Strehlow v. Marshalltown Cmty. Sch. Dist., 4:16–cv–109–RGE–HCA

Decision Date28 September 2017
Docket NumberNo. 4:16–cv–109–RGE–HCA,4:16–cv–109–RGE–HCA
Citation275 F.Supp.3d 1006
Parties Diane STREHLOW, Plaintiff, v. MARSHALLTOWN COMMUNITY SCHOOL DISTRICT; Aiddy Phomvisay, an individual; and Lisa Koester, an individual, Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Southern District of Iowa

Marc A. Humphrey, Humphrey Law Firm, P.C., Des Moines, IA, for Plaintiff.

Katie Lynn Graham, Debra Hulett, Nyemaster Goode PC, Des Moines, IA, for Defendants.


Rebecca Goodgame Ebinger, United States District Judge


Now before the Court is a Motion for Summary Judgment filed by Defendants Marshalltown Community School District (the District), Aiddy Phomvisay, and Lisa Koester (collectively Defendants). ECF No. 34. The matter came before the Court for hearing on May 26, 2017. Hr'g Def.s' Mot. Summ. J. Mins., ECF No. 54. Attorney Marc Humphrey appeared on behalf of Diane Strehlow, the Plaintiff. Id. Attorneys Debra Hulett and Katie Graham appeared on behalf of Defendants. Id. Both parties argued in support of their respective positions. Id. ; Pl.'s Br. Supp. Resist. Def.'s Mot. Summ. J., ECF No. 51–1; Defs.' Reply Supp. Summ. J., ECF No. 52. Following the hearing, Defendants submitted a supplemental brief responding to a recent decision by the Iowa Supreme Court. ECF No. 56.

Strehlow alleges she was constructively discharged in violation of public policy.1 Defendants request the Court grant their motion for summary judgment because Strehlow has failed to produce a genuine issue of material fact showing Strehlow either engaged in protected conduct or was constructively discharged. Defendants also assert Strehlow has not introduced any evidence showing they intended for Strehlow to quit her position, or her engagement in allegedly protected conduct was causally connected to any constructive discharge. Defendants also argue Phomvisay and Koester cannot be held personally liable for Strehlow's constructive discharge because they did not direct or authorize her discharge, and the District is immune from liability under the Iowa Municipal Tort Claims Act. Defendants therefore claim they are entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Because Strehlow has failed to show she was constructively discharged or she engaged in protected activity, the Court grants Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment. The Court therefore does not address Defendants' arguments regarding personal liability or the Iowa Municipal Tort Claims Act.


The following facts are either uncontested or viewed in the light most favorable to Strehlow. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp. , 475 U.S. 574, 587–88, 106 S.Ct. 1348, 89 L.Ed.2d 538 (1986) ; Munz v. Michael , 28 F.3d 795, 796 (8th Cir. 1994) (holding when a federal court considers a motion for summary judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c), it must view the facts alleged in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and must give the non-moving party all reasonable inferences from those facts).

In 2012, Marshalltown Community High School hired Strehlow to teach high school French and to serve as the National Honor Society advisor for the 20112012 school year. Defs.' Resp. Pl.'s Statement of Additional Material Facts ¶ 1, ECF No. 52–1. Phomvisay served as the principal at Marshalltown Community High School. Pl.'s Am. Compl. 1–2, ECF No. 14. Koester served as the Human Resources Coordinator at Marshalltown Community High School. Id. Strehlow was a contract teacher and was a member of the teachers' union. Pl.'s Resp. Defs.' Statement Undisputed Material Facts Supp. Mot. Summ. J. 8, ECF No. 51–2. Strehlow remained in the same position during both the 20112012 and 20122013 school years. ECF No. 14 at 2. In the spring of 2013, Phomvisay informed Strehlow her teaching position for the 20132014 school year would be changed to part time because of decreasing enrollment numbers for French. Id. ¶¶ 12, 14. Phomvisay explained in order to continue working full-time, Strehlow would have to begin teaching journalism as well. Id. ¶ 12. Additionally, during an employment review in May 2013, Deborah Holsapple, the associate principal at Marshalltown Community High School, informed Strehlow she would also have to take on the publication duties for the high school newspaper, Pebbles , and yearbook, Postscript. Pl.'s App. 353, ECF No. 51–10. Strehlow maintains Phomvisay's justification for the change in her schedule was not consistent with her examination of enrollment numbers for the previous two academic years. ECF No. 14 at 3. Although Strehlow expressed concern with Holsapple because she felt the enrollment numbers did not justify making the French position part time, she accepted the change in assignment for the upcoming calendar year. Id. at 3; ECF No. 51–2 ¶ 25.

During a class orientation for graduating eighth graders later that month, Strehlow and a fellow teacher noticed a significant decrease in the number of eighth graders expressing an interest in enrolling in foreign language classes. ECF No. 14 at 4. Strehlow asserts when she asked about the apparent decrease in French enrollment, the students told her they were encouraged to sign up for Project Lead the Way, a science-focused program, rather than foreign languages during their freshman year. See id. Phomvisay was primarily responsible for implementing Project Lead the Way at Marshalltown Community High School and the 20132014 school year was the first year it was available to high school students. ECF No. 52–1 ¶ 14. Strehlow became concerned because she believed students were being misled regarding college requirements. ECF No. 14 at 4. This was based on her understanding that in order to gain admission to, and graduate from, a four-year college or university, students would have to complete four years of foreign language. Id. Later, in the spring of 2013, Phomvisay learned Strehlow was questioning students about their course preferences. Pl.'s App. 34, ECF No. 51–5. Phomvisay approached Strehlow and informed her it was inappropriate to ask students about their class choices. Id. at 34. Strehlow asserts she then questioned Phomvisay about why students were being diverted from foreign language courses to instead enroll in Project Lead the Way. ECF No. 14 at 5. In response, Strehlow alleges Phomvisay threatened to discipline her and stated he did not want to hear another word about the issue. Id. ; ECF No. 51–5 at 34–36.

In the fall of 2013, Strehlow began teaching French and journalism, as well as managing the National Honor Society, Pebbles , and Postscript. See ECF No. 52–1 ¶ 20. On January 8, 2014, the Superintendent of the District sent an email requesting teachers complete a form listing their preferred teaching schedules and courses for the 20142015 school year. Defs.' App. 71, ECF No. 34–2. Strehlow submitted the form to Holsapple listing drivers' education, wood shop, German, pottery, and Project Lead the Way as her preferred courses. Id. at 67; ECF No. 14 at 5. Strehlow admits she knew she was not qualified to teach those subjects and some of the courses were not available at Marshalltown Community High School. ECF No. 14 at 5. Strehlow asserts she submitted the request to Holsapple to "add some levity" to the situation. Id. On January 23, 2014, Holsapple issued Strehlow a formal discipline for insubordination based on the submitted form. ECF No. 34–2 at 72.

On March 13, 2014, Strehlow submitted a work request form to Holsapple regarding her classroom; it was marked "urgent." ECF No. 51–10 at 384. The request form stated, "[a]fter the flooding/burst pipe, a number of the floor tiles came up .... I've disposed of some pieces, but it looks like asbestos [is] exposed." Id. It is unclear whether Hosapple ever received this work request. Compare ECF No. 51–5 at 31 with Pl.'s App. 186–87, ECF No. 51–7 and ECF No. 51–5 at 86–87. On March 17, 2014, Strehlow sent an email to Eldon Stanley, the custodian at Marshalltown Community High School stating, "[Holsapple] got the work order last week for the tiles coming off the floor in 214 ... [A]fter checking on this[,] it seems that we've got asbestos that's exposed in a student work area. Knowing that I've been exposed to asbestos from handling the tiles is not a delight ...." ECF No. 34–2 at 78. Both Holsapple and Phomvisay were copied on the email. Id. On March 18, 2014, Holsapple responded in an email stating she was concerned Strehlow was "making this statement, especially when this information in not correct." Id. She explained she wanted "to have a discussion with [Strehlow], as when making a statement such as this will also start a panic among staff, students, parents, and [the] community, which is unnecessary." Id. Strehlow asserts following this email, Holsapple and Stanley told Strehlow there was no need to worry. Id. at 42. After this conversation, Strehlow did not follow up with Stanley, Phomvisay, or Holsapple regarding her concerns. Id.

On April 25, 2014, Strehlow left a note for one of her students (Student A) at his place of employment. Pl.'s App. 209, ECF No. 51–8. The note stated, "Such a sad day it was, I had to ask why ... At Legends, you—as destiny had it—were not my guy! Most sincerely yours, your friend and ardent reader, Mr. ––––v –––y." Id. ; see also ECF No. 51–5 at 51 (explaining the note as "an attempt to bring some levity and to uplift the student" following the student's complaints regarding Phomvisay's attitude toward him). The note had a heart drawn on it with "2014" written in the middle. Id. Following this, Student A texted a picture of the note to two of his classmates, who in turn alerted a teacher. ECF No. 51–6 at 144–45; ECF No. 51–8 at 223. On May 2, 2014, Strehlow was placed on administrative leave while the District investigated the letter. ECF No. 14 at 6; ECF No. 34–2 at 69. On May 8, 2014, the Time Republican newspaper published a story reporting Strehlow had been put on leave. Pl.'s...

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