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Degner v. Juneau County

United States District Court, W.D. Wisconsin

March 5, 2018

ROBIN DEGNER, Plaintiff,



         Robin Degner brings this action under the Family and Medical Leave Act, 29 U.S.C. § 2611 et seq., claiming that defendants: (1) failed to restore her to the position of Children's Services Manager or its equivalent after her FMLA leave; and (2) engaged in retaliatory conduct culminating in termination of her employment because she exercised her FMLA rights. Defendants have moved for summary judgment on both claims. (Dkt. #16.) For the reasons explained below, the court will grant summary judgment to defendants Juneau County Department of Human Services and supervisor Scott Ethun, but concludes that a reasonable jury could infer from the record that the remaining defendant, Juneau County itself, both interfered with plaintiff's rights under the FMLA and engaged in retaliatory conduct by terminating her employment.


         A. Background

         Robin Degner was employed by Juneau County, as its Children's Services Manager in its Department of Human Services (“DHS”) from March 30, 2012 until February 1, 2016. Throughout her employment, Degner was supervised by Scott Ethun, the DHS Human Services Director.

         Before March 2012, DHS had a single Professional Services Manager responsible for both Children's Services, including Juvenile Justice and Child Protection Services, and Mental Health Services, including Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services. That position was last occupied by David Rung.

         In March, 2012, the Professional Services Manager position was split into two positions: a Children's Services Manager and a Behavioral Health and Clinical Services Manager. Rung then became the Behavioral Health and Clinical Services Manager, and Degner was hired on as the Children's Services Manager by Scott Ethun.

         B. Degner's Early Performance

         As Children's Services Manager, Degner was responsible for performing juvenile intake and child protective services. These responsibilities required Degner to have a good working relationship with other managers inside DHS, as well as with other Juneau County department heads. Given their new positions, Degner and Rung often worked together as well.

         Rung maintains that Degner was extremely difficult to work with and that they had a strained relationship. (Rung Decl. (dkt. #27) ¶ 4.) While Degner does not dispute their relationship was strained, she questions the fairness of Rung's criticism. Regardless, it is undisputed that Rung brought his concerns to their mutual supervisor, Ethun, on several occasions, including expressing his belief that Degner was not a good leader and that hiring her was a mistake. In light of these concerns, Ethun further consulted with Degner's staff members, who provided both positive and negative feedback.

         The parties dispute what exactly Ethun himself thought about Rung's concerns or Degner's performance during her first six months. Specifically, Degner would dismiss Ethun's affidavit outlining his early concerns about Degner's performance and communication style as “self-serving” in the present litigation. (Pl's. Response to Defs.' Proposed Findings of Fact (dkt. #32) ¶ 22.) While the parties dispute precisely when it occurred, there is no dispute that Ethun had a private conversation with Degner during this early period about the need to contain her own emotions and to serve as a better example to her staff. (Id. at ¶ 23.)

         Ethun also held further meetings with Degner's staff and other employees before her six-month probationary performance review. Performing such interviews was not part of Ethun's typical practice. While some staff members reported a crisis mode in the Children's Services Unit, the overall tenor of the comments Ethun received were positive toward Degner.[2]

         Moreover, whatever Ethun's remaining concerns may or may not have been at this time, he provided Degner with a series of favorable early performance reviews. In particular, Degner's one-year review on March 30, 2013, rated her as “Very Good” or “”Exceptional” in all categories -- the two highest ratings available. Degner's two-year review on February 13, 2014, also rated her as “Very Good” or “Exceptional” in all categories except “Communication” where she received a “Satisfactory” rating. The comments in these early evaluations were similarly positive and optimistic in tone, while identifying some areas for improvement.

         C. Degner's Corrective Action Plan

         During 2014, however, Ethun received additional complaints from a variety of Children's Services staff members, as well as other Juneau County management representatives. Degner does not dispute that a significant amount of this criticism related to her leadership skills, as well as other concerns, but does dispute the details of several incidents identified as giving rise to criticism. (Defs.' Reply to Pl's. Response to Defs.' Proposed Findings of Fact (dkt. #38) ¶¶ 37-43.) Still, Degner acknowledges that she failed to submit a grant application for Title IV-E funding in the fall of 2014, despite it being her responsibility, which resulted in the loss of a source of funding for her department.

         As a result of this and other criticisms, Ethun placed Degner on a Corrective Action Plan in early December of 2014, identifying in writing nine areas in which improvement was needed: (1) organization of work and prioritization of duties while paying close attention to and meeting deadlines; (2) ensuring staff kept up with documentation and the creation of logs each week; (3) returning phone calls ideally within a day; (4) assigning duties to staff to allow for more focus on management of the program and teaching staff to delegate as well; (5) being available for individual supervision with staff in a private location; (6) exhibiting professionalism in the workplace; (7) leading by example; (8) maintaining awareness of the schedule and how much could be taken on; and (9) paying attention to the expense budget for the department's programs, with a focus on ...

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