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Taggert-Erkander v. Racine Unified School District

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

August 27, 2019

JUDITH TAGGART-ERKANDER, Plaintiff,
v.
RACINE UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT, et al., Defendants.

          DECISION AND ORDER ON DEFENDANTS' MOTION TO DISMISS AMENDED COMPLAINT

          NANCY JOSEPH, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Judith Taggart-Erkander, a former special education teacher for Wadewitz Elementary School in Racine, Wisconsin, sues the Racine Unified School District (“RUSD” or the “district”), Superintendent of Schools Dr. Eric Gallien, and Chief of Human Resources Julie Landry (collectively “the defendants”) for violations of the First and Fourteenth Amendments, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and state defamation law stemming from Taggart-Erkander's alleged coerced resignation from employment. The defendants move to dismiss Taggart-Erkander's amended complaint on the grounds that it fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). For the reasons that follow, the defendants' motion to dismiss is granted. Taggart-Erkander's complaint is dismissed without prejudice, with leave to refile within fourteen (14) days of the date of this decision and order.

         BACKGROUND

         Taggart-Erkander alleges that she was a tenured special education teacher with the Racine Unified School District, working for over a decade at Wadewitz Elementary School in Racine, Wisconsin. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 2, 7, 11-13, 95, Affidavit of Judith Taggart-Erkander, Ex. 1 at ¶ 5.) During the course of her employment at Wadewitz, Taggart-Erkander received no professional conduct complaints. (Id. ¶ 14.)

         During the 2016-2017 school year, Taggart-Erkander voiced concerns to her superiors that a student, M.M., needed “one-on-one” supervision due to his physical disabilities. (Id. ¶ 16.) Taggart-Erkander believed that M.M.'s Individualized Education Program, or IEP, should be amended to reflect the “one-on-one” care M.M. needed. (Id. ¶ 17.) Taggart-Erkander alleges that the school district had certain financial difficulties during the 2016-2017 school year and resisted instituting an IEP with “one-on-one” supervision for M.M. (Id. ¶ 18.) Taggart-Erkander sent an email to the school district on March 21, 2017, requesting information and expressing frustration regarding funding for special education in the district. (Id. ¶ 19.)

         On or about February 24, 2017, the school district decided to hire an additional educational assistant to provide such “one-on-one” supervision for M.M., to begin on March 10, 2017. (Id. ¶¶ 22-23.) The district hired Dana Rodriguez for the job; however, Taggart-Erkander alleges that Rodriguez was unqualified for the position. (Id. ¶ 23.)

         Taggart-Erkander alleges that she and her staff learned from the Wisconsin Circuit Court Access cite (“CCAP”) that Rodriguez had restraining orders against her and a case for welfare fraud. (Id. ¶ 25.) She also alleges that Rodriguez talked about beating up her father, said that her cousins had restraining orders against her, and noted that her brother, who is a police officer, wanted nothing to do with her. (Id.) Taggart-Erkander alleges that M.M.'s mother became concerned about having Rodriguez as an assistant for her son and was concerned that the school district was not properly screening and/or employing qualified candidates. (Id. ¶ 26.)

         Taggart-Erkander alleges that on May 10, 2017, Rodriguez brought a stun gun and large folding knife into a classroom at Wadewitz. (Id. ¶ 29.) Taggart-Erkander alleges that during the school day of May 10, she had no knowledge or notice of the weapons incident. (Id. ¶ 34.) Rather, Taggart-Erkander states that she received a text message from two of her assistants on the evening of May 10 alerting her to the incident. (Id. ¶¶ 35-36.) At 7:45 a.m. on May 11, 2017, before school opened for the day, Taggart-Erkander notified school principal Chad Chapin, in person, of the suspected weapons incident. (Id. ¶ 37.) Taggart-Erkander's assistant Diane Hinze also notified her superiors of the incident at or about 8:22 a.m. that day. (Id. ¶ 38.) At the time Taggart-Erkander alerted Principal Chapin of the incident, Rodriguez had not yet entered the property or premises of Wadewitz. (Id. ¶ 39.)

         Taggart-Erkander alleges that despite this notification, Rodriguez was allowed to board a district school bus at another school and ride it to Wadewitz. (Id. ¶ 40.) Taggart-Erkander alleges that Principal Chapin could have stopped Rodriguez from boarding the bus, but failed to do so. (Id. ¶ 41.) Both Chapin and Taggart-Erkander greeted the school bus in which Rodriguez was riding with Wadewitz students, including some special education students. (Id. ¶ 42.) Chapin did not prevent Rodriguez from entering the Wadewitz premises. (Id. ¶ 43.)

         Approximately ninety minutes after receiving notice of the weapons incident and allowing Rodriguez to enter the premises of Wadewitz, Chapin called the Racine Police Department. (Id. ¶ 44.) Unbeknownst to Taggart-Erkander, Rodriguez again brought weapons into the classroom on May 11, hidden in her backpack. (Id. ¶¶ 49-50.) When Racine Police eventually arrived at Wadewitz later that morning, Rodriguez was arrested. (Id. ¶ 51.) Rodriguez was later prosecuted for the illegal weapons incidents in Racine County. (Id. ¶ 52.)

         On May 22, 2017, Taggart-Erkander received a hand-delivered correspondence from Landry, which Taggart-Erkander alleges falsely accused her of having knowledge of the weapons incident before Taggart-Erkander had actual knowledge of the events. (Id. ¶ 64.) Taggart-Erkander alleges that Landry made false publications to others regarding Taggart-Erkander which harmed her reputation in the community. (Id. ¶ 66.) Specifically, Taggart-Erkander alleges that Landry falsely accused her of not having protected the children in her care, which is the principal purpose on which Taggart-Erkander's reputation is predicated. (Id. ¶ 67.) On or about May 22, Taggart-Erkander's entire special education staff was either fired or suspended for failure to timely report Rodriguez for bringing weapons to Wadewitz. (Id. ¶ 72.)

         Taggart-Erkander alleges that she was summoned to a meeting with Landry on May 22, at which time she was informed that she would be suspended for ten days without pay and would be reassigned to a different teaching assignment in a different school. (Id. ¶ 73.) On or about May 22, Hinze posted on her Facebook page the following post: “To all my friends at Wadewitz we all need your support, this is so wrong.” (Id. ¶ 74.) Taggart-Erkander responded to Hinze's post with the following statement: “You have so much support. Let everyone know. This needs to hit the media.” (Id. ¶ 76.)

         Taggart-Erkander alleges that their supervisor, Heather Hojnacki, had been monitoring Hinze's Facebook page and reported the posts to her superiors, including Landry, on May 23, 2017. (Id. ¶ 77.) On May 24 and 25, 2017, Taggart-Erkander wrote Landry two rebuttal letters disputing Landry's version of the May 10 weapons incident. (Id. ¶ 78.) On May 30, 2017, Taggart-Erkander filed a formal grievance with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. (Id. ¶ 79.)

         On June 9, 2017, Taggart-Erkander received a hand-delivered letter from Landry which read: “It has been brought to my attention that you may have engaged in inappropriate conduct.” (Id. ¶ 80.) The June 9 letter directed Taggart-Erkander to another disciplinary meeting on June 12, 2017 with Landry. (Id. ¶ 81.) Both Taggart-Erkander and her husband met with Landry on June 12. (Id. ¶ 82.) Landry informed Taggart-Erkander that the basis of the “inappropriate conduct” was: (1) allowing M.M.'s mother in through a side door to bring her son into the school; (2) allowing M.M.'s mother to sign a clipboard when she came to the classroom; and (3) her call for media attention on Hinze's Facebook post. (Id. ¶ 83.)

         Taggart-Erkander alleges that neither Landry nor the district ever made clear what school within the district Taggart-Erkander would be transferred to and that the June 12, 2017 meeting amounted to a choice of “resign or be prosecuted.” (Id. ¶¶ 87-88.) Taggart-Erkander alleges that she signed an agreement to retire from the district so that she would not lose her retirement benefits; however, she felt coerced into doing so. (Id. ¶¶ 89-90.) Taggart-Erkander submitted her retirement notice to the school district on August 1, 2017. (Id. ΒΆ 91.) Taggart-Erkander alleges that Landry retaliated against her for exercising protected First Amendment speech, deprived her ...


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