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Baer v. Montachusett Regional Technical School District

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

May 17, 2019

DENISE BAER and KENNETH BAER, Plaintiffs,
v.
MONTACHUSETT REGIONAL TECHNICAL SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendant.

          ORDER AND MEMORANDUM ON DEFENDANT' MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (DOCKET NOS. 42 & 44)

          TIMOTHY S. HILLMAN DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Kenneth and Denise Baer (“Plaintiffs”) are husband and wife. They were terminated from their employment at Montachusett Regional Technical School District (“Monty Tech”) and assert several claims against Monty Tech arising from that termination. Mrs. Baer alleges unlawful discrimination based on gender pursuant to Title VII (Count I) and Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 151B (Count III), retaliation for engaging in protected conduct in violation of Title VII (Count II) and Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 151B (Count IV), and defamation (Count V). Mr. Baer alleges unlawful discrimination based on association in violation of Title VII (Count VII) and Chapter 151B (Count IX), unlawful retaliation in violation of Title VII (VIII) and Chapter 151B (Count X), and defamation (Count XI).[1] Monty Tech has moved for summary judgement on all claims. (Docket Nos. 42, 44). For the reasons stated below, Monty Tech's motion for summary judgment for Mr. Baer's claims (Docket No. 42) is granted and with respect to Mrs. Baer's claims (Docket No. 44) is granted in part and denied in part.

         Background

         Monty Tech is a vocational high school in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. Before their termination, Plaintiffs worked at the school. Mrs. Baer was an instructor in the Cosmetology Department and was a member of the teacher's union. Mr. Baer served as Coordinator of Cooperative Education and Placement and was employed on a year-to-year basis.

         1. Mrs. Baer

         a. Sexual Harassment Claim

         At the time the Baer's employment was terminated, Mrs. Baer had a sexual harassment claim pending against Monty Tech before the MCAD. She alleged that in 2008, she was sexually harassed by the superintendent of the school, James Culkeen. After rejecting Mr. Culkeen's sexual advances, Mrs. Baer was suspended and demoted. In 2010, Mr. Culkeen was fired due to inappropriate sexual conduct with other female employees. In 2013, James Hachey, a friend of Mr. Culkeen, became Mrs. Baer's supervisor. Mrs. Baer alleged that Mr. Hachey also began harassing and retaliating against her. Mr. Hachey regularly called Mrs. Baer a “bitch, ” even in the presence of her students. When she complained, she was told that her employment was unlikely to continue and that her difficulties with Mr. Hachey were due to her “poor” personality, not her gender. Plaintiffs argue that these complaints of harassment and retaliation were never investigated.

         b. Events Leading to Termination

         Anna M. was a cosmetology student at Monty Tech. On May 6, 2014, Anna, a foster child, was placed into Plaintiffs' home by the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (“DCF”). In November 2014, Plaintiffs discovered that Anna and her friend stole and used their credit card. Shortly thereafter, Plaintiffs discovered that Anna planned to run away. Plaintiffs reported their concerns to DCF and, on January 22, 2015, DCF removed Anna from Plaintiffs' home. According to Plaintiffs, Anna had experienced multiple abusive relationships in her past. One manifestation of this past trauma was her propensity to run away.

         After Anna was removed from Plaintiffs' home, DCF placed her with the family of another Monty Tech student and she continued to attend Monty Tech. In February 2015, Anna's new foster parents contacted the school to raise concerns about Mrs. Baer's treatment of Anna since she was removed from Plaintiffs' home. On March 10, 2015, Mr. Barrett, Anna's new foster parent, met with Mr. Hachey, Monty Tech's Principal, Thomas Browne, and Monty Tech's social worker, Kathleen Hanson, to further discuss his concerns.

         According to Mrs. Baer, after she informed DCF of Anna's intentions to run away, Anna changed her behavior towards Mrs. Baer. For instance, she would tell her friends to “hold her back” while making threatening gestures towards Mrs. Baer. Mrs. Baer reported these incidents to Principal Browne, who informed her that the school would not intervene in “personal matters” and that any issues regarding Anna should be addressed with Ms. Hanson.

         On March 12, Plaintiffs met with Ms. Hanson. According to Plaintiffs, “[t]he actual substance of what happened between Ms. Hanson and/or Mr. and Mrs. Baer has been reported by multiple defense witnesses in wildly inconsistent ways. What is consistently reported, however, is that Ms. Hanson's response to whatever actually happened was, at the very least, unusual.” (Docket No. 53, at 2-3). After the meeting, Ms. Hanson developed an “emergency plan” so that her colleagues could interrupt her and pretend she was needed elsewhere if they observed that she was in a confrontational situation.

         On March 17, 2015, Principal Browne met with Mrs. Baer to discuss a dispute she had with her students regarding the dress code. Principal Browne told Mrs. Baer that he met with Anna's foster parents, who raised concerns that Mrs. Baer was treating Anna unfairly. Mrs. Baer denied any such treatment. Principal Browne reiterated his expectation that Anna's past experiences with Plaintiffs would not impact her experience in the classroom. Ms. Hanson instructed Anna to spend Mrs. Baer's class period in her office. On March 17, 18, and 19, Anna did not attend Mrs. Baer's class.

         On March 19, 2015, Plaintiffs approached Ms. Hanson outside of her office and then followed her into her office. Mrs. Baer accused Ms. Hanson of using two students to undermine her authority in the classroom. According to Mrs. Baer, Aryana, Anna's foster sister, started to act disrespectfully toward Mrs. Baer only after meeting with Ms. Hanson. Ms. Hanson told Mrs. Baer that she did not encourage Aryana to act disrespectfully but to talk to Mrs. Baer about her missing assignments noted on her progress report.

         During that confrontation, David Pirri, Monty Tech's adjustment counselor, called Ms. Hanson's office to interrupt the meeting as she had requested. Mr. Pirri then walked to Ms. Hanson's office, opened the door, and asked her to step outside. Ms. Hanson began to cry after leaving her office. Principal Browne was then called out of a meeting and found Ms. Hanson hiding in the corner of the Dean's office away from the window. The next day, Ms. Hanson provided Principal Brown with a written statement detailing her interactions with Plaintiffs. According to Mr. Pirri, Ms. Hanson struggled emotionally after the confrontations.

         Subsequently, Dr. Sheila Harrity, the school's Superintendent, determined an investigation into Plaintiffs' conduct was necessary. On March 24, 2015, Plaintiffs were placed on paid administrative leave. That day, Mrs. Baer obtained a harassment prevention order against Anna, and on the next day, Plaintiffs filed a criminal complaint against Anna for stealing their credit card the year before. According to Plaintiffs, they filed the criminal complaint and sought the harassment order to challenge Anna's credibility in Monte Tech's subsequent investigation.

         Between March 25 and March 30, 2015, Tammy Crocket, Monty Tech's Business Manager, and Principal Browne conducted several interviews with teachers, administrators, and students regarding Mrs. Baer's alleged misconduct. According to Plaintiffs, Mrs. Baer provided a list of more than a dozen witnesses that could have corroborated her version of events, none of whom were interviewed. In addition, Plaintiffs claim that the six students interviewed were all Anna's close friends, whose complaints had “little, if anything, to do with Anna.” (Docket No. 50 ¶ 50).

         Based upon the interviews with school personnel that concerned the confrontation with Ms. Hanson, Principal Browne found Ms. Hanson's version of events credible and concluded that Plaintiffs were verbally aggressive and intimidating towards Ms. Hanson. Principal Browne also found that “student testimony during the investigation interviews was consistent and supported the allegation that Mrs. Baer had singled out Anna M. by skipping over her when collecting grades and passing out materials and by refusing to allow Anna M. to participate in freshmen service day.” Id. ΒΆ 57. Further, Principal Browne concluded that student testimony supported the allegation that Mrs. Baer posted quotes in the classroom about lying that were directed at Anna. Superintendent Harrity concluded that Mrs. Baer retaliated against Anna and denied her equal educational opportunities. In addition, ...


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