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Lima v. City of East Providence

United States District Court, D. Rhode Island

December 11, 2019

NADINE E. LIMA, Plaintiff,
CITY OF EAST PROVIDENCE, by and through its Finance Director, Malcom Moore, and CITY OF EAST PROVIDENCE SCHOOL DEPARTMENT, by and through its Superintendent, individually and in her official capacity, KATHRYN CROWLEY, Defendants.



         In 2014, Plaintiff Nadine E. Lima, a long-time East Providence elementary school principal, sued the East Providence School Department and its then-Superintendent, Kim Mercer, alleging that, as an African American, she had been denied promotion due to race discrimination and due to East Providence's failure to comply with the contractual requirement that it have an affirmative action officer and an affirmative action committee. Lima v. East Providence, C.A. 14-513ML (D.R.I.) (“2014 Case”). The 2014 Case settled in November 2015 pursuant to an agreement that included, inter alia, the contractual requirements that the School Department would provide a statement of intent not to retaliate against Plaintiff and that it would create an affirmative action position.

         When Plaintiff returned to full-time work in January 2016 following a leave pursuant to the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), the East Providence School District had just started a new Superintendent (Defendant Kathryn Crowley), supported by a new team of senior leaders, including a new assistant superintendent/affirmative action officer, Dr. Celeste Bowler, an African American woman with four years of experience as an affirmative action officer in a Massachusetts school district. After her return, Plaintiff took umbrage at various actions taken by the new leadership team (including a substandard review of Plaintiff's job performance), which culminated in the Department's decision to transfer Plaintiff from her position as principal of an elementary school to a newly created position as principal of the to-be-launched Pre-Kindergarten (“Pre-K”) program for the School Department. In June 2016, Plaintiff took a new FMLA leave and in August 2016, she resigned and moved to Florida.

         In April 2017, Plaintiff filed this case. This time she named as defendants Superintendent Crowley, individually and in her official capacity, the City of East Providence and its School Department. The gravamen of the new case is that, improperly animated by the 2014 Case, her FMLA leaves and her race, the School Department and Superintendent Crowley retaliated against Plaintiff by taking various adverse employment actions and creating a hostile work environment (resulting in her constructive discharge); she also alleges that the retaliation and the appointment of Dr. Bowler as the affirmative action officer are both in breach of the 2015 Settlement Agreement that terminated the 2014 Case.

         After the parties concluded discovery, Defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing that the facts are largely undisputed and do not sustain Plaintiff's burden of demonstrating a trial-worthy prima facie case in that there is no evidence that she was subjected to any adverse employment actions, as well as that Plaintiff has presented no rebuttal to the proof demonstrating that all of the challenged actions were taken for legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons. Defendants also ask for summary judgment on Plaintiff's breach of contract claims because her evidence not only fails to demonstrate any actions amounting to retaliation but also establishes that the School Department complied with its contractual duty in appointing Dr. Bowler as affirmative action officer. Defendants' motion for summary judgment has been referred to me pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). For the reasons that follow, I recommend that it be granted.

         I. BACKGROUND[1]

         From August 2000 until August 2016, Plaintiff was a principal for the East Providence School District. PSUF ¶ 21.[2] Since the 2012-2013 school year, when not on FMLA leave, she was principal of the Whiteknact Elementary School (“Whiteknact”). ECF No. 14-1 at 6 ¶ 4; see ECF No. 22-3 at 7-8. On August 2, 2016, Plaintiff resigned; she alleges that she was constructively discharged. DSUF ¶ 46.

         2014 Case.

         On November 17, 2014, Plaintiff filed the 2014 Case in Providence County Superior Court against East Providence, its School District and its then-Superintendent, Kim Mercer; Defendants removed the case to this Court. In the 2014 Case, Plaintiff alleged that, in 1990, she had applied for various positions in the East Providence School Department but was not hired. Based on a charge filed with the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights, her allegations of discriminatory hiring resulted in a 1994 reconciliation agreement requiring East Providence not to retaliate against her, to appoint an affirmative action officer, to use specified hiring procedures and to maintain an affirmative action committee to monitor an affirmative action plan. ECF No. 14-1 at 6-7 ¶¶ 9-10. According to the 2014 Case complaint, almost twenty-five years later, in 2013, Plaintiff again applied for various School Department positions (including superintendent) and East Providence failed to follow the procedures required by the 1994 reconciliation agreement and also discriminated against Plaintiff by giving her a substandard evaluation during the 2012-2013 school year and by placing a higher percentage of children with disabilities at her school than at any other elementary school in East Providence. Id. at 7-9 ¶¶ 11, 13-20, 23, 26-28.

         2015 Settlement Agreement.

         In November 2015, Plaintiff settled the 2014 Case through the execution of two documents. First, on November 15, 2015, Plaintiff and East Providence entered into a Settlement Agreement (“2015 Settlement Agreement”). DSUF ¶ 6. Under the 2015 Settlement Agreement, the School Department agreed to pay Plaintiff a sum of money, to “create and fund an affirmative action position with duties and responsibilities similar to the current affirmative action officer for the City of East Providence” and to “fill that position using good governmental practices in light of the current ordinances, affirmative action plan and town charter.” ECF No. 14-1 at 15 ¶¶ 2-3; DSUF ¶ 7. The 2015 Settlement Agreement included the provision that the City and School Department would “provide a joint statement to plaintiff that there will be no retaliation for bringing plaintiff's suit.” ECF No. 14-1 at 15 ¶ 6; DSUF ¶ 7. Second, the parties executed a document titled “Full and Final Release of All Claims” (“Release”), which released all known and unknown claims that were the “subject matter” of the 2014 Case. ECF No. 14-1 at 2-3; DSUF ¶ 8. The Release was executed on December 8, 2015; it terminated all of Plaintiff's claims in the 2014 Case, including those based on the number of disabled children placed at Whiteknact and Plaintiff's substandard review. DSUF ¶ 8 & ECF No. 14-1 at 2.

         First FMLA Leave.

         While the 2014 Case was pending, in June 2015, Plaintiff began a leave pursuant to the FMLA. PSUF ¶ 39. She took the FMLA leave because the anxiety caused by the 2014 Case prevented her from working full days. Id. ¶¶ 40-41; DSUF ¶ 12. She worked part-time from August 2015 through the end of 2015. DSUF ¶ 12. In January 2016, with the 2014 Case resolved, she resumed her full-time position as principal of Whiteknact. PSUF ¶ 39.

         East Providence Leadership Change.

         While Plaintiff was out and then working part-time on FMLA leave, the East Providence School District underwent a complete leadership change. DSUF ¶¶ 9-20. First, on December 15, 2015, Defendant Kathryn Crowley was hired to be the new superintendent of the district; she started immediately on a part-time basis and became fulltime in January 2016. Id. ¶¶ 9, 11. Meanwhile, Dr. Sandra Forand had been appointed assistant superintendent in November 2015.[3] PSUF ¶ 25. And Dr. Celeste Bowler was hired to be the second assistant superintendent in January 2016 with responsibility for oversight of elementary schools; also in January 2016, Dr. Bowler was assigned to fill the newly created position of affirmative action officer for the School Department. DSUF ¶¶ 17, 19. Dr. Bowler is an African American woman who came to East Providence from a school district in Massachusetts, where, among other duties, she had served for four years as the district's affirmative action officer. Id. ¶ 20.

         First Interaction with Superintendent Crowley.

         Plaintiff had her first meeting with Superintendent Crowley during December 2015. It was a positive interaction. Plaintiff avers that, “[i]n the beginning of her tenure, Crowley was collegial by asking me to serve on a hiring committee, and she sent David Britto as a support system for the Whiteknact students with special needs.” ECF No. 22-1 at 27-28. During this meeting, Superintendent Crowley told Plaintiff that “she had wanted to bump up [Plaintiff's] pay to be commensurate with other districts”; she solicited Plaintiff's ideas on who should be her assistant principal (they agreed it should be Britto); and she asked if she could send (and did send) one of her graduate students to be mentored by Plaintiff. Id. at 28-29. However, soon after this first meeting, the incidents that Plaintiff labels as harassing and retaliatory began.

         Elmer Pina Question and Appointment of Dr. Bowler as Affirmative Action Officer.

         The next interaction between Plaintiff and Superintendent Crowley, on January 5, 2016, disturbed Plaintiff. Specifically, Superintendent Crowley asked Plaintiff why Elmer Pina, [4] who is the affirmative action officer for the City of East Providence, could not also serve as School Department's affirmative action officer. PSUF ¶ 3. Plaintiff answered that it was part of their agreement and asked her to consult with the School Department lawyers. Id. Soon after, Dr. Bowler, who had also just started work in East Providence, was given the additional assignment to act as the School Department's affirmative action officer; however, Dr. Bowler had not been hired to fill the role, was not paid extra to perform the duties and, at her deposition, did not recall what the job description stated. DSUF ¶¶ 17-19; PSUF ¶¶ 23-24, 35. On January 19, 2016, Dr. Bowler sent out a district-wide email announcing that she would be serving “as the district's Affirmative Action and Civil Rights Officer.” PSUF ¶ 5. Plaintiff believed this was a breach of the 2015 Settlement Agreement and that it was done to retaliate against her for entering into the 2015 Settlement Agreement. PSUF ¶ 32.

         Rug and Wall Divider.

         Soon after she was asked whether Elmer Pina could serve as affirmative action officer, on January 15, 2016, Plaintiff asked for a rug and wall divider for a special needs class. Plaintiff felt she needed these items to properly educate students in the special needs classrooms. Superintendent Crowley denied the request. Id. ¶ 4. Superintendent Crowley's response to Plaintiff's inquiry regarding why her request was rejected is undisputed:

I am not a proponent of dividers in a room. I think they are a detriment to supervision. The rug was very expensive but if you feel a classroom really needs the rug send a rationale.

ECF No. 23-1 at 2. Plaintiff has presented no evidence regarding any follow-up to this communication.

         Too Many Special Needs Students.

         As the principal of Whiteknact during the 2015-2016 school year, Plaintiff was responsible for four specialized classrooms for students with disabilities or special needs. PSUF ¶ 17. Plaintiff believes (and Defendants dispute) that the percentage of students with special needs at her school increased in the 2015-2016 school year, comprising 20% to 21% of the total students, while only 16% of the students at the next closest elementary school had special needs. Id. ¶¶ 18-20. There is no evidence that a surge of disabled students was transferred to Whiteknact after Plaintiff resumed her duties as its principal; to the contrary, Plaintiff's pleading in the 2014 Case establishes that the higher percentage of disabled students at Whiteknact was a long-standing issue. ECF No. 22-1 ¶¶ 26-28. The parties do not dispute that, after her first meeting with Plaintiff, Superintendent Crowley sent David Britto as a support system for the Whiteknact students with special needs. Id. at 28; DSUF ¶ 21. (“We agreed on David Britto.”).

         Mishandling of Substitute Teacher.

         On March 1, 2016, Dr. Bowler questioned Plaintiff's determination that a substitute teacher, who Plaintiff believed was not following the curriculum, should be removed from her position. Dr. Bowler met with the substitute teacher and Plaintiff, following which Dr. Bowler met with the substitute teacher alone. PSUF ¶ 6. As a result of Dr. Bowler's meeting, the substitute teacher stopped working at Whiteknact; Plaintiff claims that Dr. Bowler's handling of the ...

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