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Wehrli v. Tempe Union High School District

United States District Court, D. Arizona

March 24, 2014

Michael J. Wehrli, Plaintiff,
v.
Tempe Union High School District, et al., Defendants.

ORDER

DAVID K. DUNCAN, Magistrate Judge.

Pending before the Court is Defendant Tempe Union High School District's (TUSD) Motion for Summary Judgment pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 56 on Plaintiff Michael J. Wehrli's age discrimination claim (Doc. 45). Wehrli claims that TUSD discriminated against him on the basis of age in violation of Title VII, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, 29 U.S.C. § 623(a)(1). The parties have agreed to magistrate judge jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). The Court concludes that Wehrli has failed to establish a prima facie case of discrimination under the McDonnell Douglas standard, and therefore grants Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment.

I. BACKGROUND

Wehrli was born on July 13, 1942 (Doc. 46, DSOF ¶ 1). He was hired by TUSD in 1977 to teach high school English at Corona del Sol High School ( Id., ¶ 2). In early 2009, when Wehrli was age 66, he received an unfavorable performance evaluation which led to his placement on a performance growth plan ( Id., Exh 2:B-C). Wehrli alleged that the evaluation was based on age discrimination and pursued TUSD's grievance process ( Id., Exh 3:B). After the Governing Board decided not to hear Wehrli's grievance, Wehrli requested to be released from his contract for the 2009-2010 school year and elected to retire ( Id., Exh 3, ¶¶ 14, 17; Exh L).

A. The Short Form Evaluation

The Arizona Department of Education has specific curriculum requirements, and TUSD has developed curriculum maps to ensure that its courses meet these requirements (DSOF, Exh 2, ¶ 6). All teachers are required to follow the curriculum maps, and evaluators use these maps in their determinations of teacher competency ( Id., ¶¶ 6-7). The first step of the evaluation process is the short form evaluation, which includes a 20-minute observation and a post-conference ( Id., Exh 2:A at 6). If the short form evaluation indicates that the teacher meets expectations, then the process is complete ( Id., Exh 2, ¶ 4). If not, then the process proceeds to the long form evaluation, which includes an observation of an entire classroom period, a post-conference, and a professional growth plan ( Id., Exh 2:A at 5).

On January 9, 2009, Susan Edwards, principal of Corona del Sol High School, performed Wehrli's short form evaluation ( Id., Exh 2, ¶¶ 2, 7). The evaluation indicated deficiencies in planning instruction to meet objectives; utilizing effective instructional strategies; presenting subject matter in a clear, logical way; providing a positive learning environment; and complying with Arizona statutes and District policies ( Id. ). On February 6, 2009, Edwards discussed Wehrli's performance with him ( Id., ¶ 8).

Wehrli's previous evaluators had made similar indications about his performance, though the evaluations were not as severe and did not result in placement on a professional growth plan ( Id., Exh 3:E). Throughout his decades of teaching, previous evaluators recommended less lecturing, more graded assignments and written feedback, better organization and preparation, following the department curriculum guidelines, refraining from using inappropriate language, and discontinuing use of handwritten handouts ( Id. ).

B. The Long Form Evaluation

The 2009 short form evaluation led to the long form evaluation, which showed deficiencies in utilizing effective instructional strategies; presenting subject matter in a clear, precise, logical and coherent way; and planning instruction to meet objectives (DSOF, Exh 2, ¶ 8). Edwards prepared a professional growth plan, and on February 18, 2009, she discussed it with Wehrli ( Id., ¶¶ 9-10). The professional growth plan included requirements that Wehrli begin to use organized lesson plans, post grades online, use acceptable and clear communication with students, and increase student interaction ( Id., Exh 2:C).

In accordance with TUSD policy, the unfavorable evaluation also put Wehrli on Preliminary Notice of Inadequate Classroom Performance, informing him that he had 85 instructional days to remedy his deficiencies (Exh 2, ¶¶ 11-12; Exh 2:D). Wehrli returned a written response to the evaluation to TUSD (Exh 2, ¶ 10). In the written response, Wehrli stated that the evaluation discriminated against him because of his age. In support of this allegation, he noted that practices he used when he began teaching thirty years ago, such as handwritten handouts and certain research paper assignments, are now unacceptable (Exh 3:C). Wehrli's four-page "Teacher Response" included the statements, "Are you kidding me?", "Get Real!", and his descriptions of the professional growth plan as "moronic" and "pathetic" (Exh 3:C). Though Wehrli's response denied the need for improvement, he acknowledged in his deposition that he had not been doing many of the duties that Edwards detailed in the professional growth plan (Exh 1:21-23, 42-47). He also started to comply with the performance improvement plan following his post-conference with Edwards, ( Id., 42:18-47:11). Wehrli was offered and accepted a contract to continue teaching at Corona del Sol for the following year (DSOF, ¶ 31).

C. The Grievance Process

On April 21, 2009, in addition to his written response, Wehrli also submitted a formal grievance (DSOF, Exh 2, ¶ 13). In the grievance, Wehrli alleged that the performance evaluation was based on age discrimination because he had never before received three "Improvement Required" designations and that the evaluation was intended to create a hostile work environment ( Id., Exh 3:C). TUSD alleges that a grievance was not the proper avenue for an age discrimination claim ( Id., Exh 3, ¶ 8). TUSD Policy GBA states that TUSD prohibits discrimination based on age and other protected categories, but policy GBA-R procedures only cover gender, race, color, religion, national origin, or disability; age is not included ( Id., Exh 3:D).

The first step of the grievance procedure is presented to the first level administrator or supervisor, who in this case was Edwards ( Id., Exh 3:B). On May 1, Edwards responded to Wehrli's grievance, finding that it was without merit, but she did not directly address the issue of age discrimination ( Id., Exh 3:F). Edwards' response was not returned until after the TUSD deadline ( Id., Exh 3:H). Wehrli pursued the grievance to the second step, which went to Steve Adolph, TUSD Superintendent ( Id. ). On May 27, Adolph responded and did directly address Wehrli's accusation of age discrimination, but still found that his grievance was without merit ( Id. ). Wehrli then pursued the grievance to the final step with the Governing Board ( Id., Exh 3:I). The Governing Board scheduled a time to address Wehrli's grievance on their June 17, 2009 agenda ( Id., Exh 3:J). However, at the meeting, ...


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