United States District Court, D. Rhode Island
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.
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
PATRICIA A. SULLIVAN, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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.
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.
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.
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.
August 2000 until August 2016, Plaintiff was a principal for
the East Providence School District. PSUF ¶
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.
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.
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.
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.
Providence Leadership Change.
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. 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.
Interaction with Superintendent Crowley.
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.
Pina Question and Appointment of Dr. Bowler as Affirmative
next interaction between Plaintiff and Superintendent
Crowley, on January 5, 2016, disturbed Plaintiff.
Specifically, Superintendent Crowley asked Plaintiff why
Elmer Pina,  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.
and Wall Divider.
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.
Many Special Needs Students.
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.”).
of Substitute Teacher.
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 ...