Eleven administrators’ claims against the Taos Municipal School District and school board appear to be one federal court filing away from being dismissed.
In a complaint filed in U.S. District Court nearly 2 1/2 years ago, the plaintiffs — all current or former employees of the Taos school district — alleged improper behavior, such as harassment, micromanaging and retaliation. In orders filed Sept. 20-28, the court granted qualified immunity to the defendants and granted the defendants’ motions for summary judgment, meaning it was found to be unnecessary to bring the case to trial.
The suit was filed on the heels of formal complaints made to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a halted recall effort, investigations by the state Public Education Department (PED) and threats by the Secretary of Education to suspend the board’s authority if the situation did not improve.
The Questa Independent School Board was suspended at the end of September after allegations of micromanagement, fights and harassment surfaced. (See related story on Page A4)
The administrators’ lawsuit named as defendants former school board members Arsenio Córdova and Lorraine Coca-Ruiz, former superintendent and current State Rep. Roberto “Bobby” Gonzales, D-Taos, as well as current board member Stella Gallegos.
The IDEAS Company and its owners, who filed for bankruptcy in 2010, were also named as defendants, with the plaintiffs claiming they were involved in a conspiracy of retaliation and defamation. The company performed a “due diligence audit” of the district after being hired with a majority vote by Córdova, Coca-Ruiz and Gallegos. A defamation claim against the IDEAS parties is still pending.
Though final judgments have yet to be filed in the case involving Gonzales and the board members, the suit is apparently all but concluded. The recent orders largely found that the evidence the plaintiffs presented was not sufficient to establish their claims.
For example, in the case of former superintendent Loretta DeLong, the complaint claimed she was terminated in violation of her contract as part of a “campaign of retaliation” by the defendants. In the opinion and order filed Sept. 28, the court found that DeLong failed to show that she had attempted to invoke the “renewability” provision in her contract and that insufficient evidence exists in the records “from which a reasonable jury could conclude that DeLong’s contract was breached.”
“DeLong puts the cart before the horse by conflating a mere option to renew a contract for an additional year with a binding contract for an additional year,” the filing states.
Other plaintiffs cited 2.1-percent salary reductions as evidence of retaliation for filing EEOC complaints. Nutrition coordinator Mary Ann McCann claimed the salary reductions were not made for budgetary reasons, but rather to punish the complainants.
“McCann’s assertions, if supported by specific facts, would provide sufficient evidence of pretext to withstand summary judgment,” the Sept. 20 court filing in her case states. “However, McCann fails to identify by correct citation any evidence in the record that supports what are otherwise conclusory accusations.”
As an example, the court notes a failure to cite a date or docket number when referring to a piece of evidence to support her position. The court arrives at nearly identical conclusions in the cases of other administrators.
Regarding DeLong’s claims of retaliation, the court found she “failed to exercise her right to bring a lawsuit on the claims set forth in her initial EEOC complaint in May 2009.” The group of administrators initially filed complaints with the EEOC in 2009 and received “right-to-sue” letters from the EEOC Jan. 2010; a second round of EEOC complaints filed in the spring of 2010 made similar claims, and the employees also said they had been retaliated against as a result of their initial complaints.
The court also found DeLong did not do enough to prove she had been discriminated against and relied too heavily on the timing of adverse employment actions, including her March 2009 suspension, to prove discrimination. According to the filing, DeLong “pointedly fails to show” circumstantial evidence of a retaliatory motive, such as inconsistencies in the reasoning of her employers.
“DeLong cannot survive judgment by leaving it to the court to comb through the record to uncover, proffer and analyze any circumstantial evidence of retaliatory motive that may have existed on the part of the school defendants,” the filing states.
DeLong had also claimed her reputation had been tarnished, including by the IDEAS defendants, though the court again found insufficient evidence.
“DeLong does not identify the specific statement(s) that impugned her good name, attempt to show that the statement(s) were false, or even offer evidence that the statements were published,” the filing states.
Kevin Brown, attorney for the defendants, said he was confident the court would find in his favor, even though he knew it would take some time.
“I always thought this was a weak case for the plaintiffs,” he said. “They just didn’t have enough (evidence).”
The plaintiffs’ attorney, Steven Sanders, did not respond to messages seeking comment prior to publication.
Board member Stella Gallegos — the only individually named defendant who is still affiliated with the Taos school district — said she is happy to see the case come to a close.
“It’s been a tough road for me,” she said.
Gallegos said she disagrees with how she has been portrayed in The Taos News but that her experience on the board has helped her learn to endure criticism.
“That’s part of being a public servant,” she said.
She said she feels good about her accomplishments while on the board and intends to work to support parents and staff until her term ends in March.
“I am not going to seek re-election,” she said.
Messages seeking comment from Córdova, Coca-Ruiz and Gonzales were not returned as of press time.