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Willard v. Friendswood ISD

United States District Court, S.D. Texas, Galveston Division

December 12, 2019

RACHEL WILLARD, Plaintiff.
v.
FRIENDSWOOD ISD, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND RECOMMENDATION

          ANDREW M. EDISON UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Pending before me is Friendswood Independent School District's Motion for Summary Judgment (“Motion for Summary Judgment”). See Dkt. 29. After reviewing the summary judgment briefing, analyzing the relevant case law, and hearing oral argument, I recommend that the Motion for Summary Judgment be GRANTED.

         FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Rachel Willard (“Willard”) began working for Defendant Friendswood Independent School District (“FISD”) in 2014 as a first-grade teacher at Westwood Elementary School. In early January 2016, Willard requested and took leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act after her 14-year old son committed suicide.

         On March 21, 2016, Willard returned to work. She was eager to be back in the classroom because working with the kids helped her deal with her intense grief. Upon returning from leave, Willard maintains that she did her “job well and received no complaints.” Dkt. 32-2 at 1. A fellow teacher, however, observed Willard “struggling with maintaining her job duties in the classroom and providing students with the requisite attention and instruction necessary for their success.” Dkt. 29-1 at 90. The same teacher reported that “[a]fter her son's suicide, Ms. Willard often times appeared emotionally distraught and disconnected from the classroom environment.” Id.

         On May 2, 2016, Westwood Elementary School Principal Kristin Moffitt (“Principal Moffitt”) and FISD Superintendent Trish Hanks (“Superintendent Hanks”) requested a meeting with Willard to discuss her work performance. At the meeting, Principal Moffit and Superintendent Hanks expressed their concern that Willard “needed more time to heal” and that she had received “too much assistance from other teachers.” Dkt. 32-2 at 2. Concerned about Willard's ability to effectively perform her role as a first-grade teacher, Superintendent Hanks offered Willard a position as a paraprofessional for the next school year. It was an at-will job that did not require Willard to sign a written contract. According to Superintendent Hanks,

[By accepting the paraprofessional position, ] Ms. Willard could continue working with students and remain at Westwood Elementary where she was comfortable. I further explained to Ms. Willard that she would need to resign from her teaching contract; otherwise, I would have to recommend to the FISD board of trustees that it take action to terminate Ms. Willard's contract to prevent it from automatically renewing for the following year pursuant to state law. Ms. Willard did not voice any opposition to this plan.

Dkt. 29-1 at 82.

         The following day, on May 3, 2016, Willard went to FISD's central office and met with Assistant Superintendent Thad Rohr (“Assistant Superintendent Rohr”). Willard inquired about signing a teaching contract for the following school year. This came as quite a surprise to Assistant Superintendent Rohr because Superintendent Hanks had informed him the day before that Willard would be resigning from her teaching post and accepting the paraprofessional position. Willard explained to Assistant Superintendent Rohr that she was not resigning from her current position because she wanted to continue teaching. Assistant Superintendent Rohr told Willard that if she did not resign from her teaching job and accept the paraprofessional position by May 4, 2019, her teaching contract would be recommended for termination, possibly leaving her without employment at Westwood Elementary School.

         On May 4, 2016, Principal Moffitt arranged a meeting between Willard, Assistant Superintendent Rohr, and herself at the Westwood Elementary School campus to discuss whether Willard intended to submit her resignation. Prior to the scheduled meeting, Willard approached Principal Moffitt in the hallway and stated that she was not signing anything suggesting that she could not perform her duties. As a result of this encounter, Assistant Superintendent Rohr decided to meet alone with Willard in her classroom after school ended. In those discussions, Assistant Superintendent Rohr asked Willard if she was going to resign her contract and take the paraprofessional position. When Willard said she was not resigning, Assistant Superintendent Rohr informed her that Superintendent Hanks would have to recommend her termination to the FISD Board of Trustees.

         Superintendent Hanks did recommend the termination of Willard's teaching contract to the FISD Board of Trustees. At its May 9, 2019 meeting, the FISD Board of Trustees considered the recommendation but tabled any action to terminate Willard's employment contract. After that FISD Board of Trustees meeting, Superintendent Hanks and Principal Moffitt decided to renew Willard's teaching contract and re-assign her to co- teach in a Pre-K inclusion program for the 2016-2017 school year. To this end, FISD administrators sent Willard an employment contract for 2016-2017. That employment contract required Willard to sign and return the contract by May 24, 2016 or she would “be deemed to have resigned . . . at the end of [her] existing contract term.” Dkt. 29-2 at 36. Willard never signed and returned the contract. Nonetheless, on June 13, 2016, the FISD Board of Trustees went ahead and voted to renew Willard's employment contract. On July 8, 2016, Willard submitted a written resignation, stating: “[T]o the extent that anyone thinks I do have [a valid] contract [with FISD], I am giving my notice of resignation.” Dkt. 29-1 at 79.

         Willard filed this lawsuit against FISD for retaliation, discrimination, and a hostile work environment in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq. I dismissed the retaliation claim at the Rule 12(b)(6) stage for failure to state a claim. See Willard v. Friendswood Indep. Sch. Dist., No. 3:18-CV-00233, 2019 WL 2906294 (S.D. Tex. June 11, 2019). FISD has now moved for summary judgment on the remaining hostile work environment and discrimination claims.

         SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c) mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to the party's claim. Put another way, “[s]ummary judgment is proper when there is no genuine dispute of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Coleman v. United States, 912 F.3d 824, 828 (5th Cir. 2019). A fact issue is material “only if its resolution could affect the outcome of the action.” Manning v. Chevron Chem. Co., LLC, 332 F.3d 874, 877 (5th Cir. 2003) (quotation marks and citation omitted). When deciding whether a fact ...


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