Blackman v. Omak Sch. Dist.

Decision Date11 June 2020
Docket NumberNO. 2:18-CV-0338-TOR,2:18-CV-0338-TOR
Citation466 F.Supp.3d 1172
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Washington
Parties Chris Neese BLACKMAN, Plaintiff, v. OMAK SCHOOL DISTRICT and Kenneth Erik Swanson, Defendants.

Matthew Z. Crotty, Crotty & Son Law Firm PLLC, Michael Bradley Love, Michael Love Law Firm PLLC, Spokane, WA, for Plaintiff.

Jerry John Moberg, James Edyrn Baker, Moberg Rathbone Kearns, Ephrata, WA, for Defendants.


THOMAS O. RICE, Chief United States District Judge

BEFORE THE COURT is Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 28). This matter was heard with telephonic oral argument on June 9, 2020. Matthew Z. Crotty appeared on behalf of Plaintiff. Jerry J. Moberg and James E. Baker appeared on behalf of Defendants. The Court has reviewed the record and files herein and considered the parties' oral arguments, and is fully informed. For the reasons discussed below, Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 28) is granted in part.


This case concerns Plaintiff's employment as principal of Omak Middle School ("OMS"). The following facts are not in dispute, except where noted. For purposes of summary judgment, "[i]f a party fails to properly support an assertion of fact or fails to properly address another party's assertion of fact as required by Rule 56(c), the court may ... consider the fact undisputed." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e)(2).

1. The Parties

Defendant Omak School District ("the District") serves approximately 1,600 students and an additional 3,400 online students through Washington Virtual Academy. ECF No. 29 at 3, ¶ 3. The District is governed by a five-member Board of Directors. Id. Defendant Dr. Swanson is the Superintendent of the District. ECF No. 29 at 2, ¶ 1.

Plaintiff Dr. Blackman is a certificated employee in education who has worked in Washington since August 2004. ECF No. 31 at 2, ¶ 3. Dr. Blackman has obtained both teacher and principal certification in Washington. Id. at ¶ 2. In April 2016, Dr. Blackman was hired to serve as principal of OMS, with the position to begin on July 1, 2016. ECF No. 29 at 3, ¶ 5. At the end of the 2016-2017 school year, Dr. Swanson evaluated Dr. Blackman's overall performance as Proficient. ECF No. 29 at 4, ¶ 7. Dr. Blackman's contract was renewed for the 2017-2018 school year. Id.

2. OMS Workplace Culture

The parties dispute the specific details of events, but it is generally undisputed that workplace culture issues caused significant conflict during Dr. Blackman's tenure as principal of OMS.

Plaintiff asserts that "issues between leadership and staff" at OMS predated Dr. Blackman's arrival. ECF No. 31 at 6, ¶ 29. After Dr. Blackman began serving as OMS principal, Kathy Curtiss, a consultant with the state Office of Superintendent for Public Instruction ("OSPI"), advised Dr. Swanson and Mr. Porter that problems at OMS were being led by two teachers, Mr. and Mrs. Rose. ECF No. 31 at 7, ¶ 35. Dr. Blackman was generally well respected by her peers, teachers, staff, students, and parents, with the exception of a group of teachers led by the Roses who resisted Dr. Blackman's efforts to hold teachers accountable to acceptable standards of performance. ECF No. 31 at 9, ¶ 43. Dr. Blackman complained to Dr. Swanson, Mr. Porter, and Leanne Olsen, the Director of Human Resources, that a few teachers, particularly the Roses, were creating a hostile work environment that was negatively impacting Dr. Blackman's health. ECF No. 31 at 10, ¶ 49. Despite these ongoing issues, Dr. Swanson rated Dr. Blackman's performance at the end of the 2016-2017 school year as "proficient," which is the second highest rating among four possible, and Dr. Swanson never told Dr. Blackman that he perceived any problems with her leadership or student or staff safety. ECF No. 31 at 8, ¶¶ 39-40. Defendants dispute this characterization of events.

Defendants assert Dr. Swanson told Dr. Blackman on several occasions at the end of the 2016-2017 school year that he perceived problems with Dr. Blackman's leadership. ECF No. 29 at 4, ¶ 8. Dr. Swanson received multiple complaints from staff members and parents about feeling "unsafe" at OMS due to division within and among the staff. Id. at ¶ 9. Dr. Swanson counseled Dr. Blackman to reduce the number of initiatives she was undertaking, as Dr. Swanson perceived poor communication with too much change at once to be a driver of conflict at OMS, but Dr. Blackman did not do so. ECF No. 29 at 5, ¶ 10.

3. Dr. Blackman's Mental Distress

In January 2017, Dr. Blackman established care with a healthcare provider and discussed the stress she was experiencing at work. ECF No. 31 at 10, ¶¶ 51-52. Dr. Blackman was diagnosed with depression and anxiety and was prescribed Fluoxetine

(Prozac ) to treat mental health issues related to workplace stress. Id. at ¶¶ 52-53. By October 2017, Dr. Blackman's healthcare provider increased her medication. ECF No. 31 at 12, ¶ 61.

4. ASB Funding Issue

The parties do not dispute that on October 26, 2017, Dr. Blackman told Dr. Swanson that Dr. Blackman had concerns over the Associated Student Body ("ASB") expenditure approval process and that the District was illegally using ASB funds. ECF No. 29 at 7, ¶¶ 14-15. Dr. Swanson responded along the lines of "Oh shit, that's going to be a mess." Id. at ¶ 15.

The parties dispute how Dr. Swanson acted following Dr. Blackman's report. Dr. Blackman alleges Dr. Swanson decided to keep ASB auditors away from the school to prevent staff from being interviewed at the middle and high schools, and that Dr. Blackman objected to this practice. ECF No. 31 at ¶ 71. Defendants allege Dr. Swanson welcomed Dr. Blackman's report, that Dr. Swanson referred the matter for further review, and that Dr. Swanson specifically requested the state auditor examine the ASB process during an annual audit. ECF No. 29 at 7, ¶¶ 14-15.

The parties do not dispute that the state auditor's report recommended "the District improve internal controls over ASB activities to comply with state laws, regulations and District policy to safeguard public resources." ECF No. 29 at 8, ¶ 17. A newspaper article later reported the deficiencies relating to the District's ASB funds. ECF No. 31 at 15, ¶ 73.

5. Overtime Pay Issue

The parties do not dispute that in early November 2017, an "administrative team meeting" took place between Dr. Blackman, Dr. Swanson, and other District administrators who were outside of Dr. Blackman's chain of command. ECF No. 31 at 15, ¶ 74. During this meeting, the participants discussed the "Castle Rock decision," referring to a legal decision about pay for hourly employees who engage in extracurricular activities. ECF No. 29 at 10, ¶ 25.

The parties dispute what was said before and during this meeting. Dr. Blackman alleges that before the administrative team meeting, Ms. Olsen, the HR Director, told Dr. Blackman that Ms. Olsen was worried about the Castle Rock decision because Ms. Olsen knew of multiple District employees who were being denied overtime pay, contrary to the Castle Rock decision. ECF No. 31 at 16, ¶ 77. Ms. Olsen also told Dr. Blackman that she was concerned that Dr. Swanson did not take the Castle Rock decision seriously. Id. Dr. Blackman then met with a District payroll officer and business manager and confirmed that classified staff working in dual roles were provided comp time in lieu of overtime pay. ECF No. 31 at 17, ¶ 78. During the administrative team meeting, Dr. Swanson informed the administrators of the District's practice of failing to pay classified staff overtime compensation. ECF No. 31 at 17-18, ¶ 79. Dr. Swanson stated that the District could not afford to pay the classified staff overtime compensation. Id. Dr. Blackman then objected that this position violated wage law. ECF No. 31 at 18, ¶ 80. Defendants dispute this characterization of events.

Defendants contend that from January 2016 to present there have been no instances of documented overtime for any hourly employee of the District, that the District has never claimed an inability to pay overtime, and that the District has not had complaints or needed to investigate the non-payment of overtime. ECF No. 29 at 10-11, ¶ 25.

6. November 30, 2017 Meeting

On November 19, 2017, Dr. Swanson informed the District's Board that he wanted to place Dr. Blackman on administrative leave. ECF No. 31 at 19, ¶ 86. On November 30, 2017, a meeting took place between Dr. Blackman, Dr. Swanson, and Ms. Olsen. ECF No. 29 at 15, ¶ 36. The parties dispute what occurred during this meeting.

According to Plaintiff, Dr. Swanson handed Dr. Blackman a letter informing her that she was terminated.1 ECF No. 31 at 20, ¶ 91. Dr. Blackman asked what her options were, and Dr. Swanson responded that Dr. Blackman could either be fired or resign, that Dr. Swanson wanted a letter of resignation in writing from Dr. Blackman, and that Dr. Blackman was effectively on administrative leave until she resigned in writing. ECF No. 31 at 21, ¶ 93. Dr. Swanson offered Dr. Blackman a three-month severance package, but Dr. Blackman rejected the offer. Id. at ¶ 94. Dr. Swanson did not offer Dr. Blackman another position with the District. Id. at ¶ 95. Dr. Swanson told Dr. Blackman to remove her personal belongings from her office and to turn in her keys. Id. at ¶ 96. Dr. Swanson also locked Dr. Blackman out of her work email account and other District sites. ECF No. 31 at 22, ¶ 97. Dr. Blackman told Dr. Swanson that she was not going to resign and objected to Dr. Swanson telling OMS staff anything about the situation. Id. at ¶¶ 98, 104. Dr. Swanson then informed OMS staff that Dr. Blackman resigned because of mental health reasons. ECF No. 31 at 23, ¶ 106. The District then publicly announced that Dr. Blackman resigned for medical reasons. ECF No. 31 at 24, ¶¶ 110-111. The District also informed local newspapers that Dr. Blackman had resigned for medical reasons. Id. at ¶ 112.

Defendants contend that Dr. Swanson told Dr....

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