that Ms. Litaker had requested. Ms. Litaker and Dr. Dodson conducted walkthroughs of the second grade classrooms. (Doc. 27-1, ¶ 30). Ms. Barber and Amanda Stone, the assistant principal at Trace Crossings for the 2012-2013 school year, did walkthroughs for the third grade classrooms. (Doc. 27-1, ¶ 30). Dr. Camp and Linda Gurosky, a district administrator who oversaw federal programs like Title I, performed walkthroughs in the fourth grade classrooms. (Doc. 27-1, ¶¶ 30, 45). According to Ms. Litaker, the second and fourth grade walkthroughs went well, but the third grade walkthroughs did not. (Doc. 27-1, ¶ 31). After one of Ms. Barber and Ms. Stone's walkthroughs in a third grade classroom, a third grade teacher came to Ms. Litaker's office in tears because Ms. Barber and Assistant Principal Stone had verbally attacked the teacher. (Doc. 27-1, ¶ 31).[5] As a result, Ms. Litaker asked to suspend the walkthroughs by administration and proposed to have teachers conduct walkthroughs. (Doc. 27-1, ¶ 32). Ms. Barber and Dr. Dodson disagreed but stopped conducting walkthroughs after Ms. Litaker was removed from Trace Crossings. (Doc. 27-1, ¶ 32).

         In November 2012-less than six months after Mr. Craig and Ms. Litaker executed a principal contract and after giving Ms. Litaker only three months to implement efforts to address low math test scores-Mr. Craig decided to remove Ms. Litaker from the principal position at Trace Crossings. Mr. Craig states that he made the decision because he was concerned about “the direction of the school.” (Doc. 21-4, p. 22). Mr. Craig discussed his decision with Ms. Barber. (Doc. 21-4, p. 22). Mr. Craig decided that Ms. Barber would replace Ms. Litaker because Ms. Barber's “extensive principalship experience” would give the school the best opportunity to restore unity among the faculty, staff, and parents. (Doc. 21-4, p. 23).

         On November 15, 2012, Ms. Barber called Ms. Litaker and asked her to stop by the Central Office. Ms. Litaker arrived at the Central Office some time after 4:00 p.m. and found Ms. Barber in her office. (Doc. 21-1, p. 7). Ms. Barber told Ms. Litaker that Trace Crossings teachers were complaining to Ms. Veal and that good teachers were planning to leave Trace Crossings. (Doc. 21-1, pp. 7-9). Mr. Craig joined the meeting as Ms. Barber made these remarks. Ms. Litaker explained that she was “totally taken off guard” by the remarks because she “had never been talked to, reprimanded, written up about anything related to my faculty.” (Doc. 27-1, p. 7). Ms. Litaker disagreed with Ms. Barber's remarks; she stated that teachers were not planning to leave. (Doc. 21-1, p. 7). Mr. Craig then commented, “Well, I just -- I think it is time for a change.” (Doc. 21-1, p. 8). Mr. Craig told Ms. Litaker that certain individuals were “after” her, including Dr. Smith and a Board member. (Doc. 21-1, pp. 8, 11-12). Ms. Barber told Ms. Litaker that those individuals “can't hurt me. I am going to retire. I can get in there and finish, you know, cleaning it up.” (Doc. 21-1, p. 8). Mr. Craig and Ms. Barber told Ms. Litaker that they were moving Ms. Litaker to “protect [her].” (Doc. 21-1, p. 51). Mr. Craig did not recommend the transfer to the Board, and the Board did not vote on Ms. Litaker's transfer per paragraph 5 of her principal contract. (Doc. 21-1, p. 47); see p. 9, supra. Ms. Litaker agreed to the transfer, and her salary did not change. (Doc. 21-1, p. 45).

         At the November 15 meeting, Ms. Litaker asked Mr. Craig and Ms. Barber what would be said about her transfer. Mr. Craig, Ms. Barber, and Ms. Litaker agreed that Ms. Craig and Ms. Barber would explain that Ms. Litaker had been asking about other jobs in the Central Office, and Ms. Barber had been wanting to move back into a school, hence the transfer. (Doc. 21-1, p. 16; see also Doc. 21-1, pp. 8, 11-12).

         Ms. Litaker was hosting a lunch for the faculty at Trace Crossings the next day. Mr. Craig and Ms. Barber told Ms. Litaker to “send out an email and [] leave the school around 12:30.” (Doc. 21-1, p. 8). Ms. Litaker was to instruct the faculty to meet Mr. Craig and Ms. Barber in the library after school. (Doc. 21-1, p. 8). Ms. Litaker did as she was told. (Doc. 21-1, p. 12).

         Mr. Craig and Ms. Barber initially indicated that they would make Ms. Litaker an assistant principal at Bumpus Middle School. (Doc. 21-1, p. 8). Ms. Litaker responded that an assistant principal position was not acceptable. (Doc. 21-1, p. 8). Mr. Craig told Ms. Litaker that he was “going to make [her] a principal again as quick[ly] as [he could].” (Doc. 21-1, p. 8). Mr. Craig and Ms. Barber agreed that Ms. Litaker would receive paid professional leave through the end of 2012 which would give Ms. Litaker time to work on her doctoral dissertation. (Doc. 21-1, p. 13).

         Ms. Litaker's last official day at Trace Crossings was November 16, 2012. (Doc. 21-1, p. 7). She left before the lunch that she was hosting ended. (Doc. 21-1, p. 12). That afternoon, Ms. Barber sent an email to her distribution list, which included Central Office staff, principals, and administrators. Ms. Litaker was included in the mail. (Doc. 21-1, p. 16). The email reads:

Just to update you on a few changes that are occurring for the district. ..... remember, change is positive!!
Robin Litaker, principal at Trace Crossings, has been talking to us about some different opportunities that are being considered for the Hoover district. Currently, Robin has asked for some time to work on her dissertation and will be taking a few weeks to focus attention on this important task. Robin's assignment to her new position will be finalized when she returns from this professional leave. Meanwhile, I plan to move from my [Central Office] position to fill the principal position at [Trace Crossings]. I will begin at [Trace Crossings] on Monday, Nov. 26; we notified the faculty/staff this afternoon. I will continue to work with [Central Office] responsibilities, operating from the office at [Trace Crossings], until my responsibilities are reassigned or until a suitable replacement to assist with some of the tasks has been identified.
I will not be in B[irming]ham over the Thanksgiving break (family trip) but will be available via email or phone should you have any reason to contact me. I hope everyone has a happy Thanksgiving- spend time with family and above all, join me in ...

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