Seabrook v. Independent School District #535 et al
ORDER granting 28 Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings (Written Opinion) Signed by Senior Judge David S. Doty on 2/21/2017. (DLO)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
DISTRICT OF MINNESOTA
Civil No. 16-2245(DSD/BRT)
Independent School District #535
and Brenda Lewis,
Karin Ciano, Esq. and Karin Ciano Law PLLC, 310 4th Avenue
South, Suite 5010, Minneapolis, MN 55415 and William L.
French, Esq. and William L. French, Attorney at Law, 627
Woodhaven Court, N.E., Rochester, MN 55906, counsel for
John P. Edison, Esq., Michael J. Waldspurger, Esq. and Rupp,
Anderson, Squires & Waldspurger, 333 South Seventh Street,
Suite 2800, Minneapolis, MN 55402, counsel for defendants.
This matter is before the court upon the motion for judgment
on the pleadings by defendants Independent School District No. 535
and Brenda Lewis.
Based on a review of the file, record, and
proceedings herein, and for the following reasons, the court grants
district’s decision to fire plaintiff Regina Seabrook.
2012, the school district hired Seabrook, an African-American
woman, to develop the Student and Family Engagement (SAFE) Program.
Am. Compl. ¶¶ 5, 8-9.
SAFE was intended to serve as a social and
academic resource for under-served youth and their families.
On July 1, 2012, Seabrook began her employment under the
supervision of Brenda Lewis.
Id. ¶ 10.
Seabrook alleges that Lewis never evaluated her performance,
although she did so for “persons from non-protected classes.”
Seabrook further claims that she did not have regularly
scheduled meetings with Lewis, was not invited to department
meetings, and generally felt ignored.
Id. ¶ 15.
Over the course of her employment, Seabrook’s title and the
location of her office were changed twice, but she does not allege
that she suffered any reduction in pay or benefits because of these
Id. ¶¶ 10, 13, 17-18.
Despite the change in title, she
Id. ¶¶ 13-14.
On July 16, 2015, Seabrook filed a sexual harassment complaint
against Lewis with the school district.
Id. ¶ 19; see Munoz Decl.
In the complaint Seabrook stated that, from the summer of
2012 to the fall of 2013, Lewis made inappropriate sexual comments
Am. Compl. ¶ 19; see Munoz Decl. Ex. 1.1
superintendent Michael Munoz informed Seabrook that her complaint
had been dismissed following an investigation.
Am. Compl. ¶ 20.
Defendants, pursuant to court order, filed Seabrook’s
sexual harassment complaint against Lewis under seal. See ECF No.
Seabrook generally alleges that, thereafter, Lewis retaliated
against her by “giving her directives out of context, brow-beating
her repeatedly, and scripting all conversations she had with school
principals” and that the work environment became hostile and
Id. ¶ 21.
On October 5, 2015, the school district placed Seabrook on
paid administrative leave for insubordination.3
Id. ¶ 23.
after, Munoz, Lewis, and the executive director of human resources,
Brooke Bass, met with Seabrook, presumably about her alleged
Id. ¶ 24.
Seabrook claims that Munoz yelled at
her, intimidated her, and told her that no one liked her or wanted
to work with her.
Munoz, Lewis, and Bass then allegedly
pressured Lewis to sign an agreement that would have prevented her
from seeking relief from discrimination under state and federal
Seabrook refused to do so.
Seabrook returned to work.
On December 8, 2015,
Id. ¶ 26.
On March 27, 2016, Seabrook filed a complaint with the Equal
Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleging discrimination on
the basis of race and sex and retaliation.
Id. ¶ 27; Munoz Decl.
Ex. 3. The EEOC investigated the claim and dismissed the complaint
Seabrook does not provide specific examples of the alleged
Neither party has provided the court details as to what
alleged behavior led to the paid administrative leave or whether
and to what extent the school district investigated the matter.
on April 1.
Am. Compl. ¶ 27; Munoz Decl. Ex. 4, at 1.
On May 27,
the school district fired Seabrook, and on June 21, the school
board voted to eliminate the SAFE Program.
Am. Compl. ¶ 28.
told Seabrook that she was fired due to budget cuts.
alleges that his explanation was untrue and pretext for race and
On August 19, Seabrook filed an amended complaint alleging
that the school district engaged in (1) sex and race discrimination
in violation of Title VII and the Minnesota Human Rights Act
(MHRA); (2) retaliation in violation of Title VII and the MHRA; (3)
discrimination in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981.4
move for judgment on the pleadings.
Standard of Review
The same standard of review applies to motions under Federal
Rules of Civil Procedure 12(c) and 12(b)(6).
Ashley Cty., Ark. v.
Pfizer, Inc., 552 F.3d 659, 665 (8th Cir. 2009).
Thus, in order to
survive a motion for judgment on the pleadings, “a complaint must
Seabrook also alleged that the school district violated her
right to freedom of speech and discriminated against her in
violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983, but she has since voluntarily
dismissed those claims. See Pl.’s Opp’n Mem. at 1 n.1.
contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a
claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Braden v. Wal-Mart
Stores, Inc., 588 F.3d 585, 594 (8th Cir. 2009) (citations and
internal quotation marks omitted).
A plaintiff need not make out
a prima face case under Title VII to survive a motion to dismiss,
but must plead some facts giving rise to a plausible claim.
Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A., 534 U.S. 506, 511-12 (2002). “A claim
has facial plausibility when the plaintiff [has pleaded] factual
content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that
the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.”
Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citing Bell Atl. Corp v. Twombly,
550 U.S. 544, 556 (2007)).
Although a complaint need not contain
detailed factual allegations, it must raise a right of relief above
the speculative level.
See Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555.
and conclusions or a formulaic recitation of the elements of a
cause of action” are not sufficient to state a claim.
U.S. at 678 (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).
The court does not consider matters outside the pleadings
under Rule 12(c).
Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(d).
The court may, however,
“necessarily embraced by the pleadings.”
Porous Media Corp. v.
Pall Corp., 186 F.3d 1077, 1079 (8th Cir. 1999) (citation and
internal quotation marks omitted).
Here, the court properly
considers Seabrook’s complaints to the school district and EEOC.
Service of Process
Defendants argue that the complaint should be dismissed for
improper service. To properly serve a school district, a plaintiff
must serve the summons and complaint on the school district’s chief
executive officer or a member of the school board.5
See Fed. R.
Civ. P. 4(j)(2); Minn. R. Civ. P. 4.03(e)(4). To properly serve an
individual defendant, a plaintiff must deliver the summons and
complaint to the defendant personally, to the defendant’s residence
discretion who resides there, or to an agent authorized to receive
Fed. R. Civ. P. 4(e); Minn. R. Civ. P. 4.03(a).
Seabrook served John Carlson who is the school district’s executive
director of finance, not its chief executive officer or a member of
the board as required by statute.
But where a plaintiff has, in
good faith, substantially complied with the rules for service of
process and the defendant has not been prejudiced, a court may find
that service was adequate.
Devin v. Schwan’s Home Servs., Inc.,
No. Civ. 04-4555, 2005 WL 1323919, at *3 (D. Minn. May 20, 2005).
Seabrook’s process server made a good faith effort to comply
with the rules for service.
The school district’s human resources
department directed him to John Carlson’s office to serve the
summons and complaint.
Grimes Decl. ¶ 6.
The parties agree that the school district is a
municipality for purposes of service of process.
§ 466.01 subdiv. 1.
himself as a senior administrator and stated that he would accept
the summons and complaint and deliver them to the proper parties.
Id. ¶ 7.
The process server reasonably relied on Carlson’s
representation, and defendants do not claim they were prejudiced by
the technical error.
See Van Hoven Co. v. Stans, 319 F. Supp. 180,
182 (D. Minn. 1970) (“It is sufficient ... that a responsible
person who declared himself to be in charge of the office was
served, particularly where there is no showing that any technical
errors ... were prejudicial to the defendant.”).
circumstances, the court finds that service was sufficient as to
the school district.6
See Atkins v. Winchester Homes, No. CCB-06-278, 2007
WL 269083, at *5 (D. Md. Jan. 17, 2007) (“A co-worker is typically
not considered an agent authorized to accept service under Rule
4(e), and the actual acceptance of service by the co-worker does
not necessarily indicating that service was properly effectuated on
the individual defendants.”); see also 4A Charles Alan Wright &
Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 1907 (4th ed.
The parties argue that the court should convert the instant
motion to one for summary judgment if it relies on the declarations
and exhibits submitted regarding proper service.
addressing a motion to dismiss based on ineffective service of
process, the Court necessarily must review matters outside the
pleadings. Review of this evidence does not require converting the
motion to one for summary judgment.” Personalized Brokerage Servs.
v. Lucius, No. 05-1663, 2006 WL 2975308, at *1 (D. Minn. Oct. 16,
2016) (“[T]he federal courts have held that claims by an agent of
having authority to receive process or the fact that an agent
actually accepts process is not enough to bind the defendant to the
court’s jurisdiction ....”). There is no evidence that Carlson was
authorized to accept service on behalf of Lewis in her individual
Therefore, Lewis was not properly served, and the claim
against her must be dismissed.
service on Lewis on December 27, 2016, was proper or whether
Seabrook should be allowed to cure any defects in service because
Seabrook fails to state a plausible claim against her.
III. Title VII and MHRA Claims
Statute of Limitations
Title VII requires a charge of discrimination to be filed no
later than 180 days after the alleged conduct.
42 U.S.C. § 2000e-
The MHRA imposes a one-year statute of limitations.
Minn. Stat. § 363A.28, subdiv. 3(a).
Seabrook filed her charge of
discrimination with the EEOC on March 27, 2016, and then filed this
action on June 29, 2016.
Defendants argue that the race and sex
discrimination claims are barred by the MHRA and Title VII to the
extent they are based on conduct that occurred before June 29,
2015, or September 29, 2015, respectively.
Defendants, however, fail to distinguish between discrete and
Discrete adverse employment actions, such
as termination, “start a new clock for filing charges alleging
that act” whereas continuing violations, which are based on ongoing
and continuous conduct, are not time barred if “all acts which
constitute the claim are part of the same unlawful employment
practice and at least one act falls within the time period.” Nat’l
R.R. Passenger Corp. v. Morgan, 536 U.S. 101, 113, 122 (2002).
Seabrook has pleaded both discrete and continuous violations.
Because the statute of limitations would not entirely bar any of
Seabrook’s claims, the court will not discuss whether each instance
of alleged conduct is time-barred.
Further, such an analysis is
unnecessary because, as discussed below, the court must dismiss the
complaint for failure to state a claim.7
Defendants argue that Seabrook’s Title VII claims relating to
The court agrees.
Under Title VII, an employee must exhaust administrative
remedies by filing a timely charge of discrimination with the EEOC.
Brooks v. Midwest Heart Grp., 655 F.3d 796, 800 (8th Cir. 2011).
Even if some of the conduct underlying Seabrook’s claims is
time-barred, the court still considers the conduct as “background
evidence in support of a timely claim.” Id. at 113.
Seabrook also seems to base her
district’s decision to eliminate the SAFE
decision was made after her termination, it
adverse employment action as it relates to
claims on the school
program. Because that
cannot be considered an
“Each incident of discrimination and each retaliatory adverse
employment decision constitutes a separate actionable unlawful
employment practice that must be individually addressed before the
Sellers v. Deere & Co., 791 F.3d 938, 943 (8th Cir. 2015).
Therefore, Seabrook, before filing this suit, needed to file a
separate charge of race and sex discrimination and retaliation as
it related to her termination.
See Richter v. Advance Auto Parts,
Inc., 686 F.3d 847, 852 (8th Cir. 2012) (holding that plaintiff had
not exhausted administrative remedies when he failed to file a
separate charge with the EEOC after his employer terminated him).
Her failure to do so is fatal to her Title VII termination claims.
Seabrook requests that the court equitably toll the statute of
limitations so that she may exhaust her administrative remedies.
Even if Seabrook exhausted her administrative remedies, however,
the complaint would still fail to state a claim.
Failure to State a Claim
To survive dismissal, Seabrook need not plead a prima facie
case of discrimination because “the prima facie standard is an
evidentiary standard, not a pleading standard.” Blomker v. Jewell,
quotation marks omitted). Seabrook must, however, plead sufficient
facts to state a plausible claim to relief, and “the elements of a
prima facie case may be used as a prism to shed light upon the
plausibility of the clam.”
Id. (citation and internal quotation
marks omitted). In other words, the elements of a prima facie case
quotation marks omitted).
Race and Sex Discrimination
The court analyzes discrimination and retaliation claims under
Rochester, 643 F.3d 1031, 1043 (8th Cir. 2011). A plaintiff pleads
a plausible claim for race or sex discrimination when she alleges
facts that suggest she suffered an adverse employment action
motivated by discriminatory intent.
Fiero v. CSG Sys., Inc., 759
F.3d 874, 878 (8th Cir. 2014); Putman v. Unity Health Sys., 348
F.3d 732, 735 (8th Cir. 2003).
“An adverse employment action is a
tangible change in working conditions that produces a material
Sellers, 791 F.3d at 942 (citations and
decrease in benefits or pay. However, not everything that makes an
employee unhappy is an actionable adverse action.”
and internal quotation marks omitted).
Here, the only adverse employment action Seabrook suffered was
Contrary to her claim that defendants failed to
evaluate her, changed her title and office location, generally
mistreated her, and placed her on paid administrative leave, she
does not plausibly allege how or even that those actions materially
See, e.g., Higgins v. Gonzalez, 481 F.3d 578,
585 (8th Cir. 2007), abrogated on other grounds by Torgenson, 643
F.3d 1031 (8th Cir. 2011) (“Any lack, of mentoring or supervision
simply does not rise to the level of an adverse employment action
....”); Singletary v. Mo. Dep’t of Corrections, 423 F.3d 886, 89293
administrative leave is not an adverse employment action);
v. Capital Graphics, Inc., 178 F.3d 1011, 1016-17 (8th Cir. 1999)
(“Minor changes in duties or working conditions that cause no
materially significant disadvantage do not meet the standard of an
adverse employment action ....”).
Even assuming that those events constitute adverse employment
actions, the complaint is devoid of any facts tying defendants’
establishing that she was treated differently than male employees
or that she was treated differently than similarly situated white
Rather, in support of her position, Seabrook alleges
that (1) an African-American male employee, who also felt ignored,
was allegedly fired because Lewis thought he was lazy; (2) Lewis
made sexual comments based on racial stereotypes; and (3) the U.S.
allegations, taken as true, do not support her claim that she was
was mistreated and fired because of her race or sex.
pleads no facts showing that the male African-American employee was
fired because of race, and the U.S. Department of Education report
does not suggest that African-American employees were discriminated
Indeed, the school district is voluntarily working with
discrimination policies. See Munoz Decl. Ex. 2. Moreover, certain
of Lewis’s alleged comments to Seabrook, although inappropriate,
were not racial or overtly sexual in nature.
See Munoz Decl. Ex.
As a result, the complaint fails to state a plausible claim for
race or sex discrimination, and the court dismisses those claims.
Seabrook asserts that she was terminated in retaliation for
filing complaints with the school district and the EEOC.
establish a prima facie case of retaliation, the plaintiff must
show that [s]he engaged in a protected activity, that the defendant
took adverse action against [her], and that there is a connection
between the two.”
Scott v. County of Ramsey, 180 F.3d 913, 917
“Generally, more than a temporal connection between the
As discussed, the court does not require Seabrook to
establish a prima facie case of retaliation, but does view her
complaint in light of the claim’s elements to determine whether she
protected conduct and the adverse employment action is required
Kiel v. Select Artificials, Inc., 169 F.3d 1131, 1136 (8th
Even if she could establish a prima facie case of
retaliation, there is no evidence of pretext.
Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 804 (1973) (“[Plaintiff] must
... be afforded a fair opportunity to show that [defendant’s]
stated reason ... was in fact pretext.”).
alleges that Munoz’s explanation that she was fired due to budget
cuts was mere pretext for retaliation.
any facts to support that claim.
The complaint is devoid of
As a result, the court dismisses
the retaliation claims.
Sexual Harassment and Hostile Work Environment Claims
Statute of Limitations
Defendants argue that Seabrook’s sexual harassment claim is
barred by the statute of limitations.
The court disagrees.
sexual harassment claim need not be based on sexually explicit
acts, but can include any “sufficiently patterned or pervasive”
unequal treatment due to the employee’s sex.
Kopp v. Samaritan
Health Sys., Inc., 13 F.3d 264, 269 (8th Cir. 1993).
under the continuing violation doctrine, a court must consider
“incidents which occurred outside the statute of limitations period
if the various acts of discrimination constitute a continuing
pattern of discrimination.”
Mandy v. Minn. Mining & Mfg., 940 F.
has stated a plausible claim.
Supp. 1463, 1468 (D. Minn. 1996).
Although some of Lewis’s alleged sexual comments were made
period, Seabrook alleges continued sex discrimination up to and
including her termination.
Therefore, the sexual harassment claim
Failure to State a Claim
Although timely, the complaint fails to state a plausible
claim of sexual harassment.
There are three ways a plaintiff can
show sexual harassment by a person of the same sex.
McCown v. St.
John’s Health Sys., 349 F.3d 540, 543 (8th Cir. 2003) (citing
Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Servs., Inc., 523 U.S. 75, 80-81
She can plead facts showing that: (1) “the conduct was
motivated by sexual desire;” (2) “the harasser was motivated by a
general hostility to the presence of the same gender in the
differently in the workplace.
Here, Seabrook pleads no facts giving rise to a plausible
unwelcome, do no support the conclusion that Lewis was motivated by
sexual desire, that she treated men and women differently in the
workplace, or that she was hostile to women.
dismisses the sexual harassment claim.
Therefore, the court
Even if Seabrook could establish that Lewis sexually harassed
her, nothing in the complaint gives rise to a claim against the
To state a claim for a hostile work environment
under Title VII and the MHRA, Seabrook must show: “(1) that she was
a member of a protected group; (2) the occurrence of unwelcome
harassment; (3) a casual nexus between the harassment and her
membership in the protected group; (4) that the harassment affected
a term, condition, or privilege of her employment; and (5) that the
employer knew or should have known of the harassment and failed to
take prompt and effective remedial action.”
Vajdl v. Mesabi Acad.
of KidsPeace, Inc., 484 F.3d 546, 550 (8th Cir. 2007); see also
“Hostile work environment claims are limited in nature, requiring
a high evidentiary showing that the plaintiff’s workplace is
permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult
that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of
the victim’s employment and create an abusive working environment.”
Vajdl, 484 F.3d at 550.
“The standards for a hostile environment
are demanding, and conduct must be extreme and not merely rude or
unpleasant to affect the terms and conditions of employment.”
Alvarez v. Des Moines Bolt Supply, Inc., 626 F.3d 410, 420 (8th
The court will treat the hostile work environment claim as
including harassment based on both race and sex. Because Seabrook
brought a sexual harassment claim against the school district but
not Lewis, it is unclear whether or how her sexual harassment claim
differs from her hostile work environment claim.
Cir. 2010) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).
establish a hostile work environment.
Blomker, 831 F.3d at 1057.
As previously discussed, the complaint contains no facts that
suggest the alleged mistreatment was due to Seabrook’s race or sex.
Further, Seabrook’s claims, taken as true, amount to isolated
incidents of being yelled at, ignored, and told inappropriate
Although unpleasant, this conduct is not so pervasive or
severe as to give rise to a harassment or hostile work environment
As a result, the court dismisses those claims.
Section 1981 Claim
The elements of a Title VII claim and a § 1981 claim are
Wright v. St. Vincent Health Sys., 730 F.3d 732, 737
(8th Cir. 2013). Because Seabrook has failed to plead facts giving
rise to a plausible Title VII claim, the court must also dismiss
her § 1981 claim.
Accordingly, based on the above, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that:
Defendants’ motion for judgment on the pleadings [ECF No.
28] is granted; and
The case is dismissed with prejudice.
LET JUDGMENT BE ENTERED ACCORDINGLY.
Dated: February 21, 2017
s/David S. Doty
David S. Doty, Judge
United States District Court
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