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Miller v. I.S.D. No. 196: US District Court : EMPLOYMENT - jurisdiction as to some claims, not others; summary judgment for employer as to firing

1All disputed facts are construed in the light most favorable
to plaintiff, the non-moving party. Hughes v. Strottlemyre, 454
F.3d 791, 793 (8th Cir. 2006). The facts as stated in this Opinion
are based solely upon the pleadings, and are not binding factual
determinations.
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
DISTRICT OF MINNESOTA
07-CV-1368(JMR/FLN)
Michelle Miller )
)
v. ) ORDER
)
Independent School District )
No. 196 and David Schmitz )
Plaintiff, Michelle Miller, claims defendants, Independent
School District No. 196 and David Schmitz, wrongfully terminated
her employment, in violation of her Fourteenth Amendment rights to
equal protection and substantive due process. She further claims
the School District is liable for breach of contract, and Mr.
Schmitz is liable for tortious interference with contractual
relations.
Defendants move for dismissal for lack of subject matter
jurisdiction, or, in the alternative, for summary judgment.
Defendants’ motions are granted.
I. Background1
Independent School District No. 196 serves Apple Valley, Eagan,
and Rosemount, Minnesota. Plaintiff worked as a campus security
specialist at the School District’s Area Learning Center (“ALC”).
2
The ALC serves at-risk high school students who have experienced
behavioral problems in mainstream schools. The ALC was housed in
a privately-owned office building and, under the lease agreement,
the School District was required to employ a campus security
specialist to monitor students.
David Schmitz is the ALC coordinator, a position analogous to
a school principal. In that capacity, he interviewed plaintiff for
the campus security specialist position. The campus security
specialist is a non-licensed position which is not covered by the
teachers’ collective bargaining agreement. After the interview, he
recommended the school board hire plaintiff. His recommendation was
adopted; plaintiff was hired, effective November 1, 2004, for the
remainder of the school year for a term expiring June 9, 2005.
David Schmitz directly supervised plaintiff.
As the campus security specialist, plaintiff was to monitor the
building’s first floor and adjacent parking lot. She was required
to observe students as they entered and exited the school and report
any misconduct. If students got into a fight, she was not to
intervene. Instead, she carried a walkie-talkie to alert other
school personnel, including Schmitz, so others could intervene.
Defendants have produced evidence showing instances where
plaintiff performed poorly in this position. While these
performance issues were not contemporaneously documented, Schmitz
testified to multiple instances when plaintiff failed to meet
3
expectations. These incidents particularly dealt with plaintiff’s
failure to interact with and appropriately monitor student activity.
On separate occasions, both Schmitz and District Superintendent John
Currie observed plaintiff yelling at students. According to
defendants, her behavior exacerbated already tense situations,
causing them to escalate. Defendants claim plaintiff failed to
learn students’ names, a skill required in order to provide accurate
misconduct reports. Defendants further claim plaintiff failed to
adequately monitor the building, took unauthorized breaks in the
second floor lunch room, and left the scene of a student fight
before supervisors arrived to intervene. Plaintiff admitted a
number of these performance deficits during her deposition.
Notably, she admits to failing to learn the students’ names and
report student misconduct to her supervisor.
On April 4, 2005, Schmitz telephoned plaintiff and notified her
she was being terminated. According to plaintiff, “He said, ‘Your
job is done.’ I asked him why. He said he was going to take a
different direction in security, and I did not know all the kids’
names.” (Pl.’s Dep. 36, Sept. 6, 2007.) According to plaintiff,
Mr. Schmitz said he had already spoken with his supervisor, Mark
Parr, and District Superintendent Currie, and it was a “done deal.”
(Pl.’s Affidavit 3.)
Under School District policy, Schmitz was authorized, as the
ALC coordinator, to recommend employee hirings and discharges to
4
the school board. His decision to terminate plaintiff, effective
April 4, 2005, was approved by the board on April 25, 2005.
Plaintiff was informed of the school board’s termination action by
letter dated April 28, 2005. She did not contest her termination
before the school board or seek administrative or judicial review of
the school board’s decision.
More than six months later, in November, 2005, plaintiff
learned the school district had hired Schmitz’s brother, Allen, to
replace her. She then called School District officials, including
Superintendent Currie, to inquire about her termination and the
circumstances surrounding her replacement.
Plaintiff filed suit against defendants on February 28, 2007.
She contends Schmitz fired her to create an opening for his brother,
wrongfully engaging in district-approved nepotism. She claims,
pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, defendants violated her
constitutionally-protected rights to equal protection of the law and
substantive due process when she was terminated. She also asks the
Court to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over state law claims
for breach of contract by the School District, and tortious
interference with contractual relations by Schmitz. Defendants move
to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction, or, in the alternative, for
summary judgment.
5
II. Subject Matter Jurisdiction
Defendants deny this Court’s subject matter jurisdiction over
plaintiff’s claims in light of Minnesota law limiting judicial
review of a public employee’s termination. Under Minnesota law,
such claims must be brought before the Minnesota Court of Appeals by
writ of certiorari. Public employees seeking judicial review of a
termination by an executive body with less than statewide
jurisdiction must petition for writ for certiorari before the
Minnesota Court of Appeals within 60 days of notice of the
termination. Tischer v. Housing and Redevelopment Authority of
Cambridge, 693 N.W.2d 426, 428, 429 n.3 (Minn. 2005); see Minn.
Stat. § 606.01 (2007). A school board is one such executive body.
Dokmo v. Indep. Sch. Dst. No. 11, 459 N.W.2d 671, 674 (Minn. 1990).
Minnesota’s rule is based on separation of powers principles
between the judicial and executive branches. The principles require
that deference be given to an executive body’s discretionary
decision. Tischer, 693 N.W.2d at 429. Absent statutory authority
to the contrary, certiorari is the exclusive remedy for judicial
review of a wrongful termination. Willis v. County of Sherburne,
555 N.W.2d 277, 282 (Minn. 1996); Dietz v. Dodge County, 487 N.W.2d
237, 239 (Minn. 1992). This rule applies to any relief which falls
under the “umbrella of a wrongful employment termination claim,”
Tischer, 693 N.W.2d at 432, including claims for breach of
contract or tortious interference. See id.; Grundtner v. Univ. of
6
Minnesota, 730 N.W.2d 323, 333 (Minn. Ct. App. 2007). A federal
court presented with a state law claim by reason of supplemental
jurisdiction is bound by this jurisdictional bar. See Larson v.
City of Fergus Falls, 229 F.3d 692, 695 (8th Cir. 2000).
In this case, plaintiff’s state claims for breach of contract
and tortious inference, brought as supplemental claims pursuant to
28 U.S.C. § 1367, are actually challenges to the School District’s
termination of her employment. Were the Court to hear these claims,
it would necessarily scrutinize the School District’s discretionary
decision. Such review is only available by certiorari under
Minnesota law. See Grundtner, 730 N.W.2d at 333. Accordingly, this
Court lacks jurisdiction over these claims. See Larson, 229 F.3d at
695.
The Court reaches a contrary conclusion regarding plaintiff’s
claims for violations of equal protection and substantive due
process brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. As to these claims,
the Court has original jurisdiction. Charchenko v. City of
Stillwater, 47 F.3d 981, 984 (8th Cir. 1995). State law cannot
restrict a federal court’s original jurisdiction to hear a federal
claim. Id. (quoting Loudermill v. Cleveland Bd. of Educ. 721 F.2d
550, 559 (6th Cir. 1983) (“The choice of whether to proceed in a
state or federal forum, however, necessarily belongs to the
plaintiffs and they cannot be deprived of it by a state rule which
gives preclusive effect to unappealed state administrative
7
decisions.”)). It is true that, under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine,
a federal court may lack jurisdiction to hear a federal claim when
the relief sought in the federal forum would effectively reverse or
void a state court ruling. See Bechthold v. City of Rosemount, 104
F.3d 1062, 1065-66 (8th Cir. 1997); Charchenko, 47 F.3d at 983; see
generally District of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S.
462 (1983); Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413 (1923). But
plaintiff did not seek relief in state court. In fact, she did not
even seek administrative review of the school board’s decision to
terminate her. Here, there is no state court judgment which might
restrict this Court’s jurisdiction over plaintiff’s § 1983 claims.
Accordingly, the Court finds it has jurisdiction to hear plaintiff’s
federal claims.
III. Summary Judgment on Federal Claims
The Court turns to defendants’ motion for summary judgment.
Defendants contend plaintiff has failed to establish facts necessary
to support her claims, and they are entitled to judgment as a matter
of law. The Court agrees.
A. Summary Judgment Standard
Summary judgment is appropriate when there are no material
facts in dispute and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a
matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56; Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477
U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S.
242, 250 (1986). The party opposing summary judgment may not rest
8
upon the allegations set forth in its pleadings, but must produce
significant probative evidence demonstrating a genuine issue for
trial. See Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250; see also Hartnagel v. Norman,
953 F.2d 394, 395-96 (8th Cir. 1992).
B. Equal Protection
According to plaintiff, Schmitz violated her right to equal
protection when he allegedly terminated her employment to create an
opening for his brother. The purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment’s
equal protection clause “is to secure every person within the
State’s jurisdiction against intentional and arbitrary
discrimination.” Village of Willowbrook v. Olech, 528 U.S. 562, 564
(2000) (quotations omitted).
Plaintiff does not base her claim on any protected status such
as gender or race. Instead, her claim is based on the so-called
“class of one” equal protection theory, which is analyzed under the
rational basis test. Willowbrook, 528 U.S. at 564. Under this
test, plaintiff must show a state actor treated her differently from
others similarly situated, and an absence of any rational basis for
the difference in treatment. Id. The parties both argue whether
there was a rational basis for the School District’s decision to
hire Allen Schmitz after plaintiff’s firing. But plaintiff’s claim
is premised on the School District’s decision to terminate her, not
its decision to hire Allen Schmitz. If there was a valid reason to
terminate her employment, she has no basis to complain of her
9
successor’s identity. Accordingly, the Court must focus on (1)
whether plaintiff herself was treated differently from similarly
situated persons; and (2) whether the School District had a rational
basis for her termination. Id.
In order to survive a motion for summary judgment on such a
claim, plaintiff must produce evidence showing she was treated
differently from others similarly situated, and show lack of a
rational basis for the decision to end her employment. She bears
the burden of producing evidence necessitating a trial on the
merits. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. Plaintiff has not done so.
Plaintiff has failed to produce any evidence showing she was
treated differently from any similarly situated person. King v.
Hardesty, 06-CV-4163, 2008 WL 539238, at *10 (8th Cir. Feb. 29,
2008) (emphasizing a plaintiff’s burden to show she was disciplined
differently than other similarly situated employees). There is
nothing in the record showing the School District treated similarly
situated persons differently; there is simply no comparator.
Plaintiff’s equal protection claim fails on this basis alone. See
id.; Creason v. City of Washington, 435 F.3d 820, 823-24 (8th Cir.
2006). Plaintiff cannot simply claim she was treated unfairly;
fairness is not constitutionally protected.
Furthermore, plaintiff has failed to show the School District
was without a rational basis for its treatment of plaintiff. Once
again, plaintiff has the burden, under rational basis review, to
10
negate “any reasonably conceivable state of facts that could provide
a rational basis for the [dissimilar treatment].” Bd. of Trustees
of Univ. of Ala. v. Garrett, 531 U.S. 356, 367 (2001). Even after
construing the facts in the light most favorable to plaintiff, the
Court finds the record establishes plaintiff had job performance
problems.
Plaintiff admits in her deposition testimony that Schmitz told
her she was being terminated for poor job performance. According to
plaintiff, Schmitz told her “he was going to take a different
direction in security, and I did not know all the kids’ names.”
(Pl.’s Dep. 36.) She acknowledges she had been told to learn the
students’ names and failed to do so. (Id. at 37-40, 53.)
Defendants have produced unrebutted evidence showing plaintiff was
told that, if a conflict arose between students, she was to stay at
- and monitor - the situation, and use her walkie-talkie to call for
assistance. Plaintiff admits that, rather than radioing for help,
she sometimes left the scene to find a supervisor to intervene in
the fight. (Id. at 24, 52-54.) She also admits she failed at times
to report student misconduct to supervisors, as she was required to
do. (Id. at 25-26.) Lacking knowledge of the students’ names, she
failed to fulfill her duty to advise staff of the names of offending
students. (Id. at 52-54.) An at-will employee may certainly be
terminated for performance problems. See Somers v. City of
2While the Court need not decide whether Schmitz, indeed, fired
plaintiff to hire his brother, it is fair to state that the
evidence in support of this contention is scant.
3Plaintiff’s complaint claims a substantive due process
deprivation. Her brief in response to this summary judgment motion
discusses procedural due process law, but, at oral argument, her
attorney agreed she has made no claim for violation of procedural
due process rights.
11
Minneapolis, 245 F.3d 782, 785 (8th Cir. 2001); Reierson v. City of
Hibbing, 628 N.W.2d 201, 204 (Minn. Ct. App. 2001).
There were real, substantiated, and plaintiff-acknowledged
reasons which fully support the School District’s decision to end
her employment. Under these circumstances - where the School
District was fully entitled to fire plaintiff – any secondary
intention to substitute Schmitz’s brother is irrelevant.2 Given the
performance problems plaintiff herself admits, the Court finds a
reasonably conceivable rational basis existed for the School
District to terminate her. Her equal protection claim fails.
C. Substantive Due Process
Plaintiff’s substantive due process claim is equally
unsupported. She claims a substantive due process deprivation based
on a claimed property interest in her employment.3 The Fourteenth
Amendment’s substantive due process clause “protects individual
liberty against certain government actions regardless of the
fairness of the procedures used to implement them.” Ganley v.
Minneapolis Park and Recreation Bd., 491 F.3d 743, 749 (8th Cir.
2007) (quotations omitted). To establish a substantive due process
12
violation, plaintiff must show she “possessed a right arising under
the Fourteenth Amendment,” id., and the School District deprived her
of that right through action that “is truly irrational, that is
something more than . . . arbitrary, capricious, or in violation of
state law.” Id. (quotations omitted).
Even assuming plaintiff had a property interest in her
employment protected by substantive due process - a highly
problematic assumption - she has failed to show her termination was
truly irrational. Indeed, as the Court has already found,
plaintiff’s admissions establish the School District’s rational
basis for its action in terminating her. Thus, its decision to end
her employment was “not so arbitrary or conscience-shocking as to
violate due process.” Id. (quotations omitted). As the Eighth
Circuit Court of Appeals recently emphasized, “employmentdiscrimination
laws have not vested in the federal courts the
authority to sit as super-personnel departments reviewing the wisdom
or fairness of the business judgments made by employers, except to
the extent that those judgments involve intentional discrimination.”
King, 2008 WL 539238, at *10. The Court finds plaintiff has failed
to establish facts to support her substantive due process claim, and
it must be dismissed.
Because the Court finds plaintiff’s equal protection and
substantive due process claims fail as a matter of law, it is
unnecessary to examine other defenses raised by defendants.
13
IV. Conclusion
For the foregoing reasons, IT IS ORDERED that defendants’
motion to dismiss, or in the alternative, for summary judgment
[Docket No. 14] is granted, and plaintiff’s complaint is dismissed
with prejudice.
Dated: March 28th, 2008
s/ James M. Rosenbaum
JAMES M. ROSENBAUM
United States Chief District Judge
 

 
 
 

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