School district loses summary judgment on former sub’s discrimination, retaliation claims

A southeastern Indiana school district must face a former female employee’s discrimination and retaliation claims after a federal judge denied the school’s summary judgment motion.

Since 2005, plaintiff Ashley Embleton was periodically employed with Sunman-Dearborn Community Schools, most often as a substitute teacher or instructional aide but also for long-term positions on three separate occasions.

In 2018, Embleton applied for a long-term substitute teacher position at Bright Elementary School in Lawrenceburg that was scheduled to start in January 2019 and run through March of that year.

Bright’s principal, Kelly Roth, interviewed Embleton and the only other applicant, Zach Strub, for the position. Embleton claimed she took notes during her interview and recalled Roth expressing that she wished to hire a man for the position and that she wanted more men in the building.

Roth denied making such comments, but she reported Embleton’s accusations to Superintendent Andrew Jackson soon after.

At the time of her application, Embleton was filling a long-term substitute teacher position at East Central Middle School where Matthew Maple was principal. Strub had also taught at East Central as a student-teacher while he was finishing his bachelor’s degree in education. Maple was familiar with both Embleton and Strub’s teaching performance, and Roth said she contacted Maple for references.

Maple gave a strong recommendation for Strub but said he had some concerns about Embleton’s ability to maintain positive relationships based on a parent-teacher meeting he facilitated with her.

Roth recommended Strub for the position at Bright and the school hired him. The principal said she had concerns about Embleton, beyond Maple’s input, based on complaints that she didn’t follow substitute lesson plans and had conflicts with other staff members. Roth also said she witnessed conflict between Embleton and other staff members.

But others had heard Roth express preference for finding a male candidate to fill the long-term substitute role, according to court documents.

After her interview, Embleton told her mother, Rebecca Lail, about Roth’s alleged comments. Lail also a teacher at Bright, testified that she attended a long-term feasibility study in October or November 2018, where someone asked what the school would ask for if it had a wish list. Lail testified that Roth responded, “I need a man. Can you get me a man? … We need a man in this building. We have no men, except [the custodian].”

Another teacher at Bright, Chris Vennemeier, attested to hearing the same comments from Roth.

In November 2018, Vennemeier said Roth asked her in passing if she would reach out to Norb Goessling, the former male principal at Bright, to see if he would be interested in the position. Vennemeier recalled Roth remarking that she “needed men in the building.”

Meanwhile, Maple held a parent-teacher meeting in December 2018 because the parent of a student in Embleton’s class reached out regarding concerns about Embleton. Within a day or two of the meeting, Maple told Jackson and Mary Ann Baines, the director of financial operations, about his concerns regarding Embleton’s conduct during the meeting, and soon after Jackson directed Baines to remove Embleton from the list of individuals available for day-to-day substitute assignments.

In Ashley Embleton v. Sunman-Dearborn Community Schools, 4:19-cv-262, Embleton claimed her rights under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act were violated when she was not chosen for the open position and taken off the day-to-day substitute list.

At the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, New Albany Division, the school unsuccessfully sought summary judgment.

“A reasonable jury could find that the school didn’t hire Ms. Embleton because of her gender if the jury believed that Mrs. Roth made the alleged comments,” Senior Judge Robert L. Miller, sitting in the Indiana Southern District Court, wrote. “The School’s evidence that Mrs. Roth had a non-discriminatory reason for recommending Mr. Strub over Ms. Embleton isn’t enough to support a finding that no reasonable juror could find in Ms. Embleton’s favor.

“… A jury would be free to credit the School’s evidence that Ms. Embleton wouldn’t have been hired even if she were a man, but it isn’t strong enough to warrant summary judgment, especially considering Ms. Embleton’s evidence in rebuttal,” Miller continued.

The court also denied summary judgment on Embleton’s retaliation claim, citing the timeline of events.

“Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Ms. Embleton, a reasonable jury could find that it was Ms. Embleton’s complaint to Mrs. Roth that caused Dr. Jackson to remove Ms. Embleton from the substitute teacher list, not Dr. Maple’s report,” Miller wrote.

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