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Steele v. Colorado Springs Early Colleges

United States District Court, D. Colorado

November 18, 2015

DIANNA STEELE, Plaintiff,
v.
COLORADO SPRINGS EARLY COLLEGES, KEITH KING, in his individual capacity, and JASON DILGER, in his individual capacity, Defendants.

ORDER

Kristen L. Mix United States Magistrate Judge

This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff’s Partial Motion for Summary Judgment [#35][1] (the “Motion”).[2] Defendants filed a Response [#36] in opposition to the Motion, and Plaintiff filed a Reply [#38]. The Court has reviewed the Motion, Response, Reply, the entire case file, and the applicable law, and is sufficiently advised in the premises. For the reasons set forth below, the Motion [#35] is GRANTED.

I. Summary of the Case[3]

Based on the following events, Plaintiff asserts a First Amendment free speech retaliation claim.[4] Plaintiff was employed as a full-time English teacher by Defendant Colorado Springs Early Colleges (“CSEC”) for the 2013-2014 school year. Depo. of Pl. [#36-1] at 25. CSEC is a Colorado nonprofit corporation that operates a charter school.[5]Compl. [#1] ¶ 5; Answer [#8] ¶ 5. Plaintiff’s contract with CSEC provided that her at-will employment covered a period from August 1, 2013, through July 30, 2014. Depo. of Pl. [#36-1] at 28-30, 181. Defendant Keith King (“King”) is the administrator of CSEC, “a position equivalent to the chief executive officer of a private company or president of a college.” Final Pretrial Order [#34] at 7-8 ¶ 5 (“Stipulations”). He has the authority to hire or dismiss any employee of CSEC. Id. Defendant Jason Dilger (“Dilger”) was the Head of School of CSEC, “a position equivalent to the principal of a traditional public school.” Id. at 8 ¶ 6. In consultation with Defendant King, Defendant Dilger has the authority to hire or dismiss any employee of CSEC except the administrator and central administration employees. Id.

The majority of the doors to the buildings on the CSEC campus are kept locked except for two doors where the visitor’s center is located. Depo. of Dilger [#36-2] at 23. Visitors to CSEC first check in at the front desk, where they receive a visitor’s pass. Id. at 23-24. After 4:00 pm, all doors, including the two to the visitor’s center, are locked. Id. at 24. In August 2013, Plaintiff was informed of CSEC’s visitor procedures. [#36-1] at 46-47, 49.

Security cameras are not required at schools in Colorado, but CSEC maintains security cameras on its campus. Id. at 60-61; Depo. of King [#36-3] at 35. Generally, indoor cameras show walking areas between the entrances to classrooms. [#36-1] at 61. Suite E is a building which houses the school’s administrative offices and is separate from the buildings housing the student classrooms. [#36-2] at 41-42. In part, outdoor cameras there view a portion of the parking lot where Suite E is located, the parking lot between Suite E and some of the classrooms, and the side entrance of the school from which students exit to board buses. [#36-1] at 61. All cameras were operational at the time underlying the events of this lawsuit. [#36-2] at 27.

On April 3, 2013, a private process server arrived at Suite E and was directed by a CSEC employee to Plaintiff’s classroom because it was after school hours and no students were present. Id. at 40-41; [#36-1] at 55-56. The process server served Plaintiff with legal papers for a lawsuit filed against her and her son (the “Arizona Lawsuit”). [#36-1] at 63-64, 66. Anne Swigard (“Swigard”), the plaintiff in the Arizona Lawsuit, is described by Plaintiff as a “stalker.” Id. at 58-59, 63, 67.

That same day, after being served, Plaintiff asked Stephen Stewart (“Stewart”), an employee in CSEC’s IT office, if she could view the surveillance video showing the process server. Id. at 60-61. The camera footage showed the process server “coming from that side of the parking lot where Suite E is located, coming across the parking lot and to [Plaintiff's] classroom, in the side entrance of the school where the students exit to go out to the bus.” Id. at 61. Other footage showed the process server entering the building and walking to Plaintiff’s classroom. Id.

After reviewing this footage, Plaintiff met with Defendant Dilger. Id. at 62. She told him “Somebody just served me these papers, and I am not sure what it is about, ” and “I just got served. I can’t believe it.” [#36-2] at 35-36.

When Plaintiff left the CSEC campus that night, she started to go home, but, worried that she could be followed, she pulled into Mateos Salon, where she normally gets her hair cut, and went inside the salon to hide because she was “shaken up.” [#36-1] at 75. Plaintiff was distraught because “Ms. Swigard had never gone that far, and now [Plaintiff] was aware that she knew where [Plaintiff] worked and probably where [Plaintiff] live[d]. [Plaintiff] was upset that someone had been able to breach what [she] thought was the sanctity of [her] classroom. It shook [her] up.” Id. at 77. As she hid in the salon, Plaintiff called a woman named Ms. Rivera, whom Plaintiff believed was the head of Human Resources for CSEC. Id. at 78-79. Plaintiff told Ms. Rivera what had occurred, asked Ms. Rivera whether she knew anything about what had happened that day, and asked her to find out what she could do about it. Id. at 78-79.

After Plaintiff went home, she called the police. Id. at 81. An officer came to Plaintiff’s house, and they talked about what happened, what Plaintiff could do, “about what had happened with this woman [Ms. Swigard] up to this point, ” and the efficacy of obtaining a protective order. Id. at 82. Plaintiff ultimately sought to obtain a restraining order against Ms. Swigard in El Paso County, Colorado. Id. at 68. In support of her report to the police and her attempt to obtain a restraining order, on April 4, 2014 (the day after she was served with the Arizona Lawsuit), Plaintiff requested information from CSEC, including (a) a copy of the video footage of the process server; (b) a photograph of the process server; and (c) the name of the CSEC employee who had directed the process server to Plaintiff’s classroom. Id. at 85, 94-95. CSEC provided Plaintiff with each of these items the same day she made the requests. Id. at 98, 108. While making these requests, Plaintiff did not want to share information with CSEC about the circumstances involving the service of legal papers on her because she felt the matter was personal. Id. at 96. Plaintiff took the information she had obtained from CSEC with her to court the following Monday, April 7, but she was unsuccessful in obtaining a restraining order against Ms. Swigard. Id. at 68, 100-01, 110.

The next day, April 8, Plaintiff wrote a memorandum which she submitted to CSEC on April 9 (the “April 9 Memo”). Id. at 112; April 9 Memo [#35-4]. The April 9 Memo states in full:

April 9, 2013

Pursuant to the incident that happened on April 3 in my classroom at CSEC, I have the following concerns, both as the parent of a CSEC student and as an employee:

1. On April 4, I was informed by CSEC Head of Human Resources, Darlisse Rivera, “we have no established policy” on process services and “we don’t do visitor ...

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