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Corrales v. Moreno Valley Unified School District

June 10, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Avern Cohn


I. Introduction

This is a retaliation in employment case. Plaintiff Maria Corrales is a special education teacher whose term was not renewed after having spent more than a year complaining about defendant Moreno Valley Unified School District's (the "school district") handling of her students. Corrales says her firing was in retaliation for her voicing concerns over the district's treatment of her students. The school district says its decision was the product of Corrales' inability to manage her classroom. Corrales brings claims under state and federal law. Before the Court is the school district's motion for summary judgment. For the reasons that follow, the school district's motion will be granted in part and denied in part. Corrales' federal claim under the Rehabilitation Act continues.

II. Legal Standard

Given that the applicable legal standard for considering motions for summary judgment has long past become firmly established, the Court will briefly state: Summary judgment can be granted only where there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and where the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. In determining whether these conditions are met the record must be viewed in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion, with the court indulging in all inferences favorable to that party. See FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255-56 (1986); Brookside Assocs. v. Rifkin, 49 F.3d 490, 492-93 (9th Cir. 1995).

III. Background

A. Corrales' Work History From 2003 to 2005

Corrales was enrolled in an intern program at California State University at San Bernardino to enable her to earn a California special education teaching credential, known as a CLEAR credential. As part of the intern program, Corrales taught special education classes at the school district on a full-time basis, first at Sunny Meade Elementary School from 2003 to 2004, and then at Edgemont Elementary School during the 2004 to 2005 school year. For the next two school years (2005 to 2007), Corrales taught first as an intern and then as a probationary instructor at Armada Elementary School.

Towards the end of Corrales' second year in the intern program she taught at Edgemont Elementary School. During her term, Corrales received a very positive year-end evaluation of her teaching and behavior management skills. Corrales received "Satisfactory" ratings (the highest possible) in all performance categories with a comment from the evaluator that Corrales "worked hard to establish a quiet and calm learning environment so students can learn core content standards and succeed." (Pl's Opp., Ex. B). Forms completed by the school's principal from his observations of Corrales teaching that were taken throughout the school year likewise provided largely positive assessments of her work performance. For instance, on one of the observation forms, the school's principal noted that Corrales was calm and positive during the class, that her calm demeanor kept her students focused, an assertive discipline plan was in place, and that the classroom was positive and calm. Notably, the final observation of Corrales' teaching in the classroom in February 15, 2005, found that "[b]ehavior management was in place[;] students were repeatedly reminded of positive and negative consequences[;] students were prompted often to keep them on task." (Pl's Opp., Ex. A4). However, the principal reminded Corrales that she needed to "assist students in developing behaviors to keep them on task and focused on their assignments;" (Pl's Opp., Ex. A1), a recommendation that would be repeated throughout Corrales' evaluations over the remaining three years. These positive developments in Corrales' management of her classroom, however, did not carry over or at least were not perceived to have carried over by school administrators at the next school where she taught, Armada Elementary School.

Beginning the fall of 2005 and continuing through the end of the 2007 school year, Corrales taught a combination kindergarten and first grade class for mild to moderately disabled students at Armada Elementary School. Michael Keefe, the principal at Armada School, was Corrales' supervisor. Keefe first observed Corrales in the classroom on November 30, 2005. In his observations from that session, Keefe noted the following problems with Corrales' management of her classroom, observations which formed a baseline from which Corrales was later judged against in evaluating whether she had improved:

It would be better to put all board items up prior to starting the day. These students are high maintenance and teacher time would be better utilized interacting with them than writing on the board [to prepare the class for the day's session]. The class needs a behavior organizational plan to stop the yelling out and inappropriate behavior of [students] wandering the room and not following directions. The class needs more structure to assist them in getting into curriculum sooner and not having them dictate the schedule with their behavior. Organizational items need to be done prior to start of class such as sharpening pencils. (Pl's Opp., Ex. K).

Keefe's subsequent observations of Corrales' classroom performance showed improvement in most of the areas mentioned in his November 30, 2005, form save for one where her improvement was more muted --- behavior modification. Thus, in January 20, 2006, Keefe observed that Corrales' "lesson was well organized," she "had all materials available," and "most students were on task during the observation." (Pl's Opp., Ex. L). However, Keefe noted that problems remained as "several students need special attention to keep them on task," which Keefe noted could be surmounted if Corrales were to let "the aide . . . be the one to run interference with groups for discipline so that [Corrales] can concentrate on [her] main group of instruction." (Id.)

Nonetheless, the year-end evaluation form completed by Keefe on May 16, 2006, like the form from the year before at Edgemont Elementary, gave Corrales "Satisfactory" marks in all performance categories, including that for the "Establishment and Maintenance of a Suitable Learning Environment," but in the comments section Keefe gave the following admonition to Corrales:

Mrs. Corrales has worked hard with a difficult assignment of students with multiple needs . . . . She will need to work on behavior modification for some students to insure a quiet and contained class during lessons. It would also assist her to learn more about intervention techniques to work with difficult special education students. (Pl's Opp., Ex. F).

At the end of the 2005 to 2006 school year, Corrales earned her CLEAR credential, which is the highest teaching credential in California for special education.

Keefe's observations of Corrales' teaching in the classroom for the following 2006 to 2007 school year similarly showed progress from the deficiencies he had identified earlier during his observation in November 30, 2005. Thus, in his October 20, 2006, observation, Keefe complimented Corrales with providing a "very good" "classroom environment." He noted that Corrales' "spacing is very good" with her students and that her "aides are well suited to the population and you have given them responsibilities to keep yourself free to teach." (Pl's Opp., Ex. O). As Keefe noted, "I see growth in your structure from last year." Nonetheless, Keefe reminded Corrales to "continue to work on behavior modifications with this class. Many students are in need of the routine and structure. The class needs to get into their academics sooner [in the day." (Id.). The progress in Corrales' handling of her classroom continued when Keefe observed her class in December 11, 2006, with him noting that Corrales had "the aides well trained to take care of problems so you do not have to stop the lesson to handle discipline," but continued to note that Corrales' "biggest problem" is "the calling out" from students; "it is disruptive to the pacing of your lesson but understandable in SDC students. You have demonstrated methods to control this activity and are implementing it. The aides should continue to care for the disruptive ones so you can continue to teach. Work on methods to control the noise level so you can be more effective." (Pl's Opp., Ex. M). Keefe's final observation taken on February 14, 2007, contrasts markedly from his initial assessment back in November 30, 2005. Keefe noted that the student study "groups were working well and the work was appropriate for their skill levels. Aides were cognizant of the needs of students and intervened with the one student who wanted to wander. Core materials were being used and all ...

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