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Washington v. Thurgood Marshall Academy

June 19, 2006

JESSICA WASHINGTON, PLAINTIFF,
v.
THURGOOD MARSHALL ACADEMY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Colleen Kollar-kotelly United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Plaintiff, a special education teacher, brings the above-captioned action against her former employer, Defendant Thurgood Marshall Academy ("TMA"), alleging the public charter high school misrepresented her job duties and working hours to induce her to sign a one-year employment contract, then fired her for bringing school violations of the federal Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq., to TMA's attention (or alternatively on account of her familial status or sex), in violation of contract provisions, District of Columbia tort law regarding wrongful discharge, and the D.C. Human Rights Act ("DCHRA"), D.C. Code § 1-2525 et seq. See Compl. ¶¶ 38-45 (Count I -- Breach of Contract), ¶¶ 46-52 (Count II -- Misrepresentation), ¶¶ 53-62 (Count III -- Wrongful Discharge), ¶¶ 63-72 (Count IV -- Violations Under the DC Human Rights Law).

Following extensive discovery, Defendant filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, followed by Plaintiff's Opposition and Defendant's Reply. Upon a searching examination of the filings before the Court, the attached exhibits, the relevant case law, and the entire record herein, the Court shall deny-in-part and grant-in-part Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment with respect to Count I, and shall grant Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment with respect to Counts II, III, and IV. As a result, Plaintiff has one remaining triable claim: her contention within Count I that she did not resign employment at TMA, but rather was involuntarily terminated without cause in violation of Paragraph Eight of her employment contract.

I. BACKGROUND

A. Plaintiff's Job Search, Interview, and Contract

Plaintiff Jessica Washington worked as a Special Education Coordinator from 2001 to 2002 for Friendship Edison Collegiate Academy. Compl. ¶ 8. In early summer 2002 Ms. Washington decided to seek alternate employment, citing a caseload of approximately 100 special education students, long working hours, and the desire to spend more time with her 7 year old daughter. See id. Her job search led her to a Washington Post advertisement for a "Special Education Teacher" position at Thurgood Marshall Academy ("TMA"), a public charter high school located within the District of Columbia. See Compl. ¶ 11; Pl.'s Opp'n, Ex. 10 (7/7/02 Washington Post Advertisement).*fn1 She also viewed an on-line posting for the position on the D.C. Public Charter Board Link, and followed a link from that site to TMA's website, which also listed the opening. See Pl.'s Opp'n Ex. 1 (2/8/05 Washington Dep.) at 45:2-47:20.

On July 1, 2002, in response to the advertisement, Washington submitted a résumé "to be considered for your Special Education position." See Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J., Ex. 3 (7/1/02 Washington Cover Letter). TMA Principal Joseph Feldman telephoned Washington after receiving her application. Compl. ¶ 13; Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J., Ex. 2 (2/8/05 Washington Dep.) at 45:7-22, 54:7-12. In the ensuing 3-5 minute conversation, Washington answered general questions about special education, and inquired who would provide "related services" for the special education students. Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J., Ex. 2 (2/8/05 Washington Dep.) at 57:4-5, 58:1-8. Principal Feldman told Washington that the school had contracted with another company, End-toEnd Solutions ("ETES"), to provide related services, which include psychological counseling, occupational therapy, and speech and language therapy. Id. at 58:1-60:15. In a second 3-5 minute conversation at a later date, Washington arranged for a face-to-face interview with TMA. Id. at 55:6-56:4.

In July 2002, Washington met with Principal Feldman and TMA Curriculum Coordinator Nicole Richardson for her face-to-face interview. Compl. ¶ 14. Washington learned she "would be expected to help TMA in setting up their special education program." Id. Ms. Washington inquired about the school's other special education staff, and learned that there were none. Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J., Ex. 2 (2/8/05 Washington Dep.) at 84:2-85:3. Washington then asked how many special education students the school had, and was told six. Id. at 85:10-13. Principal Feldman and Ms. Richardson laughed about how much smaller this was from her previous caseload. Id. at 85:14-16. She was also informed that the workday would be from 8:15 a.m. until 4:00 p.m., see Compl. ¶ 14, but that she would be required to attend Monday staff meetings, and that TMA students were required to participate in a tutorial program until 6:00 p.m. daily. Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J., Ex. 2 (2/8/05 Washington Dep.) at 77:20-78:9. Concerned about the implications of this tutorial program for her working hours, Washington inquired what time she could expect to leave work, and was told between 4:00 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. Id. at 78:1-12, 195:7-9. Finally, she learned from an article she read while waiting for her interview that the school had been in existence for only one year, had a class of only ninth graders in the previous, but would have ninth and tenth graders in the current class. Id. at 85:17-86:10. The entire interview took no longer than 5 minutes. Id. at 67:15-68:2.

Washington was subsequently offered employment and accepted, signing a written contract with TMA on August 1, 2002 (hereinafter, "the Employment Contract" or "the Contract"). Compl. ¶ 17; Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J., Statement of Facts Not Genuinely in Dispute ("Def.'s Statement of Facts") ¶ 1. The Employment Contract stipulates: "As a Special Education Teacher, you will be responsible for creating curriculum, assessing students, and modifying instruction in order to effectively address student academic needs, and any other appropriate responsibilities as a professional staff member of TMA." Compl., Ex. 1 (8/1/02 Employment Agreement) ¶ 2. The Contract specifies a term of employment as commencing on August 1, 2002, and ending on July 31, 2003, id. ¶ 3, and provides for an annualized base salary of $40,000 with possible bonuses of $1500 per semester, contingent on performance reviews given by the Principal, id. ¶ 5. Moreover, the Employment Contract provides for two allowable methods of termination - voluntary resignation and involuntary termination for cause - and lists detailed procedures for each possibility. Id. ¶ 8. A standard merger clause states that the agreement "sets forth the entire understanding" of the parties and "supersedes all prior agreements and communications," while further requiring that any modification of the agreement be in writing. Id. ¶ 15.

B. Plaintiff's Job Preparations, Teaching, and Complaints to Defendant About Her Duties, Working Hours, and Bonus Evaluation

After signing her employment agreement, Washington prepared for her job by preparing a list of her job duties, applying for medical insurance coverage, and attending teacher orientation week. See Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J., Ex. 2 (2/8/05 Washington Dep.) at 227:9-228:17 (preparing a list of job duties), 113:21-114:13 (applying for medical insurance coverage), 114:14-115:2 (attending teacher orientation week).

On August 2, 2002, Washington prepared a list of job duties and criteria she proposed be used to conduct her bonus evaluation. See Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J., Ex. 7 (8/2/02 "Special Education Responsibilities and Duties Evaluation Criteria Check List"). The duties included, inter alia: "Be knowledgeable of, and comply with relevant state and local regulations governing special education," provide updates on "legal compliance," and "identify special education students." Id. The document also lists a number of duties related to developing and administering TMA's special education program in its twelve short paragraphs. Id. These duties include setting up and maintaining records; beginning a student database; developing administrative procedures for referral, assessment, placement, and Individual Education Program ("IEP") development/review; creating a schedule for services; meeting with teachers to adapt special education instruction; and determining the need for additional resources. Id. Washington sent this list to Principal Feldman on August 2, 2002. See id. Feldman responded with a modified list, but the parties apparently never settled on one list to serve as Washington's definitive bonus evaluation criteria. Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J., Ex. 2 (2/8/05 Washington Dep.) at 228:3-229:13; Pl.'s Opp'n, Ex. 13 (undated "Expectations of TMA Special Education Coordinator for SY 2002-2003 (draft)"). Washington apparently recognized the wide scope of her duties when -- on August 12, 2002 -- she completed an application for medical insurance coverage. On the application, she listed her occupation as "Special Education Coordinator." See Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J., Ex. 5 (8/12/02 Insurance Application).

On or about either August 5 or 9, 2002, Washington attended Teacher Orientation Week at TMA. Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J., Ex. 2 (2/8/05 Washington Dep.) at 114:14-115:2. During orientation, she learned of a number of support duties TMA expected of its staff. Id. at 114:14-116:8. These duties included participating in the "critical friends" teacher evaluation program, a "professional portfolio" program, acting as an adviser, attending meetings on weeknights other than Mondays, and staying after school to ensure that "tutored students attended and stayed for their tutoring sessions." Id.; see also id. at 108:1-10;Compl. ¶ 24. Washington learned she would have to "support the rituals and expectations of the school, attend all the school celebrations, open houses and grading conferences, be at school from 8:15 to 6:00," and -- on a rotating schedule -- complete cafeteria duty and hallway duty. Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J., Ex. 2 (2/8/05 Washington Dep.) at 110:8-111:9. Around this time Mr. Feldman added a one school-period social studies class to Ms. Washington's roster of teaching duties. Id. at 109:10-16.

In late August, 2002, Washington finally began teaching at TMA. Initially her "class size and teaching duties were sufficient" and corresponded to expectations she had developed in her phone conversations and interview. Compl. ¶ 20. For instance, immediately after Washington was hired she was assigned a special education class of approximately six children. Id. According to Plaintiff, however, her duties soon increased beyond what she had anticipated for her position. See Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J., Ex. 2 (2/8/05 Washington Dep.) at 114:14-116:8. After a review of student files, Washington discovered 15 to 18 special education students with records. Id. at 136:16-137:18. She went to previous schools and contacted parents, and located those students' records for TMA. Id. Washington "met with TMA officials a number of times concerning the new duties and expanded duties." Compl. ¶ 25; see also Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. (2/8/05 Washington Dep.)at 134:16-135:5. At these meetings she also "discussed with TMA that it was not complying with the requirements under IDEA." Compl. ¶ 25; see also Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. (2/8/05 Washington Dep.)at 172:9-173:3.

After one such conversation, Principal Feldman responded in writing on September 26, 2002. See Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J., Ex. 9 (9/26/02 E-mail from Joseph Feldman to Jessica Washington). Feldman emphasized that "the non-special education responsibilities (gym, attendance, advisory, detention, Saturday) are pretty much what we all do around here." Id. Moreover, Feldman arranged for Washington to no longer have to teach her social studies class as of October 7, 2002. Id. Finally, he urged Washington to interact more closely with ETES, explaining that ETES employees Nancy and Brenda "were resources to help us" and that "they have been hired to make sure we are in compliance" with IDEA and other disabilities laws. Id.

On November 1, 2002, Washington had a discussion with TMA Executive Joshua Kern about IDEA compliance. See Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J., Ex. 2 (2/8/05 Washington Dep.) at 172:21-173:22. She "informed him that the students were suffering, that the school was in noncompliance, and that [she] had identified several additional students[.]" Id. During this meeting, Washington also raised -- for the first time -- the issue of the alleged inadequacy of her salary. Id. at 189:3-17. She "informed Feldman and Kern that she had been contacted by another school about a possible position and to let her know whether or not TMA would increase her salary." Compl. ¶ 29; see also Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J., Ex. 2 (2/8/05 Washington Dep.) at 189:6-8, 198:14-15. The firmness and exact nature of this "demand" are disputed, see Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J., Ex. 2 (2/8/05 Washington Dep.) at 195:16-198:15, but in any case it precipitated the eventual termination of Washington's employment at TMA, as later events will show.

Indeed, all was not rosy for Ms. Washington at TMA throughout the remainder of 2002. On November 18, 2002, she received a less-than-encouraging memorandum from Principal Feldman summarizing a conversation about her informal evaluation of November 5, 2002. See Pl.'s Opp'n, Ex. 23 (11/18/02 Mem. from Joseph Feldman to Jessica Washington re: Informal Evaluation). The November 18, 2002 memorandum stated that "if [thusfar] were the semester you would not receive any bonus." Id. However, Feldman expressed his "hope that this conversation and memo will clarify my expectations and that you can be successful by the time of the semester's formal evaluation." Id. The memo indicated several positive performance areas, as well as several areas in need of improvement, including timeliness in responding to requests for information, attentiveness to advisory duties, working closely with ETES, and adhering to schedule. Id. Washington expressed dissatisfaction with this review, complaining in an e-mail the same day that "My bonus [should be] primarily based on what we agreed to and not things added arbitrarily at your whim. I am being paid at a significantly lower annual salary than previous years . . . ." See Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J., Ex. 8 (10/18/02 E-mail from Jessica Washington to Joseph Feldman). On November 22, 2002, Kern advised Washington that he needed more time to look into the issues they had discussed in the previous weeks. Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J., Ex. 2 (2/8/05 Washington Dep.) at 210:20-211:12. Washington "just continued" doing her job for several weeks, until she again asked Kern on December 20, 2002, just before the school's winter break, if he "had come up with anything" regarding the issues they had discussed. See id. at 244:19-247:11. In response, Kern asked Washington to meet him at a Starbucks at 7:00 p.m that evening. See id. at 244:19-248:5; Compl. ¶ 31.

C. Termination of Plaintiff's Employment

Kern opened the December 20, 2002 meeting with Washington at Starbucks by stating "I think it's in the best interest that Thurgood Marshall is asking you to resign." Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J., Ex. 2 (2/8/05 Washington Dep.) at 249:20-250:1. According to Plaintiff, she did not affirmatively respond to Kern's statement -- that is, she never specifically refused to resign during this exchange, but "never said, 'Yeah, okay,' either." Id. at 258:1-5. Following his request that she resign, Plaintiff remembers that Kern continued, "I don't think it's in the best interest of TMA at this time to increase your salary at this time [sic], because our budget is set at the beginning of the year, and we're not in the position to increase your salary." Id. at 250:4-8. Elaborating, he stated that at first he believed Washington had demanded more money after a bad day, but after several repetitions he realized she was serious. See id. at 252:5-253:12. "The money is not there to change your salary or your duties," Kern apparently concluded. Id. at 253:19-21. "In shock," Washington asked when would be her last day. Id. at 252:1-4, 255:2-3. Kern replied that"[t]oday," would be her final day with TMA, as the school already had found a replacement for her position. Id. at 255:4-8. Her last check would be January 3, 2003. Id. Kern and Washington arranged to meet the next day at the school so she could collect her personal belongings. Id. at 257:12-22.

The next day, December 21, 2002, Washington sent a short follow-up e-mail to Kern. See Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J., Ex. 11 (12/21/02 E-mail from Jessica Washington to Joshua Kern). According to the e-mail, Kern "asked for my resignation . . . due to [his] refusal to provide the salary increase I requested." See id. Washington wrote that, "However, I am offering my 90 day resignation as stipulated in our employment contract only if my salary is paid for the duration of the 90 day period." Id. In reply, Kern wrote that he had "asked for [her] resignation effective immediately based on two previous conversations we had over the last month in which you presented me an ultimatum of paying you more and / or reducing your responsibilities or you would accept another position that you were being offered." Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J., Ex. 12 (12/21/02 E-mail from Joshua Kern to Jessica Washington). Kern believed Washington had "agreed to resign effective immediately" the previous night. See id. Alternatively, Kern viewed Washington's follow-up e-mail as giving her 90 day notice under the terms of the contract. See id. In either case, Washington was "no longer employed at TMA." Id.

The foregoing events led to Washington filing a Complaint with this Court on December 18, 2003, wherein Washington claims that:TMA misrepresented her job duties and working hours to induce her to sign a one-year employment contract, then fired her for bringing school violations of the federal Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq., to its attention (or alternatively on account of her familial status or sex). See Compl. ¶¶ 38-45 (Count I -- Breach of Contract), ¶¶ 46-52 (Count II -- Misrepresentation), ¶¶ 53-62 (Count III -- Wrongful Discharge), ¶¶ 63-72 (Count IV -- Violations Under the DC Human Rights Law).

II. LEGALSTANDARDS

A party is entitled to summary judgment if the pleadings, depositions, and affidavits demonstrate that there is no genuine issue of material fact in dispute and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); Tao v. Freeh, 27 F.3d 635, 638 (D.C. Cir. 1994). Under the summary judgment standard, Defendant, as the moving party, bears the "initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for [its] motion, and identifying those portions of the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits which [it] believe[s] demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). Plaintiff, in response to Defendants' motion, must "go beyond the ...


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