The Michigan Court of Appeals recently upheld a school district’s decision to part ways with a former principal. In Dowker v Richmond Comm Sch, unpublished per curiam opinion of the Court of Appeals, issued Sept. 11, 2018 (Docket No. 336964), former elementary school principal Paula Dowker commenced a legal action on the basis that she had been wrongfully discharged. Specifically, Dowker alleged that she was terminated (1) because she was a “scapegoat” for the superintendent’s unpopular policies and (2) because she had reported possible school district misuse of federal Title I funds. Under these theories, she concluded that Richmond had breached her contract and violated the Michigan Whistleblowers’ Protection Act, MCL 15.361 et seq.
The court rejected Dowker’s arguments. Her breach of contract claim, reportedly “premised on verbal representations or assurances made by [the superintendent] regarding just cause termination during her hiring process, notwithstanding the [collective bargaining agreement],” was misplaced. The court communicated that Dowker’s employment was governed by the CBA, and her union elected not to pursue her claim through the arbitration phase. Unless Dowker could show that the union had breached its duty of fair representation (there was no claim of any such breach), she could not pursue a breach of contract claim against Richmond. Additionally, the court noted that Dowker had engaged in insubordination by refusing to distribute a letter to parents, and that her insubordination was grounds for termination under either an “arbitrary or capricious” or “just cause” standard, even if the latter had applied based on the superintendent’s promises.
Dowker’s whistleblower claim was anchored by her argument that she had been terminated because she reported potential misuse of Title I funds. But, even assuming Dowker engaged in protected activity, the court held that she failed to draw a connection between the protected activity and her termination. The court reasoned, “The vast majority of evidence suggests that [Dowker’s] job performance was problematic in that she was alienating staff, intimidating students at the school and upsetting parents.” It observed, “Defendants came forward with a plethora of evidence to demonstrate concerns regarding [Dowker’s] effectiveness.” Dowker’s job performance and effectiveness, combined with her insubordination, provided sufficient reason for Richmond to terminate her. Thus, without a connection between any protected activity and her termination, Dowker could not succeed on a whistleblower claim.
Dispensing with her grounds for legal action, the court affirmed summary disposition in favor of Richmond, finding that Dowker ultimately could not prevail.