MacDonald v. Brewer Sch. Dep't, 1:22-cv-00024-NT

CourtUnited States District Courts. 1st Circuit. United States District Court (Maine)
Writing for the CourtNancy Torresen United States District Judge
PartiesMICHELLE MACDONALD, Plaintiff, v. BREWER SCHOOL DEPARTMENT, et al., Defendants.
Docket Number1:22-cv-00024-NT
Decision Date12 January 2023




No. 1:22-cv-00024-NT

United States District Court, D. Maine

January 12, 2023


Nancy Torresen United States District Judge

Before me are the Defendants' motions to dismiss the Plaintiff's Complaint. For the reasons stated below, Defendant Brewer School Department's motion to dismiss (ECF No. 8) is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART. The motion to dismiss (ECF No. 9) of Defendants Gregg Palmer, Cheri Towle, Brent Slowikowski, Renita Ward-Downer, Paul Wellman, and Breanne Pelletier (together, the “Individual Defendants”) is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART.


The Plaintiff, Michelle MacDonald, has worked as an English teacher at Brewer High School since 2007. First Am. Compl. ¶¶ 1, 10, 41 (ECF No. 14-1). In addition to teaching, MacDonald also served as the Curriculum Leader-a


department chair-for seven years and as the co-advisor for the school's Gender and Sexuality Alliance (“GSA”). First Am. Compl. ¶¶ 42, 44. MacDonald has a transgender child who attends a different school. First Am. Compl. ¶ 43. MacDonald states that she “is well known for her advocacy on behalf of LGBTQ+[2] students,” and alleges that, beginning in 2017, she started experiencing pushback, hostility, and even retaliation in response to that advocacy. First Am. Compl. ¶¶ 1, 44, 47-158.

On January 20, 2017, MacDonald met with Defendant Superintendent Cheri Towle to discuss concerns about the treatment of transgender students at the school, including MacDonald's concern that some teachers were using students' “deadnames”[3] and former pronouns instead of their correct names and preferred pronouns. First Am. Compl. ¶¶ 16-17, 48. Towle “appeared uncomfortable and defensive with the conversation” and questioned whether younger students had the right to go by their preferred gender pronouns because the students could “change their mind.” First Am. Compl. ¶¶ 50-52.

In March of 2017, students approached MacDonald with concerns that the GSA was being excluded from the yearbook. First Am. Compl. ¶ 53. MacDonald contacted Defendant Breanne Pelletier, another English teacher at the school who served as the yearbook advisor and decided which clubs were included in the yearbook. First


Am. Compl. ¶¶ 24-25, 54. Pelletier told MacDonald that the GSA was not going to be included in the yearbook because it was a “support group” and did not do “anything worth taking pictures of.” First Am. Compl. ¶ 55. After MacDonald reported the issue to the Brewer School Department, Pelletier was told that the GSA must be included in the yearbook. First Am. Compl. ¶ 56. Subsequently, Pelletier, with whom MacDonald had previously gotten along, began giving MacDonald “dirty looks,” called her a “drama queen,” stopped responding to MacDonald's emails, spoke negatively about her to students, and was rude and hostile to her in meetings. First Am. Compl. ¶¶ 47, 57.

In June of 2017, MacDonald requested that the GSA advisor position be paid a stipend, consistent with other club advisors at the school. First Am. Compl. ¶ 58. A few months later, on September 17, 2017, MacDonald reported to Defendant Principal Brent Slowikowski some comments made by a colleague regarding this request. First Am. Compl. ¶¶ 18-19, 59. That colleague, Defendant Paul Wellman, another English teacher, had expressed that the GSA advisor position should not be paid because it was “like a religion” and that MacDonald was “influencing students with her beliefs.” First Am. Compl. ¶¶ 22-23, 59, 61. Wellman also told MacDonald that he viewed people in the LGBTQ+ community as “unnatural” and as “mutations of nature.” First Am. Compl. ¶ 61. When reporting the comments, MacDonald also requested that Slowikowski implement more LGBTQ+ rights and awareness training for staff. First Am. Compl. ¶ 62.


A few weeks later, on October 6, 2017, Slowikowski intervened in a heated discussion between MacDonald and Wellman about what MacDonald and some students perceived as a culture of hostility toward LGBTQ+ people in Wellman's classroom. First Am. Compl. ¶¶ 63-66. MacDonald stated that a student had recently transferred from Wellman's classroom to MacDonald's because they had come out and were uncomfortable with Wellman's known opposition to LGBTQ+ rights. First Am. Compl. ¶ 67. MacDonald also said that comments made by Wellman made her uncomfortable because she was the parent of a transgender child. First Am. Compl. ¶ 69. Slowikowski told MacDonald that she was “too close to the issue” because of her transgender child. First Am. Compl. ¶ 70.

On January 17, 2018, MacDonald informed Slowikowski that Pelletier was refusing to respond to her work-related emails and that her conduct appeared to be in retaliation for MacDonald's opposition to Pelletier excluding the GSA from the yearbook. First Am. Compl. ¶ 73. On March 15, 2018, Slowikowski called a meeting with MacDonald, the assistant principal, and Pelletier about the GSA's yearbook photos. First Am. Compl. ¶ 78. Notably, MacDonald's co-advisor for the GSA was not asked to attend. First Am. Compl. ¶ 80. At the meeting, Pelletier asserted that MacDonald was making it difficult to get the necessary pictures of the group for the yearbook, while MacDonald explained that she had simply asked, for the safety of the student members of the GSA, that any photographs of the students be taken only with their consent. First Am. Compl. ¶¶ 79-81. Pelletier stated repeatedly during the meeting that she did not like MacDonald and there was nothing MacDonald could do


to change her mind. First Am. Compl. ¶ 85. Neither Slowikowski nor the assistant principal did anything to address Pelletier's statements. First Am. Compl. ¶ 86.

In April of 2018, MacDonald filed an affirmative action complaint with the Brewer School Department alleging that she was being subjected to a hostile work environment. First Am. Compl. ¶ 89. In connection to settling a union grievance with MacDonald, the school agreed-after multiple requests from MacDonald-to hold an LGBTQ+ rights training for staff members. First Am. Compl. ¶ 90. The school administration, however, chose to hold the training after classes ended on the last day of school in June of 2018-a day when teachers are usually permitted to leave at 12:30 pm. First Am. Compl. ¶¶ 90-91.

During the following school year, MacDonald reported several student-related incidents to Slowikowski and the vice principal, including combative, anti-LGBTQ+ remarks made by students during class and a student tearing down a “Gender 101” poster, making a derogatory comment about it, and stomping on it. First Am. Compl. ¶¶ 92, 94-97. Following at least one of those occasions, Slowikowski refused to tell the student that his behavior was unacceptable. First Am. Compl. ¶ 95. On June 3, 2019, a student-who MacDonald believed had gotten angry during a class conversation where transgender issues were mentioned-yelled at MacDonald, “Mrs. MacDonald is a f*ing bitch!” First Am. Compl. ¶¶ 96, 102. MacDonald reported the incident to the vice principal via email, but it is not clear if any action was taken. First Am. Compl. ¶ 102.


At the end of the 2018-2019 school year, Pelletier and Wellman spearheaded an effort to file an internal complaint against MacDonald. First Am. Compl. ¶ 103. On June 13, 2019, thirteen Brewer School Department employees, including Pelletier and Wellman, submitted a complaint about MacDonald to Principal Slowikowski. First Am. Compl. ¶ 105. The complaint accused MacDonald of being hostile toward religious people and people she does not agree with, and of bullying staff members. First Am. Compl. ¶ 107. During an internal investigation into the complaint, twenty-four employees were interviewed. First Am. Compl. ¶ 108. In those interviews in which a staff member reported a hostile interaction with MacDonald, almost every example of “hostility” focused on MacDonald's advocacy related to LGBTQ+ issues. First Am. Compl. ¶ 109. The results of the internal investigation concluded that she had not violated “any Brewer School Department policies, rules, or procedures.” First Am. Compl. ¶ 129. Despite that finding, the interim superintendent wrote to MacDonald that she had exhibited “unprofessional” behavior and that she was “ultimately responsible for the way her colleagues perceive her actions.” First Am. Compl. ¶ 130. The interim superintendent stated that “[w]hile I understand that you did not realize you were coming across as unprofessional or rude, it is clear that the perception amongst your colleagues is that, at times, you are overly confrontational.” First Am. Compl. ¶ 130.

That spring, MacDonald reapplied for the Curriculum Leader position that she had held for seven years. First Am. Compl. ¶¶ 42, 114-15. The Curriculum Leader position is a yearly role that comes with a salary enhancement. First Am. Compl. ¶ 114.


Though it had never done so before, the school administration decided to interview different applicants for the job. First Am. Compl. ¶¶ 114, 116. Ultimately, Defendants Towle, Slowikowski, and Renita Ward-Downer, the school's Director of Instruction, hired Pelletier as Curriculum Leader. ¶¶ 20-21, 120-21. Slowikowski told MacDonald that Pelletier was hired because they “chose to offer the position to a teacher they believed would be better able to communicate with colleagues about student needs.” First Am. Compl. ¶ 122. In the winter of 2019, however, Pelletier had told MacDonald that she received a poor performance evaluation for “communication issues” with colleagues. First Am. Compl. ¶ 123. MacDonald filed a union grievance and was ultimately given the position of Co-Curriculum Leader with Pelletier. First Am. Compl. ¶ 124.

On July 1, 2019, MacDonald requested a room change to the other side of the building so that she would not...

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