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Fine v. Career Academy of South Bend, Inc.

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division

May 10, 2019

SARAH FINE, Plaintiff,
v.
CAREER ACADEMY OF SOUTH BEND, INC., Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          JON E. DEGUILIO, JUDGE

         Sarah Fine worked as the director of student services for Career Academy of South Bend, a charter school. She and two other employees lost their jobs in September 2015 as part of what the school describes as an effort to balance its budget. Ms. Fine alleges in this case that the budget cuts were a pretext for age discrimination. The school moved for summary judgment, arguing that the evidence could not support such a finding. For the reasons explained below, the Court agrees, so it grants the motion.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         There are two preliminary issues to address before recounting the facts. First, a party must support the facts upon which it relies at summary judgment by “citing to particular parts of materials in the record” that establish those facts. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1) (emphasis added); Sommerfield v. City of Chi., 863 F.3d 645, 650 (7th Cir. 2017); Packer v. Trs. of Ind. Univ. Sch. of Med., 800 F.3d 843, 850 (7th Cir. 2015). That means that for each factual assertion (in the statement of facts and the argument sections), the brief should cite to a particular place in a specific exhibit that supports that assertion. Ms. Fine's brief falls short of that standard in many instances. Similar to the filing the Court discussed in a related case by Ms. Fine's former co- worker, some factual assertions do not have any citations at all, and others are followed by string-cites to voluminous exhibits or entire depositions. Addie v. Career Acad. of S. Bend., Inc., No. 3:16-cv-513, 2019 WL 1382905, at *1-2 (N.D. Ind. Mar. 27, 2019). In other instances, the exhibits that are cited bear no apparent relation to the assertions that precede them. That does not suffice, so in resolving the motion, the Court relies on the facts that have been properly cited and supported. Id.; Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(3).

         Second, Career Academy filed a separate objection to many of the exhibits Ms. Fine submitted with her response. Career Academy objects to 26 exhibits on relevance grounds, the entirety of its argument (which it repeats 26 separate times) being that “[t]he documents do not tend to prove or disprove any fact at issue in this case.” [DE 37]. Not only is that rote argument unhelpful, but there is no reason to object to an exhibit on relevance grounds at summary judgment. If an exhibit is not relevant then it will not create a genuine dispute of material fact, but that is a question on the merits that should be argued in the brief. Hess v. Biomet, Inc., No. 3:16-cv-208, 2019 WL 1282032, at *13 n.8 (N.D. Ind. Mar. 20, 2019). Career Academy also objects to some exhibits on hearsay grounds, but its arguments are similarly undeveloped and consist solely of the assertion that “[t]he documents are hearsay[.]” [DE 37]. The Court thus declines to entertain any of the objections. With that understanding, the Court addresses the pertinent facts.

         Career Academy is a non-for-profit corporation that operates charter schools in South Bend, Indiana. In August 2011, it opened Career Academy of South Bend as a middle school with grades 7 through 9. It later expanded to include a middle school with grades 6 through 8, and a high school with grades 9 through 12. In 2015, it opened another charter school, Success Academy of South Bend, with Kindergarten through 5th grade. From 2011 to 2015, Career Academy's total student enrollment grew rapidly, from 160 students to over 1, 000 students.

         Career Academy was founded by Lawrence Garatoni. In addition to being the schools' founder and benefactor, Mr. Garatoni served as president of the board of directors. Along with his wife and their foundation, Mr. Garatoni contributed millions of dollars towards purchasing and renovating their buildings. He has also provided funding to help cover their operating expenses. Over the years, Mr. Garatoni forgave many of the loans he provided to the schools, but his goal was for the schools to become self-sufficient. The schools received funding from the state for each student that enrolled, and Mr. Garatoni desired for those revenues to at least cover the schools' operating expenses, in part so that they could continue to operate even when he is no longer able to support them.

         Ms. Fine joined Career Academy in March 2013 as an administrator, with the title of Manager of Student Transition. Ms. Fine was 54 years old at the time. Her title later changed to Director of Career Development, but without a change in responsibilities. In those positions, Ms. Fine's duties included helping to arrange internships for students. Ms. Fine earned a salary of $62, 000 a year, plus other benefits. In May 2015, Ms. Fine transitioned to a newly created position, Director of Student Services, though her compensation did not change. In that position, Ms. Fine's duties included overseeing support staff, including the social worker, counselor, and nurse, and coordinating student services. When Ms. Fine moved to that new position, Career Academy hired a new employee to assume her prior duties, Rabab Darwish. Ms. Darwish was 24 years old at the time. Ms. Fine helped train Ms. Darwish in that position.

         In September 2015, Career Academy's finance committee met to review Career Academy's budget for the year. By then Career Academy knew how many students had enrolled and thus how much revenue it would receive for the year. The budget summary reflected that the schools' operating expenses would exceed their operating revenues by about $240, 000. Mr. Garatoni thus instructed the superintendent, Paul Schlottman, that he needed to cut expenses by that amount in order to balance the budget. Mr. Garatoni told Mr. Schlottman to consider a reduction in force that would least affect the teaching of the students.

         In response, Mr. Schlottman prepared a package of budget cuts. First, he proposed eliminating three positions. Those included Ms. Fine's position, another administrative position held by Chadwick Addie, and a teacher's aide position. Next, Mr. Schlottman proposed reducing his own salary by three percent and reducing all employee bonuses. Finally, he proposed other cost-cutting measures including changing the schools' cell phone plan and internet provider. The net effect of those steps would be to balance the budget. Mr. Schlottman presented that proposal to Mr. Garatoni, who approved.

         Accordingly, on September 30, 2015, Ms. Fine was told that her position was being eliminated and that her employment with Career Academy was being terminated. Ms. Fine was not given the option of bumping any other employees from their positions, nor has Career Academy given any other employees such an option. When it informed her of the decision, Career Academy also presented Ms. Fine with a separation agreement. That agreement offered to make severance payments for the next three-and-a-half months, in return for which Ms. Fine would have to release Career Academy from “any liability” based on her employment or its termination. Ms. Fine declined to sign the agreement. Instead, she filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging that she was fired because of her age. After receiving a right-to-sue letter, Ms. Fine file this suit. Discovery has closed, and Career Academy has moved for summary judgment.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A court must grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there “is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A “material” fact is one identified by the substantive law as affecting the outcome of the suit. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A “genuine issue” exists with respect to any material fact when “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id. Where a factual record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party, there is no genuine issue for trial, and summary judgment should be granted. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986). In determining whether a genuine issue of material fact exists, courts must construe all facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw all reasonable and justifiable inferences in that party's favor. Jackson v. Kotter, 541 F.3d 688, 697 (7th Cir. 2008); King v. Preferred Tech. Grp., 166 F.3d 887, 890 (7th Cir. 1999). However, the non-moving party cannot simply rest on the allegations contained in its pleadings but must present evidence sufficient to show the existence of each element of its case on which it will bear the burden at trial. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986); Robin v. Espo Eng'g Corp., 200 F.3d 1081, 1088 (7th Cir. 2000).

         III. ...


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