Judge: Former school administrator not discriminated against when reassigned to teaching position

A central Indiana school corporation has won summary judgment against a former administrator who claimed she was discriminated against when she was reassigned to a teaching position.

In July 2017, Bruce Hibbard became superintendent of Franklin Township Community Schools. The interim superintendent who preceded Hibbard provided the school board with an exit report, recommending the new superintendent analyze structural and personnel issues and make a change through which student issues were no longer handled by Assistant Superintendent of Personnel Martha C. Johnson.

Prior to her removal, Hibbard received consistent feedback that Johnson was incompetent, unapproachable, a poor communicator and failed to return phone calls or emails. Likewise, school principals informed Hibbard that they did not trust Johnson, and he also received feedback that teachers neither liked nor trusted Johnson and viewed her as incompetent, particularly in her curriculum role.

Hibbard’s observations and interactions with Johnson confirmed the negative reports he received from staff.

Based on the substantial amount of criticism of Johnson and Hibbard’s own interactions with her, Hibbard decided that including Johnson on the central office administrative team would be neither functional nor helpful to the schools. Thus, in December 2017, Hibbard proposed to the school board an organizational restructuring, including removing Johnson from her administrative position.

The board did not ask Hibbard for the reasons for his reorganization personnel decisions, and he did not disclose those reasons. The board unanimously voted to approve the reorganization, including giving Hibbard authority to offer Johnson a severance and not renew her administrative contract.

Johnson declined the severance, so she received her administrator pay and benefits through the end of her administrative contract in June 2018. That February, she was offered a special education position at the high school, which she initially declined due to a broken arm.

The school responded by sending Johnson paperwork for the Family and Medical Leave Act and for an accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Johnson never returned any of the paperwork, so the school followed up, directing her to return to work and attempting to work with her to find an open position that would meet her needs given her broken arm.

Johnson ultimately accepted the special education teacher position initially offered, and she admitted that the school accommodated her restrictions and granted her placement request. She remains a teacher at the high school.

In her lawsuit, Johnson alleged sex and disability discrimination and retaliation by her employer in violation of Title VII and the ADA.

The Indiana Southern District used the framework in McDonnell Douglas v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973), to analyze, and ultimately reject, the sexual discrimination claims.

“Johnson has not presented evidence to suggest that the School’s legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for removing from her administrative position, offering severance, not renewing her administrative contract, demoting her to a teaching position, or placing her on administrative leave are pretextual,” Judge James R. Sweeney II opined.

Johnson also failed to convince the court on the failure-to-accommodate claim, as she admitted the school accommodated her restrictions and granted her placement request.

Finally, the court found Johnson’s retaliation claims couldn’t survive summary judgment under either approach of Williams v. Bd. of Educ. of City of Chi., 982 F.3d 495, 508 (7th Cir. 2020).

The case is Martha C. Johnson v. Franklin Township Community School Corporation, 1:19-cv-02479.

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