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Mondragon v. Adams County School District No. 14

United States District Court, D. Colorado

February 24, 2017

ROBYN MONDRAGON f.k.a. ROBYN DURAN, Plaintiff,
v.
ADAMS COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 14, ADAMS COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 14 BOARD OF EDUCATION, PATRICK SANCHEZ, individually and in his official capacity, KANDY STEEL, individually and her official capacity, WALTER KRAMARZ, individually and in his official capacity, JAMES DURAN, individually and in his official capacity, and CHERRY CREEK SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 5, Defendants.

          ORDER

          LEWIS T. BABCOCK, JUDGE

         This employment discrimination case is before me on (1) Defendant Patrick Sanchez's motions to dismiss the complaint and amended complaint (ECF Nos. 37, 70); (2) Defendants Adams County School District No. 14 (the “District”), Adams County School District No. 14 Board of Education (the “Board”), and Walter Kramarz's (collectively, “Adams”) motion to dismiss the amended complaint; and (3) Plaintiff Robyn Mondragon's motion for default judgment against defendant James Duran. (Mot. Default Judgment, ECF No. 17.)

         In light of amended complaint, I DENY as moot Mr. Sanchez's motion to dismiss the initial complaint. (Sanchez's Mot. Dismiss, ECF No. 37). For the reasons described below, I GRANT IN PART and DENY IN PART Mr. Sanchez's motion to dismiss the amended complaint (Sanchez's Mot. Dismiss, ECF No. 70.), and I GRANT IN PART and DENY IN PART Adams's Motion to Dismiss Amended Complaint (Adams's Mot. Dismiss, ECF No. 71.) Because the clerk has not entered default as to Mr. Duran, I DENY WITHOUT PREJUDICE Dr. Mondragon's Motions for Default Judgment against Defendant James Duran. (Mot. Default Judgment, ECF No. 17.)

         I. BACKGROUND

         Unless otherwise noted, the allegations described below are taken from Dr. Mondragon's amended complaint. (Am. Compl., ECF No. 64.)

         Adams County School District No. 14 is a public school district in Colorado, governed by its Board of Education. Roughly 83% of the District's students are Hispanic. In March 2010, the United States Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights (“OCR”) launched an investigation into discriminatory and retaliatory education and employment practices by the Board and the District. (OCR Report, ECF No. 47-1.) In 2012, the District removed its former superintendent and hired Mr. Sanchez. (Id. at 3.)

         In April 2014, the OCR issued a report concluding that the Board and District engaged in discriminatory education and employment practices targeted at Hispanic and Spanish-speaking students and staff from 2008-12. (Id. at 2.) The OCR report concluded “that District administration targeted the use of Spanish by students and staff for criticism, discipline, unfair treatment, and ‘eradication' regardless of the circumstances, situations or venue.” (Id. at 6.) For instance, a teacher “told students they could go back to Mexico” and was not punished. (Id. at 8-9.) A principal made “derogatory comments about Hispanic students and parents regarding their cultural differences and poverty, ” including once telling a staff member to “not worry about Hispanic students making messes in the bathrooms because Mexicans are poor, that Mexicans didn't use toilet paper, there were few restrooms in Mexico and Mexican children did not know how to use a restroom.” (Id. at 9.) The District involuntarily moved Hispanic staff to “unfamiliar grades and subject areas in an effort to increase teachers' personal prep time, workloads [sic] to set teachers up for failure, and ultimately intimidate teachers to leave.” (Id. at 11.) The OCR report's conclusions were widely reported in the media.

         The District and Mr. Sanchez agreed to voluntarily resolve the violations described in the OCR report. Relevant to this case, the District agreed to “[p]romptly investigate all incidents of harassment on the basis of race, color, or national origin, ” hire a new grievance officer, create a central database to track complaints of discrimination, renew its anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies, and prohibit retaliation against persons who report alleged harassment or participate in related proceedings.

         The District recruited Dr. Mondragon, an expert in equity in education who worked at Cherry Creek School District in Colorado, to rectify the illegal practices and restore the District's reputation in the community. Dr. Mondragon started working with the District in July 2014, and in January 2015, was promoted to Chief Equity and Communications Officer. Her work had an immediate and positive effect on the district.

         One of Dr. Mondragon's duties was to investigate discrimination and retaliation complaints from staff, parents, and students. In November 2014, the Board received 21 letters complaining of discrimination at Rose Elementary School based on Hispanic/Latino race or speaking Spanish. Dr. Mondragon conducted an extensive investigation into the complaints, interviewing witnesses and reviewing relevant documents. After her two-month investigation, Dr. Mondragon concluded that administrators at Rose Elementary had created an atmosphere of distrust and implemented disproportionate measures against certain parents. Dr. Mondragon reported her findings and recommendations to remedy the situation in a January 30, 2015 report.

         Mr. Sanchez, who was having an extramarital affair with the principal of Rose Elementary, balked at the report's conclusions. At a meeting held on February, 6, 2015, he asked Dr. Mondragon to change her conclusions, a request Dr. Mondragon found not just inappropriate but a violation of the OCR agreement. She refused. Undeterred, Mr. Sanchez inappropriately accessed Dr. Mondragon's computer to make changes to her final report.

         Mr. Sanchez then launched an investigation into Dr. Mondragon without her knowledge. Around March 9, 2015, Mr. Sanchez stripped her of her investigatory duties, cutting off an investigation into a discrimination complaint filed by a Hispanic teacher. Later that month, the deputy superintendent, Kandy Steel, physically confronted Dr. Mondragon and admonished her about her leadership style. The next day, Mr. Sanchez, Ms. Steel, and Dr. Mondragon met and discussed trust and loyalty interactions with women, a conversation that struck Dr. Mondragon as bizarre.

         Mr. Sanchez's investigation of Dr. Mondragon included repeated communications with James Duran, Dr. Mondragon's estranged husband, beginning in March 2015. Mr. Duran, who is a family friend of Mr. Sanchez's, reported that Dr. Mondragon was having an affair with a District employee. This allegation was not true. However, according Mr. Duran, at some point Mr. Sanchez confirmed that the affair had been going on for some time and also said he had “tons of proof” regarding the affair. Mr. Sanchez also told Mr. Duran that Dr. Mondragon “had been engaged in various underhanded behavior and was probably going to be reprimanded very soon.” Mr. Sanchez's communications about Dr. Mondragon's employment was a violation of the District's policies.

         In late March, Mr. Duran and Mr. Sanchez met at a bar. According to the District, Mr. Duran invited Mr. Sanchez to meet; according to Mr. Duran, the meeting was coincidental. The next day, Mr. Sanchez put Dr. Mondragon on investigatory leave without any explanation.

         On April 2, 2015, Dr. Mondragon formally complained of discrimination and retaliation to Jack Kronser, the Acting Chief Director of Human Resources at the District. Despite the OCR settlement agreement's requirement of prompt investigations into allegations of discrimination, the District never investigated Dr. Mondragon's complaint.

         On April 6, 2015, Mr. Duran warned Dr. Mondragon that “all hell is going to break loose today for you. I'm sorry for what I've done and what is coming.” That same day, Dr. Mondragon was called to a meeting with Mr. Kronser and his executive assistant, Yessica O'Conner, who took the notes during the meeting. Mr. Kronser reported that “people” had said that Dr. Mondragon's meetings lacked focus and that she was trying to align people against Mr. Sanchez. Mr. Kronser also questioned Dr. Mondragon's leadership, particularly as it pertained to “gender distrust.” Mr. Kronser also brought up Dr. Mondragon's conduct at a conference at Houston, where Dr. Mondragon drank to the point that she threw up in a bar's bathroom. Mr. Kronser reported the allegation that Dr. Mondragon was having an affair with a District employee, and Dr. Mondragon refused to respond to that allegation. Other topics at the meeting included allegations that Dr. Mondragon disparaged the effectiveness of Mr. Kramarz, the District's general counsel, and “attacked leadership” by suggesting that perhaps people questioned her leadership because she was a person of color. Dr. Mondragon was given the opportunity to respond to the allegations at the meeting.

         Given the deteriorating situation at the District, Dr. Mondragon considered starting her own business. She contacted some friends who worked at Cherry Creek as high-level and cabinet employees. One of her friends, Jennifer Perry, told her that a Cherry Creek principal was authorized to set aside funding for a contract involving equity work. Ms. Perry and Dr. Mondragon met to discuss this possibility, and Dr. Mondragon met with two other executive-level officials who expressed enthusiasm about the idea.

         On May 8, 2015, while she was still in talks with Cherry Creek about possible contract work, Dr. Mondragon learned that the District planned to terminate her employment before her contract ended on June 30, 2015. She did not learn why she was being terminated.

         On May 19, 2015, Mr. Kramarz called Cherry Creek to ask whether they planned to rehire or consult with Dr. Mondragon. That same day, Cherry Creek School District's Educational Operations Leadership Team met to discuss various topics, including a potential contract for Dr. Mondragon. Dr. Mondragon received text messages about the meeting, informing her that “folks were advised not to let schools hire [Dr. Mondragon's] company, ” and that “someone from Adams spoke to Sonia [Sonya McKenzie, Cherry Creek School District's Counsel]” and that the “Adams person said you were consulting [with an attorney.]” Cherry Creek did not retain Dr. Mondragon's company.

         On May 27, 2015, the District formally terminated Dr. Mondragon's employment without any further explanation. After Dr. Mondragon filed a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Division, the District reported that she was terminated because of the (false) allegation she was having an affair and inappropriate behavior at the conference. During the Colorado Civil Rights Division's investigation, Mr. Sanchez showed various community members and District employees the District's position statement and emails to the Colorado Civil Rights Division. These documents repeated the untrue allegations about Dr. Mondragon's extramarital affair. When he was interviewing for a job with the Newark Unified School District Board, Mr. Sanchez again shared the untrue allegations about the affair, including at a public meeting. Mr. Sanchez ultimately accepted the Newark job.

         In April 2016, Larry Quintana, a member of the Adams Board until November 2015, told another former Adams employee that Mr. Sanchez was under investigation for his human resources practices. He explained, “the thing that is really bothering the board is that 90 percent of the people that he gets rid of are women. He forces them out.” He added that Mr. Sanchez “does not like women [who] voice their opinions” and “does not like women.” Mr. Quintana concluded that “I think they did [Dr. Mondragon] a real injustice and that is all I am going to say.”

         II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Dr. Mondragon filed a complaint in this Court against the defendants alleging that she was wrongfully stripped of her investigative duties, placed on administrative leave, and then terminated from her job as the District's Chief Academic and Equity Officer. (Compl., ECF No. 1.) Because Mr. Duran did not respond to the complaint, Dr. Mondragon filed a motion for default judgment against Mr. Duran and provided some supporting documentation. (ECF Nos. 17, 22, 29.) The clerk did not enter default because Dr. Mondragon has not yet filed proof she served the amended complaint on Mr. Duran. (Clerk's Note, ECF No. 86.)

         After Adams, Ms. Steel, and Mr. Sanchez filed motions to dismiss and Dr. Mondragon voluntarily dismissed some claims, Dr. Mondragon filed an amended complaint. (ECF No. 64.) Dr. Mondragon and Ms. Steel then filed a stipulated motion to dismiss the claims against Ms. Steel with prejudice (ECF No. 77), and I granted that motion and denied Ms. Steel's pending motion to dismiss as moot (ECF Nos. 78-79.) In light of the amended complaint, I also dismissed as moot Adams's motion to dismiss pursuant to Adams's request for clarification. (ECF No. 68.) Cherry Creek then filed an answer to the amended complaint (ECF No. 72), and Adams and Mr. Sanchez filed motions to dismiss the amended complaint (ECF Nos. 70-71).

         III. LEGAL STANDARD

         Under Rule 12(b)(6), “[d]ismissal is appropriate only if the complaint, viewed in the light most favorable to plaintiff, lacks enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” United States ex rel. Conner v. Salina Regional Health Center, 543 F.3d 1211, 1217 (10th Cir. 2008) (quotations marks omitted). A claim is plausible on its face “when the plaintiff pleads factual content that enables the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citing Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 556 (2007)). “The plausibility standard is not akin to a ‘probability requirement, ' but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Id.

         Although plaintiffs need not provide “detailed factual allegations” to survive a motion to dismiss, they must provide more than “labels and conclusions” or “a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555; see also Ashcroft, 556 U.S. at 678 (explaining that a complaint will not suffice if it offers “naked assertions devoid of further factual enhancement” (quotations and alterations omitted)). Furthermore, conclusory allegations are “not entitled to be assumed true.” Ashcroft, 556 U.S. at 679.

         A court may not dismiss a complaint merely because it appears unlikely or improbable that a plaintiff can prove the facts alleged or ultimately prevail on the merits. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556. Instead, a court must ask whether the facts alleged raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of the necessary elements. Id. If, in view of the facts alleged, it can be reasonably conceived that the plaintiff could establish a case that would entitle him to relief, the motion to dismiss should not be granted. Id. at 563 n.8.

         Granting a motion to dismiss is a “harsh remedy” that should be “cautiously studied” to “effectuate the liberal rules of pleading” and “protect the interests of justice.” Idias v. City & Cnty. of Denver, 1178 (10th Cir. 2009).

         “[I]n general, a motion to dismiss should be converted to a summary judgment motion if a party submits, and the district court considers, materials outside the pleadings.” Prager v. LaFaver, 180 F.3d 1185, 1188 (10th Cir. 1999). However, a court may properly consider additional documents if they are (1) “mentioned in the complaint, ” (2) “central to [the] claims, ” and (3) not challenged as inauthentic. Toone v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., 716 F.3d 516, 521 (10th Cir. 2013). I accordingly consider (1) the OCR report from the United States Department of Education (ECF No. 47-1) and (2) Dr. Mondragon's employment contract (ECF No. 71-2), which meet each of the elements above, in deciding this motion.

         IV. MOTIONS TO DISMISS

         A. Claim One: Denial of Equal Protection under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the District, Board, and Mr. Sanchez

         In Claim One, Dr. Mondragon alleges the Board, District, and Mr. Sanchez violated her rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which provides a remedy for the deprivation of rights under the Constitution or the laws of the United States by someone acting under the color of state law. She alleges that the Board, District, and Mr. Sanchez deprived her of equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment by placing her on investigatory leave, refusing to investigate her claims of employment discrimination, and terminating her. Mr. Sanchez responds that he is entitled to qualified immunity and that in any event, Dr. Mondragon does not sufficiently allege a claim for relief based on an equal protection violation. The District and Board argue that Dr. Mondragon has not sufficiently alleged a prima facie case of discrimination. As I explain below, I conclude that Dr. Mondragon's complaint pleads facts showing a plausible claim that Mr. Sanchez, the Board, and the District violated her clearly established federal rights by firing her because she was a Hispanic woman. I accordingly deny the motions to dismiss this claim.

         1. Mr. Sanchez

         Mr. Sanchez argues this claim should be dismissed because he is entitled to qualified immunity. Qualified immunity protects an executive official who violated the plaintiff's federally protected right so long as the official did not violate clearly established federal law. Therefore, a Rule 12(b)(6) motion based on qualified immunity should be granted unless the complaint states facts ...


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