Carmel Clay Schools win summary judgment on ex-counselor’s claims of discrimination for being Hispanic, gay

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Carmel Clay Schools has been awarded summary judgment on discrimination and retaliation claims filed by a former high school counselor who said she was ultimately terminated for being Hispanic and married to a woman.

The case was brought by Dianna Stringham, who started working as a counselor at Carmel High School in 2014. Stringham identifies as a Hispanic woman and is married to a woman.

According to court documents, within her first weeks of employment, a co-worker told Stringham not to tell anyone she was gay because that “could be trouble for [her].”

For each school year from 2014-2015 to 2018-2019, Stringham received an “effective” or “highly effective” rating on her end-of year evaluations.

Meanwhile, in December 2016, Rachel Cole became the director of counseling and Stringham’s supervisor. Stringham and Cole discussed personal matters, including that Stringham was married to another female employed by Carmel Clay Schools.

Then in April 2020, Cole and Assistant Principal Karen McDaniel witnessed a “steady decline in Stringham’s ability to provide effective and timely counseling services,” so they met with her to discuss their concerns.

For Stringham’s end-of-year evaluation for the 2019-2020 school year, Cole noted concerns with Stringham’s performance. Stringham submitted a rebuttal to the evaluation, and she received a “highly effective” rating for the school year.

Maureen Borto assumed an assistant principal role in the 2020-2021 school year and began drafting an improvement plan for Stringham. Borto worked on the improvement plan with Carmel High School Principal Tom Harmas, McDaniel and Cole and received guidance from Tom Oestreich, Carmel Clay’s assistant superintendent.

In September 2020, Stringham filed a Report of Discrimination and/or Harassment, naming Cole as the person who discriminated against her. She complained of an incident that started in March 2020 and extended to the present, and she reported that she was being targeted because she was a homosexual Hispanic woman.

Oestreich met with Stringham and interviewed every person discussed in her report. Cole denied the allegation, and Oestreich eventually determined no violations of the nondiscrimination and anti-harassment board policy occurred.

The same month, Borto and Cole met with Stringham to review a performance plan, which noted that she had been informed at the previous year-end conference about improvement needs and that her position was in jeopardy. Stringham signed the First Improvement Plan.

After the 2020-2021 school year passed, Borto noted that Stringham’s performance did not improve.

Cole gave Stringham a rating of “needs improvement” in her 2020-2021 evaluation, which Stringham raised concerns about. Oestreich reviewed the evaluation and spoke with Cole, and the rating was moved to “effective” because there wasn’t enough written documentation for a needs improvement rating.

Then in July 2021, a Second Improvement Plan was established between Cole, Borto and Stringham to address specific performance expectations not being met.

Both Borto and Cole submitted artifacts that were documents of their concerns. Cole sent Stringham more than 24 artifacts, and each provided a rating of “improvement necessary” or “ineffective.”

Following a fourth meeting at which Borto and Cole informed Stringham that the Second Improvement Plan would continue, Stringham took a period of medical leave.

In January 2022, Stringham filed a second Report of Discrimination and/or Harassment, again naming Cole. She wrote that she was being targeted and micromanaged after being put on an improvement plan, and that the intolerance and retaliation were extreme.

Stringham also filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Indiana Civil Rights Commission and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging discrimination based on race, sex, national origin, retaliation and hostile work environment.

Stringham also returned to work in January 2022, and she was informed that a Formal Plan of Assistance was extended by Cole and Borto.

At some point that same month, Stringham presented Cole with an application for her mental health license. Stringham wanted Cole to fill out certain forms that Stringham needed for her licensure as a mental health counselor associate and the verification of an internship for the same licensure.

Cole believed it was incorrect to provide certification of an internship and refused to sign the forms.

On Jan. 28, 2022, Stringham approached Cole in her office, and Stringham claimed they had a conversation with no outbursts, though she admitted that she talks passionately and was upset that Cole was being “dismissive and curt.” Cole refused to sign the paperwork and was allegedly raising her voice before Borto entered the room.

Harmas, the principal, preliminarily decided to terminate Stringham’s teaching contract based on her alleged “unprofessional behavior directed towards Cole,” her job performance and just cause within the meaning of Indiana Code § 20-28-7.5-1(b)(6).

Through counsel, Stringham timely requested a private conference with the superintendent to discuss the decision. In March 2022, the superintendent recommended the termination of Stringham’s regular teacher contract based on his review and Stringham’s presentation at the private conference. The board then terminated her employment.

Stringham filed her federal lawsuit that April, alleging employment discrimination and retaliation based on sex, race and national origin, as well as a deprivation of her equal protection and due process rights.

The defendants — Carmel Clay Schools and its board of school trustees — moved for summary judgment, which was granted in part on Thursday.

Beginning with Stringham’s Title VII claims, Indiana Southern District Chief Judge Tanya Walton Pratt determined Stringham waived any hostile work environment claims by failing to respond to the defendants’ argument against such a potential claim. Thus, her Title VII claims are only for discrete acts of discrimination, Pratt ruled.

The judge then found, “The circumstantial evidence Stringham relies upon does not support her discrimination claims or permit the necessary inferences to support her contentions.

“… Stringham’s argument is based upon her disagreement with the work performance assessments she received, including those given by Cole, but this is insufficient to survive summary judgment,” Pratt wrote. “The Court finds that Stringham has failed to meet her employer’s legitimate expectations and, consequently, has failed to establish her prima facie case.

“… Even if Stringham had succeeded in establishing a prima facie case, Defendants have articulated legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for their action based on deficiencies in her performance and the events related to the January 28 incident, supporting a finding that unlawful discrimination was not the cause of the employment action. Thus, Stringham would have to establish that these proffered reasons are pretextual,” the chief judge continued. “She fails to meet this burden under both the direct and indirect methods. The Court’s evaluation of the evidence, presented as a whole and providing all reasonable inferences to Stringham as the non-moving party, convinces it a trier of fact could not conclude that Defendants terminated her for impermissible reasons.”

Turning next to the issue of retaliation, the court noted, “Because a decline in Stringham’s performance began at least several months before Stringham filed her complaint, the decline in her performance evaluation associated with the First Improvement Plan cannot provide circumstantial evidence of retaliatory intent.”

However, as for the Second Improvement Plan, “there is a material questions (sic) of fact concerning the adverse actions taken in January 2022 and whether a causal connection existed. Accordingly, these retaliation claims should be left for the factfinder to resolve and summary judgment is denied on these retaliation claims.”

But the court granted summary judgment to the defendants on Stringham’s retaliation claim related to her termination because “(d)efendants initiated and ultimately terminated Stringham not only because of the unprofessional behavior surrounding the January 28 incident, but also because of her continued errors and job performance while fell below what was expected.”

Stringham also argued that her termination violated her 14th Amendment right to substantive due process.

Rejecting that argument, Pratt wrote, “While she argues vociferously that the decision reached was arbitrary and capricious, she does not otherwise show or argue why Indiana’s Teacher Tenure Act, Ind. Code § 20-28 et seq., or other state statutory or regulatory schemes would not provide adequate remedy.”

Additionally, Stringham had petitioned the court for judicial review of the board’s decision to terminate her teaching contract.

Granting summary judgment to the defendants on that issue, Pratt noted the board determined there were three reasons to cancel the contract: neglect of duty, insubordination, and other good and just cause.

“After a careful review of the detailed ‘Findings of Fact’ and related ‘Conclusions of Law,’ this Court cannot find that the evidence relied on was insufficient to support the Board’s ruling on Stringham’s termination,” Pratt wrote.

Next, the court addressed Stringham’s Equal Protection claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

“For the reasons explained in the discussions of Stringham’s Title VII discrimination and (Administrative Orders and Procedures Act) claims, Stringham cannot prove this element of a prima facie case of discrimination under the equal protection clause,” the chief judge wrote. “Importantly, for purposes of the Court’s substantive Due Process analysis above, Stringham does not delineate her Equal Protection Clause claim in her brief in opposition to summary judgment, and thus the claim is deemed abandoned.”

Finally, the court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment on Stringham’s claims under the Indiana Constitution.

“The judges of this district have consistently refused to recognize an implied right of action under the Indiana Constitution,” Pratt concluded. “… Accordingly, the Court grants Defendants’ motion for summary judgment on Stringham’s claims for damages under the Indiana Constitution alleged in Count I of her Amended Complaint.”

As a separate issue, Pratt addressed — and rejected — Stringham’s request for leave to file surreply.

“In sum, the Court determines that Defendants’ reply brief did not inject new evidence, arguments, or issues,” the judge wrote. “Instead, the reply brief provides Defendants’ rebuttal to arguments Stringham advanced in her response brief.”

The claims for race, national origin and sex retaliation related to the Second Improvement Plan are the only ones that may proceed to trial or settlement in Dianna Stringham v. Carmel Clay Schools, Board of School Trustees of Carmel Clay Schools, 1:22-cv-817.

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