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

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

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

Prior to his dismissal, Hibbard received constant comments that Johnson was incompetent, unapproachable, a poor communicator, and unresponsive to phone calls or emails. Similarly, principals informed Hibbard that they did not trust Johnson, and he also received comments that teachers did not like or trust Johnson and viewed her as incompetent, particularly in its role in the program.

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 Johnson’s inclusion 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 the removal of Johnson from his administrative position.

The board did not ask Hibbard for the reasons for his personnel reorganization decisions, nor did he disclose those reasons. The board voted unanimously to approve the reorganization, including giving Hibbard the power to offer Johnson a severance package and not renew his administrative contract.

Johnson declined severance pay, so she received her administrator salary and benefits until her administrative contract ended in June 2018. In February, she was offered a high school special education position, which she initially turned down due to a broken arm.

The school responded by sending Johnson documents for the Family and Medical Leave Act and for accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Johnson never returned any of the paperwork, so the school followed suit, ordering her back to work and trying to work with her to find a vacancy that would meet her needs given her broken arm.

Johnson eventually accepted the special education teacher job originally offered, and she admitted the school had accommodated her restrictions and granted her placement request. She remains a high school teacher.

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

The Southern District of Indiana used the framework in McDonnell Douglas vs. Green, 411 US 792 (1973), to analyze and ultimately dismiss the claims of sex discrimination.

“Johnson presented no evidence to suggest that the school’s legitimate and non-discriminatory reasons for removing her from her administrative position, offering a severance package, not renewing her administrative contract, demoting her to a teaching position, or placing her on administrative leave are a pretext,” Judge James R. Sweeney II opined.

Johnson also failed to convince the court of the non-accommodation claim, as she admitted the school complied with her restrictions and granted her placement request.

Finally, the court found that Johnson’s claims for retaliation could not survive summary judgment under either approach of Williams v. Boulevard de l’Educ. from the 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.

Martha K. Merrill