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Powell v. Valdosta City School District

United States District Court, M.D. Georgia, Valdosta Division

November 6, 2014

VALDOSTA CITY SCHOOL DISTRICT, SUPERINTENDENT DR. WILLIAM O. CASON, Individually and in his Official Capacity, PRINCIPAL JOHN L. DAVIS, and MS. KATIE L. CHAPPUS, Individually and in her Official Capacity, Defendants.


HUGH LAWSON, Senior District Judge.

Before the Court are Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 27) and Daubert Motion to Exclude the Testimony of Angela Delvin-Brown (Doc. 26). The Court held a hearing on these motions on September 17, 2014. For the reasons stated below, the Daubert motion is granted in part and denied in part, and the motion for summary judgment is granted in part and denied in part.

I. Motion for Summary Judgment

A. Summary Judgment Standard

Summary judgment is appropriate when "the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and... the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); see Celotex Corp. v. Catrett , 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). A genuine issue of material fact arises only when "the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc. , 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). The court must evaluate all of the evidence, together with any logical inferences, in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Id . at 254-55. The court may not, however, make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence. Id . at 255; see also Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc. , 530 U.S. 133, 150, 120 S.Ct. 2097, 147 L.Ed.2d 105 (2000).

The party seeking summary judgment "always bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of a material fact." Celotex , 477 U.S. at 323 (internal quotation omitted). If the movant meets this burden, the burden shifts to the party opposing summary judgment to go beyond the pleadings and present specific evidence showing that there is a genuine issue of material fact, or that the movant is not entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Id . at 324-26. This evidence must consist of more than conclusory allegations. See Avirgan v. Hull , 932 F.2d 1572, 1577 (11th Cir. 1991). Summary judgment must be entered "against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex , 477 U.S. at 322.

B. Factual Summary

This case arises from the decision in March 2012 not to renew Plaintiff Shadawn Powell's contract as a special education teacher at S. L. Mason Elementary School ("Mason Elementary School") in the Valdosta City School District ("the School District"). Plaintiff Shadawn Powell ("Plaintiff") first began teaching at Mason Elementary School in the 2009-2010 school year, and she remained at the school until the non-renewal decision. During these years, Defendant William Cason ("Superintendent Cason") was the superintendent of the School District, Defendant John Davis ("Principal Davis") was the principal at Mason Elementary School, and Defendant Katie Chappuis ("Chappuis") and Francisco Diaz ("Diaz") were the assistant principals at the school. The principal and assistant principals were Plaintiff's supervisors. (Defendants' Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ("DSMF"), Doc. 28, ¶¶1-3).

Prior to November 1, 2011, Plaintiff's supervisors perceived her teaching performance as satisfactory, but beginning around that date Plaintiff repeatedly came into conflict with the school's administrators. (Id. at ¶¶5-7; Deposition of Principal John Davis, Doc. 41-3, p. 152). In late October 2011, Plaintiff reported to her supervisors and others what she believed was a case of student neglect after observing another teacher tending A. D., a young, female student who was crying and whose vaginal and rectal areas were bloody and unclean. On November 1, 2011, Plaintiff reported signs of biting insects, which were possibly fleas, in A. D.'s hair. Soon after this report, Principal Davis confronted Plaintiff and, visibly upset, told her to stop making reports of suspected abuse or neglect to the school counselor and to report such cases only to him. (Ex. 7 to depositions, Doc. 42-1; Declaration of Plaintiff, Ex. 5 to Plaintiff's Response to DSMF, Doc. 32-3, ¶10; Declaration of Alexis Smith Hughes, Ex. 4 to Plaintiff's Response to DSMF, Doc. 32-3, ¶6). Davis also told Chappuis about A. D.'s bleeding. (Deposition of Katie Chappuis, Doc. 41-4, pp. 123-26).

During the 2011-2012 school year, state law required teachers at Mason Elementary School who had "reasonable cause to believe that a child ha[d] been abused [to] report... that abuse" and to "notify the person in charge of the facility, or the designated delegate thereof." O.C.G.A. §§ 19-7-5(c)(1)-(2) (2011). This legal duty was also set out in the School District's policy and the protocols in place at the Mason Elementary School. (Board Policy on Child Abuse or Neglect, Ex. 6 to depositions, Doc. 42-1; Child Abuse Reporting Protocol, Ex. 32 to depositions, Doc. 42-3; Davis Depo., pp. 79-83). Principal Davis was the person in charge of the elementary school, and he had designated a number of individuals as persons to whom abuse reports could be made, including the assistant principals, the school's nurse, and the school's counselor. Georgia law requires that once a report of abuse is made to a principal or a designated delegate, then the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services ("DFCS") must be notified of the report. (Id. at 73-78, 82). The School District mandated that the school administrator or the reporter also immediately notify the school's counselor and social worker, who would report the suspected abuse to DFCS. (Child Abuse Reporting Protocol).

After being corrected by Principal Davis, Plaintiff also received a formal written warning from Assistant Principal Diaz on November 15, 2011 for being late to her duty station. Although Chappuis was the assistant principal responsible for supervising Plaintiff's teaching during the 2011-2012 school year, Diaz supervised Plaintiff in her non-teaching duties, which involved monitoring a particular hall when students arrived in the morning and required her to be at her post at 7:40. (Deposition of Plaintiff, Doc. 41-1, pp. 43, 52-54). On November 15, Diaz issued the warning to Plaintiff for being tardy to her post and failing to let her assigned contact person at the school know that she would be late. Diaz informed Plaintiff of the reasons for the warning and said that he would leave the warning in her box for her signature and any comments she might have. (Warning, Ex. 21A to depositions, Doc. 42-1; Plaintiff's 11/17/11 Memo, Ex. 21G to depositions, Bates-stamped D 511, Doc. 42-1; Plaintiff's 12/1/11 Email, Ex. 21K to depositions, Bates-stamped D 509, Doc. 42-1). On the form, Diaz had indicated that this was her second warning for tardiness. The warning notice had a place for Plaintiff to mark whether she agreed or disagreed with Diaz's description of her behavior, and it had a signature line showing that she had read and understood the warning notice. Because this was the first warning Plaintiff had received that school year, she delayed on signing the document until she could speak with a representative from the teachers' union. (Plaintiff Depo., pp. 110-13, 120-22; Plaintiff Declar., ¶11).

On November 17, Diaz entered Plaintiff's classroom and demanded that she immediately sign the warning notice. When Plaintiff said that she did not have time to discuss the warning because she was in the middle of preparing to meet with students' parents concerning Individualized Education Plans ("IEPs") for the students, Diaz became irate, raised his voice, and threatened to force her to sign and return the form by the end of the day, saying that she could attach any comments later. Plaintiff insisted that she would only sign the form when she was prepared to attach her comments. (Id.; Hughes Declar., ¶¶7-8).

Diaz informed Davis and Chappuis of this conversation. On November 30, 2011, Diaz emailed Plaintiff, copying Davis and Chappuis on the email, informing her that on that day he had placed the warning in her personnel file with "refusal to sign" written on the form. In the email, Diaz wrote that on November 15 he had placed the warning in Plaintiff's box and that he had told her she had five days in which to attach comments to the warning. He wrote that on "November 16th, 2011" he had requested Plaintiff to return the warning with her signature. According to Diaz, Plaintiff had persisted in refusing to do so because she did not want to sign the form until she could submit her comments, even though Diaz reminded her that she had five days in which to attach them. (Diaz's 11/30/11 Email, Ex. 21J to depositions, Bates-stamped D 511, Doc. 42-1).

The next day, December 1, 2011, Plaintiff replied to Diaz's email, copying Davis and Chappuis on her response. She denied that on November 15 Diaz had told her that she had five days to add comments to the warning. She also corrected him by noting, accurately, that their conversation in her classroom had occurred on November 17. More importantly, she described Diaz as having acted "in a very unprofessional manner, " raised his voice, engaged in an "unprofessional tirade, " and demanded that she "sign a statement that was factually incorrect." Plaintiff wrote that her students, her teaching assistants, and a college intern were present during Diaz's outburst. (Plaintiff's 12/1/11 Email). Davis never investigated the incident. (Davis Depo., pp. 192-94). Under the School District's policies, a principal should investigate a teacher's complaints that an assistant principal behaved in such an unprofessional, disrespectful manner as Diaz did. (Deposition of William Cason, Doc. 41-2, pp. 29-40; Deposition of Sheila (Mason) Lawson, Doc. 41-5, pp. 61-66).

Under the evaluation method used by the School District for the 2011-2012 school year, school administrators were required to conduct at least three formal, unannounced observations of all teachers who had less than three years of teaching experience. (GTEP Evaluation Manual, Ex. 24-25 to depositions, Doc. 42-2, p. 5; Cason Depo., pp. 77-79). At that time, the School District was using the Georgia Teacher Observation Instrument ("GTOI") to assess teachers' classroom performances and the Georgia Teacher Evaluation Program ("GTEP") for the annual evaluations of the teachers. (Id. at 8, 17, 40-44). These tools were used to appraise both regular and special education teachers. Under the GTOI, before observing a teacher an administrator was required to be fully informed and prepared so that the teaching performance could be fairly critiqued in light of the teacher's objectives. (Lawson Depo., pp. 16-20). One aspect of assessing special education instructors was determining whether their students were progressing in the students' individual education programs, or IEPs. (Cason Depo., pp. 48-50). To ensure a fair outcome under the GTOI and the GTEP, the teachers had the right to unbiased observations and evaluations. (Id. at 78).

On December 7, 2011, Chappuis conducted a formal, unannounced observation of Plaintiff's teaching. Prior to observing Plaintiff, Chappuis did not review all of the IEPs for Plaintiff's students, so the assistant principal did not know what the goals and objectives of Plaintiff's teaching were on the day of the observation. (Chappuis Depo., pp. 13-31, 141-46). Out of the eleven categories on the evaluation form used by Chappuis for the observation, she rated Plaintiff as needing improvement in three areas: instructional level, building for transfer, and use of time. (12/7/11 Observation, Ex. 9 to depositions, Doc. 42-1).

After this observation, Plaintiff continued reporting possible abuse of her students. On January 2, 2012, Plaintiff told Chappuis and the school nurse that A.D. had fleas in her hair and emitted a strong smell of animals. Some ten days later, Plaintiff reported to Chappuis and the nurse that a different student, C. T., exhibited a protruding abdomen, yellowish-brown coloration of the skin, and watery stools. (Attachment C to Plaintiff's Responses to Defendants' Interrogatories, Ex. 1 to Plaintiff's Response to DSMF, Doc. 32-2; Plaintiff Declar., ¶15).

On February 1, 2012, Diaz conducted another formal observation of Plaintiff. (2/1/12 Observation, Ex. 10 to depositions, Doc. 42-1). From the beginning of the 2011-2012 school year until this observation, Diaz had reviewed some of the IEPs for Plaintiff's students, but there is no evidence that he reviewed the IEPs specifically in preparation for observing Plaintiff. (Deposition of Francisco Diaz, Doc. 41-7, pp. 23-27). Diaz noted on the evaluation form that Plaintiff needed improvement in three areas: instructional level, building for transfer, and supporting students. Thus, Plaintiff had a total of six "needs improvement" assessments from her first two observations in the 2011-2012 school year. (Davis Depo., pp. 212-13).

The School District's teacher evaluation program required that a school attempt to remediate a teacher's deficiencies if she received five or more "needs improvement" ratings in a particular school year. The school administration had to place the teacher into an extended phase evaluation process to further scrutinize her performance. The evaluation policy directed administrators to hold a conference with the teacher and attempt to craft a professional development plan that would improve the teacher's work. (GTEP Evaluation Manual, p. 9; Cason Depo., pp. 73-78, 89-90; Lawson Depo., pp. 20-25; Davis Depo., pp. 212-15;). Despite the policy's clear guidelines, Plaintiff was never placed on an extended phase evaluation, a remediation conference was never held, and she was not offered a professional development plan. (Id. at 204-06, 213-16).

In December 2011 and on January 20, 2012, Diaz gave Principal Davis memoranda claiming that he had video recordings from the school's security cameras showing that Plaintiff was late to her duty station on December 6, January 18, and January 19. The memorandum relating to December 6 states that the "video clip has a three minute delay from actual school time." (December 2011 Memo, Ex. 21L to depositions, Bates-stamped D 508, Doc. 42-1; 1/20/12 Memo, Ex. 21N to depositions, Bates-stamped D 506, Doc. 42-1; Diaz Depo., pp. 214-19). Plaintiff did not learn about Diaz's memoranda or the video recordings until after the non-renewal decision. She denies that she was late on the dates in question, contends that the time on the recordings from the security camera was faster than the school's clock, and provides evidence that the woman in some of the videos was her sister, who also worked at the school.[1] (Plaintiff Declar., ¶14; Declaration of LaShaundra ...

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