Valdez v. W. Des Moines Cmty. Schs.

Docket Number21-1327
Decision Date30 June 2023
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Iowa




No. 21-1327

Supreme Court of Iowa

June 30, 2023

Submitted January 19, 2023

Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Polk County, Jeffrey Farrell, Judge.

Plaintiff appeals the judgment entered in favor of defendants on her Iowa Civil Rights Act and common law claims.

Megan C. Flynn (argued) of Flynn Law Firm, P.L.C., West Des Moines, and Angela L. Campbell of Dickey, Campbell & Sahag Law Firm, P.L.C., Des Moines, for appellant.

David T. Bower (argued) and Logan Eliasen of Nyemaster Goode, P.C., for appellees.




Davina Valdez, a teacher's associate who worked with special education students at West Des Moines Community Schools (the District), sued the District and one of its teachers, Desira Johnson (collectively, Defendants), alleging Johnson engaged in racial discrimination that led to Valdez's constructive discharge in violation of the Iowa Civil Rights Act (ICRA). At trial, the district court concluded Johnson was not subject to individual liability under the ICRA as a matter of law, and the jury returned a defense verdict in favor of the District. Valdez now asks this court to grant her a new trial based on any of five alleged errors, focusing primarily on two: that the district court should have granted her Batson[1] challenge to Defendants' peremptory strike of the only Black potential juror and that Johnson can be held personally liable for her constructive discharge under our recent holding in Rumsey v. Woodgrain Millwork, Inc., 962 N.W.2d 9, 33-37 (Iowa 2021). After careful consideration of Valdez's arguments, we affirm the district court.

I. Factual History.

Valdez began working for the District in 2015 as a special education teacher's associate. In her position, Valdez worked with other special education associates in a classroom overseen by a special education teacher and worked primarily with a single special needs student, C.O. In the fall of 2018, Valdez


followed C.O. as C.O. advanced grade levels, moving with her to Valley High School.

The same year Valdez moved to Valley High, Jill Bryson became the assistant principal in charge of special education. Bryson had performance concerns with Kylene Simpson, the teacher overseeing Valdez's classroom, culminating in a separation agreement between Simpson and the District on March 8, 2019. To round out the school year in Simpson's place, Bryson enlisted Jo Yochum to oversee Valdez's classroom. Bryson also asked Johnson-another special education teacher who oversaw a different classroom-to assist Yochum in her new duties. It was at this point that the events precipitating Valdez's lawsuit began in earnest.

As the district court put it, "The change from Ms. Simpson to more involvement from Ms. Johnson was not well-received by the associates in Ms. Simpson's classroom," and "[a]ll of the associates and Ms. Yochum felt that Ms. Johnson was micro-managing the classroom." Valdez, though, felt particularly singled out by Johnson. For instance, Valdez (who is Black) alleged that on one occasion, Johnson (who is white) approached her and Toree Daniel (another special education associate, who is biracial) and asked, "[W]hy would a Black student call a white lady a[n] [N-word]?"-using the actual word rather than the euphemism "N-word."[2] Valdez also complained that Johnson was making changes to the classroom that negatively affected C.O., such as moving


C.O.'s swing (something C.O. used to calm herself) to a different room in the building without consulting Valdez and in an effort to harass or intimidate Valdez.

After a meeting with Bryson and Principal David Maxwell, in which Valdez was accused of "not being a team player," Valdez filed a complaint with Carol Seid, the associate superintendent for human resources (HR) for the District. Valdez complained about Johnson announcing "she would be taking over the classroom" despite Yochum being appointed to finish the school year, of "feel[ing] completely harassed [and] singled out," of "hav[ing] some physical sickness with the thought of going to work," and about changes in students' behavior following Johnson's "tak[ing] over" the classroom.

Seid referred the complaint to Jesse Johnston-another District HR employee-for investigation. While the investigation was ongoing, Valdez again contacted HR, complaining that the harassment had not stopped and stating that she felt "now more than ever discriminated against and work is more tense and hostile than ever." Johnston emailed Valdez on May 28 to discuss the results of her investigation, which concluded Valdez's complaints were unfounded, but Valdez did not respond.

The same day, May 28, Valdez's attorney emailed superintendent Lisa Remy, alleging Valdez was being subjected to a hostile work environment based on her race and retaliated against based on her complaints to HR. The letter directed Bryson, Seid, and Johnson to avoid all contact with Valdez and threatened litigation if a response was not received within a week. When the


District eventually responded on June 25, it "offered to work with [Valdez] on a reassignment to another supervisor or building within the district." Valdez did not respond to the District's offer and tendered her resignation the next day, June 26.

Valdez filed the instant lawsuit on December 13, asserting ICRA claims for race-based discrimination, hostile work environment, unequal pay, and retaliatory constructive discharge as well as a common law claim of wrongful discharge in violation of public policy. See Iowa Code §§ 216.6, .6A, .11 (2019). All of the counts were levied against the District and against Johnson in her individual capacity.

The case proceeded to trial in April 2021 on Valdez's claims of hostile work environment and retaliatory constructive discharge under the ICRA and common law wrongful discharge. At the close of evidence, the district court granted Johnson's motion for directed verdict, removing her as an individual defendant from the case. The jury returned a verdict in the District's favor on all counts.

Valdez appeals several of the district court's rulings, arguing the court erred by: (1) overruling her Batson challenge to Defendants' peremptory strike of Juror 13; (2) granting Johnson's directed verdict motion; and (3) ruling in Defendants' favor on three evidentiary issues-admitting parts of the parties' settlement correspondence from June 2019 (Exhibits B-11 and B-12), excluding notes pertaining to the District's investigation into Valdez's harassment complaints (Exhibit 6), and excluding evidence of an incident involving Johnson and a student in Valdez's classroom. We retained the appeal.


II. Analysis.

A. Batson Challenge. In addition to challenging Defendants' peremptory strike of Juror 13 under the traditional Batson standard, Valdez asks us to revise the standard for assessing peremptory challenges under the Iowa Constitution. Applying the traditional Batson framework, we hold that the district court properly overruled Valdez's challenge. And for the reasons that follow, we conclude that Valdez's arguments for moving "beyond Batson" in the specific ways she suggests are not compelled by the Iowa Constitution.

1. Did the District violate Batson in striking Juror 13? We review Batson challenges de novo. State v. Veal, 930 N.W.2d 319, 327 (Iowa 2019). Analyzing Valdez's Batson challenge involves a three-step inquiry: (1) Valdez must establish a prima facie case of purposeful racial discrimination in Defendants' peremptory strike; (2) Defendants must proffer a race-neutral explanation for the strike; and (3) Valdez must carry the ultimate burden of proving purposeful discrimination, which turns on whether the strike "was 'motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent.'" Flowers v. Mississippi, 139 S.Ct. 2228, 2243-44 (2019) (quoting Foster v. Chatman, 578 U.S. 488, 513 (2016)); see State v. Booker, 989 N.W.2d 621, 627 (Iowa 2023). Within our de novo review, "we give 'a great deal of deference' to the district court's evaluation of credibility when determining" whether the strike was motivated by a discriminatory intent at this final step. See Booker, 989 N.W.2d at 627 (quoting Veal, 930 N.W.2d at 327).

Juror 13, the only Black venire member, was struck by Defendants' second peremptory strike. In response to Valdez's Batson objection, Defendants


proffered three race-neutral reasons for the strike: (1) Juror 13 had management experience but no experience with workplace complaints against him; (2) defense counsel "did not have a good rapport" with him; and (3) his response to defense counsel's question about whether he could "start [the parties] out on equal footing," to which he replied, "Yes," but then added, "But, I mean, something happened" (this question-and-answer combination will be referred to as "the parity question" for brevity). The court accepted these justifications and overruled the Batson challenge.

Valdez raised the Batson issue again in her motion for a new trial. In resistance, Defendants gave the same justifications for the strike and added two new ones: (1) that Juror 13 "stated [his] belief that people are always 'honest'" in workplace complaint investigations, and (2) he was potentially familiar with the trial judge based on his work with the Fifth Judicial District Department of Correctional Services. The court again rejected the Batson challenge based on the rapport and the parity question justifications and affirmed its earlier Batson ruling despite finding that Defendants' other justifications were "less convincing."

Given that all three prongs of the Batson challenge were fully developed below, "the preliminary issue of whether [Valdez] ha[s] made a prima facie showing [is] moot." State v. Mootz, 808 N.W.2d 207, 218 (Iowa 2012) (quoting Hernandez v....

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