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King v. Pulaski County School Board

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Roanoke Division

July 20, 2016

MICHAEL KING, Plaintiff,


          Hon. Glen E. Conrad Chief United States District Judge

         Michael King filed this action under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII") against his employer, Pulaski County School Board (the "School Board"). Plaintiff alleges that he was retaliated against after complaining about an inappropriate relationship between his former wife, Lori King, and her co-worker, Maureen Spaulding, as well as certain conduct by Spaulding. The case is presently before the court on the School Board's motion for summary judgment. For the reasons set forth below, the motion will be granted.

         Factual Background

         The following facts are either undisputed or presented in the light most favorable to plaintiff. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986) (emphasizing that "[t]he evidence of the nonmovant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor, " when ruling on a motion for summary judgment).

         In 2000, plaintiff began working as a first grade teacher at Riverlawn Elementary School ("Riverlawn") in Pulaski County. He held the position for six years before becoming the assistant principal at Dublin Middle School ("Dublin Middle") in Pulaski County, a position he has held for the past ten years. In his assistant principal position, plaintiff handles student disciplinary issues, staff evaluations, day-to-day maintenance of the building, and overall supervision of the school. His current supervisor is Adam Joyce, who serves as the principal of Dublin Middle. Prior to Joyce, Robin Keener was plaintiffs immediate supervisor.

         Lori King, plaintiffs ex-wife, is a librarian at Riverlawn. In 2009, Maureen Spaulding joined Riverlawn as the assistant principal. The two women became friends and started socializing outside of work, both together and as a group with plaintiff and Spaulding's husband. At first, plaintiff and Spaulding got along, and she tried to help plaintiff with his marital issues. In July of 2010, the Kings and the Spauldings took a trip to Hershey, Pennsylvania. During this trip, plaintiff claims that Spaulding touched him inappropriately and tried to kiss him. After plaintiff informed her that such conduct made him uncomfortable, she stopped and never touched him again. Plaintiff admits that he did not report this incident to anyone at the School Board or any school employee.

         Plaintiff also alleges that Spaulding harassed him and created a hostile environment at work. At some point in 2010, plaintiff claims that Spaulding sent him a message saying that, "You've lost your wife, haven't you, and your family is next." King Dep. 16:21-16:22, Docket No. 51-2. Plaintiff did not report this communication to anyone at the School Board or any school employee. In addition, plaintiff alleges that Spaulding sent him two photographs of his daughter and Mrs. King together at Riverlawn's library. Plaintiff believes that Spaulding was doing a walkthrough at the time she took the pictures, and he cannot recall if there was a text message that accompanied the pictures. Plaintiff also alleges that Spaulding gave him the middle finger during several administrative meetings; he estimates that it happened between five to ten times. Plaintiff reported this conduct to Keener, who was his immediate supervisor at the time; Joe Makolandra, the former director of human services for the School Board; and Dr. Michael Perry, principal of Dublin Elementary School and plaintiffs friend. However, plaintiff did not ask them to take any action on his behalf or report the incidents to anyone else. According to plaintiff, neither Keener nor Dr. Michael Perry personally witnessed Spaulding give him the middle finger. In fact, plaintiffs explanation for reporting the incidents to Dr. Michael Perry was so that "he could catch [Spaulding]" in the act. Id. at 141:5-141:6.

         Plaintiff also alleges that an inappropriate relationship developed between Mrs. King and Spaulding. According to plaintiff, Mrs. King and Spaulding "spent the night together, " "went on trips together, " held hands, rubbed each other, and slept together in the same bed. Id at 12:14-12:16. Plaintiff claims that he personally observed the two women lying in bed together and saw Spaulding rub Mrs. King's thigh when they were all out to dinner at Applebee's. Plaintiff concedes, however, that he did not observe physical contact between Mrs. King and Spaulding at Riverlawn. He is also not aware of any other individual who witnessed physical contact between Mrs. King and Spaulding during school hours.

         Plaintiff does not believe that this was the first inappropriate relationship between Spaulding and others persons within the Pulaski County school system. In his deposition, plaintiff testified that Rod Reedy, former principal at Pulaski High School, had informed him that Spaulding had a similar relationship with his wife before Spaulding met Mrs. King. Plaintiff, however, does not know the nature of the relationship between Spaulding and Mrs. Reedy. Plaintiff also believes that a family preservation services counselor at Riverlawn broke off her engagement after befriending Spaulding.

         In the fall of 2010, plaintiff met with Makolandra, as both his friend and as the director of human resources, to "ask for his advice" about the inappropriate relationship between Spaulding and Mrs. King. Id at 44:7. The two met at Makolandra's house. At the time, plaintiff did not perceive this communication as a complaint, did not ask Makolandra to take any actions on his behalf, and did not have any expectation that Makolandra was going to do anything for him. In fact, Makolandra was in his last week as the director of human resources at the time of this meeting. Makolandra advised plaintiff to speak with John Bowler, the principal at Riverlawn.

         On September 22, 2010, plaintiff met with Bowler to discuss the relationship between Mrs. King and Spaulding. At the time, plaintiff believed that his complaint constituted an employment matter. The two met after school hours and at Randolph Park because plaintiff was "good friends" with Bowler and "hated putting [Bowler] in this situation." Id. at 48:13-48:14. At the meeting, plaintiff also told Bowler about the previous relationship between Spaulding and Mrs. Reedy. After the meeting, plaintiff believes that Bowler spoke to Greg Brown, the new director of human resources.

         In early 2011, plaintiff filed for divorce from Mrs. King. Spaulding testified on behalf of Mrs. King at the Kings' child custody hearing. After that hearing, the judge ordered that Spaulding have no contact with the Kings' children outside of her duties as assistant principal of Riverlawn.

         On August 10, 2011, Brown contacted plaintiff and they met in Brown's office to discuss the inappropriate relationship between Mrs. King and Spaulding. On August 12, 2011, Brown documented plaintiffs formal complaint against Spaulding. The formal complaint alleged that Mrs. King and Spaulding talked on the phone multiple times during school hours and took at least three shopping trips together. In the complaint, plaintiff also claimed that several teachers and staff members at Riverlawn had voiced their concerns about the women's relationship. In his deposition, plaintiff clarified that a teacher at Riverlawn, Marsha Simpkins, had told him that "there's obviously something odd going on" between Mrs. King and Spaulding. Id at 60:2-60:3. The formal complaint also alleged that, outside of school hours, Mrs. King and Spaulding spent nights together, shared a bed, held hands in public, engaged in inappropriate touching, texted frequently, and would hang out at Spaulding's house until as late as 3:00 a.m. When asked what plaintiff wanted to do about these allegations, he told Brown that he wished "this to be a matter of record." Id at 62:15-62:16; Ex. 15 to Pl's Br. in Opp. to Mot. For Summ. J., Docket No. 56-16. Plaintiff did not allege that this conduct affected his employment and insisted that he was complaining as a parent of a Riverlawn student. In his deposition, Brown testified that plaintiff was very clear that he wanted the complaint to be handled as a complaint from a parent, not an employee. Plaintiff does not recall making any other complaints to Brown, aside from those listed in the formal complaint. During his deposition, plaintiff testified that he believed that Brown seemed angry about the complaint, based on his short answers and demeanor. Brown advised plaintiff that it was likely that plaintiff would not be informed as to the disposition of his complaint against Spaulding.

         Once Brown confirmed with plaintiff that all of his complaints were accurately noted, Brown reviewed the relevant School Board policies. Brown then spoke to Spaulding, who denied the allegations that she and Mrs. King were holding hands in public, lying in bed together, or having an inappropriate relationship. Spaulding did admit to having phone calls and sending text messages with Mrs. King during school hours, but explained that she was trying to help the Kings save their marriage. Brown determined that only the text messaging required corrective action, as he believed that school administrators should be spending their time equally among their employees. He did not, however, believe that the number of text messages supported plaintiffs allegation that the women had an inappropriate relationship, especially because the women were close friends, and Spaulding claimed that she was helping the Kings with their marital issues. Brown did not investigate the contents of the text messages; he believed that the nature of their relationship was not material because it was not against school policy for couples to work together, as long as they did not directly supervise each other. According to her sworn declaration, Dr. Shirley Perry, the current director of human resources for the School Board, confirmed that such a relationship would not violate School Board policy. Brown confirmed that plaintiff was the only person who had complained to him about the relationship between Mrs. King and Spaulding. Until this litigation, Brown was also not aware of any allegations that Spaulding had inappropriately touched plaintiff, or that Spaulding had given plaintiff the middle finger at meetings.

         Plaintiff claims that the School Board took adverse employment actions against him in retaliation for his complaints. First, plaintiff alleges that he was subjected to a hostile environment, and that Brewster was responsible for plaintiffs ostracization at work. Specifically, plaintiff believes that Brewster's demeanor towards him changed after the complaints, and that the other employees were intimidated by Brewster and avoided plaintiff in fear of Brewster's reaction. Plaintiff also claims that Keener, the only person who still spoke to him at the time, was transferred against her will because she was friends with plaintiff. In her deposition, Keener testified that she believed that she was moved to a new position because of a situation that had no relationship to this case. Kimberly Alger, plaintiffs office assistant at Dublin Middle, confirmed that Brewster did not speak to plaintiff, and that the situation was "very tense." Alger Dep. 7:25, Docket No. 56-9. In his deposition, Brewster admitted that he sometimes did not speak to plaintiff. Plaintiff conceded that his explanation for the hostile work environment is purely speculation, and that he is not aware of any comments made by Brewster about him.

         Second, plaintiff claims that he was denied certain promotions in retaliation for his complaints. In 2011, plaintiff applied for a principal position at Pulaski High School ("Pulaski High"), but did not receive an interview. At the time, plaintiff did not have any experience as a high school administrator and had not worked as a high school teacher. According to Brown, there were several applicants for the position, and he believed that plaintiff did not have the experience to take on the role at such a large high school. The individual who was selected for the ...

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