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Date: 08-04-2023

Case Style:

Karen Zarza v. University of Michigan, Board of Regents

Case Number: 4:18-cv-13862

Judge: Shalina D. Kumar

Court: United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan (Genessee County)

Plaintiff's Attorney: Allison Rattet and Michael Hanna

Defendant's Attorney: Don Miller

Description: Flint, Michigan civil rights lawyer represented Plaintiff who sued Defendant on an employment discrimination theory.

Karen Zarza worked for the University of Michigan from 2003 to 2017. She maintained a clean record with her superiors. For much of her tenure, she held a custodial supervisor role, managing between 15 and 20 janitors and custodians.

2 Robert Taylor was one such custodian. From 2013 to 2015, Taylor suffered a series of work-related injuries that he says left him disabled. Claiming that he provided inadequate documents to support his accommodation requests, the University fired Taylor in 2015.

Taylor filed two lawsuits against the University in 2017. He told Zarza that he would need her as a witness. Concerned about testifying against her employer, Zarza scheduled a meeting for May 11, 2017, with John Lawter, one of her supervisors. She also invited two other custodial supervisors.

At the meeting, Zarza staked out a clear position. As she saw things, the University unlawfully refused to accommodate Taylor. Much of the blame, she thought, belonged to Colette Donner, a manager, who held "a grudge against [Taylor]." R.44-5 at 2-3. Despite her views that Donner "was vindictive" and would fire her if she spoke up, Zarza revealed that Taylor had called her as a witness and that she planned to testify on his behalf. R.44-11 at 6.

After hearing this, Lawter's "face turned beet red." R.44-12 at 3. As Zarza recalls it, he warned her about colluding with Taylor, adding that the University would tell her what to say so long as she remained an employee. Lawter's response struck Zarza and her fellow supervisors as defensive, angry, or threatening. Lawter, for his part, recalls telling Zarza that she could testify if she chose to do so.

Five days later, Zarza's comments to Lawter prompted an email exchange between Sabrina Garrett-Owens, a human resources director, and Kristin Brancheau, a manager with the custodial department. Brancheau described Zarza's intent to testify that the University failed to accommodate Taylor's disability and Zarza's concern that Donner was "out to get her." R.48-15 at 2. "When the evidence shows that [Zarza] is not accurate," Brancheau asked, "can we finally discipline her for this?" Id. Garrett-Owens responded that Lawter "c[ould] do more than fire her" if the evidence showed that Zarza was wrong. Id.

That's what Lawter concluded. He called Zarza on May 25 to say that her concerns about Donner lacked evidence. Zarza heard the same message on June 28, when she met with Brancheau and Leti Rastigue, a human resources director. Zarza again asserted that Donner did not adequately handle Taylor's case and Zarza repeated her concern about testifying for Taylor. Brancheau and Rastigue disregarded that concern, reasoning that Zarza's testimony would be irrelevant or inadmissible.

The status quo held for two months. One of Zarza's fellow custodial supervisors called Donner on September 5. The supervisor told Donner that Zarza berated him, that she bullied her subordinates and yelled at them, and that she gave her favorites special privileges.

Donner acted quickly. Within hours, she forwarded the supervisor's comments to Lawter and Brancheau. Lawter met with the supervisor the next day. Alongside complaints against Zarza, the supervisor mentioned Robert Taylor. Lawter observed that "Taylor's name seems to just swirl around wherever [Zarza] is." R.48-12 at 22.

The pace did not slow. On September 11-before investigating further or hearing Zarza's side of the story-Lawter placed Zarza on administrative leave. The following day, Brancheau conducted interviews. She talked to fourteen custodians and to Donner. In a twelve-page report, she concluded that Zarza was "mean, unprofessional, [and] unpleasant"; that she treated temporary employees poorly; and that she gave special privileges to some employees. R.48-19 at 2-4, 13. Among these criticisms, Brancheau noted in her report that Zarza "told [a custodian] about Robert Taylor suing the [University]," and that she "hope[s] he wins as he was done wrong." Id. at 6.

Rastigue received the report on September 13, and she interviewed Zarza about the allegations the same day. Zarza denied any wrongdoing. Even so, Rastigue told Zarza that she remained on administrative leave. Shortly after, Rastigue interviewed Donner about the complaints against Zarza.

Zarza did not take all this quietly. She began with a retaliation complaint through the University system, asserting "that her administrative suspension [was] the result of her expressing complaints to John Lawter." R.48-39 at 2. She also emailed the University's legal counsel. She again linked the allegations against her to the Taylor case and to the meeting with Lawter. The counsel forwarded the email to Garrett-Owens, interpreting the email to allege that Lawter "threatened [Zarza] regarding potential testimony in the Robert Taylor lawsuit." R.48-37 at 2. Garrett-Owens looped in Rastigue and Brancheau.

Despite Zarza's attempts to raise the alarm, no one investigated her retaliation claims against Donner and Lawter. Instead, Donner and Lawter continued to provide input on the investigation against Zarza.

Garrett-Owens, Rastigue, and Lawter exchanged "[s]trategy" emails a few days after Zarza's email to the University's counsel. R.48-42 at 2. Garrett-Owens began, saying that she had been thinking about "the best approach to ending [Zarza's] employment." Id. She explained that Zarza "no longer demonstrates the qualities we need" in a supervisor and that multiple issues "severely diminished her credibility." Id. Garrett-Owens proposed "immediately releas[ing Zarza] from her duties" and giving her 21 days to accept a settlement. Id. If Zarza refused, Garrett-Owens proposed convening a Disciplinary Review Conference to "seek[] her discharge." Id. "Given her years of service and lack of documented discipline," Garrett-Owens added, settlement appeared their "best option." Id. Lawter thought the plan was "worth a shot," though he speculated that Zarza would "claim[] retaliation." Id. at 3. Rastigue also signed on.

Rastigue wasted no time. She met with Zarza and presented the settlement offer on September 21, two days after the strategy emails. When Zarza asked about her options "to refute the charges," Rastigue replied that Zarza "should use this time to search for a job." Id.

Zarza refused the settlement offer. As promised, the University scheduled a Discipline Review Conference for November 10. The morning of the conference, a University employee emailed Brancheau to say that Taylor had subpoenaed Zarza. "If she's not [employed] at the time of trial," the employee observed, "we can't be required to 'produce' her so that could actually be another benefit to terminating employment." R.48-43 at 2.

The Disciplinary Review Conference began a few minutes later, with Garrett-Owens, Rastigue, and Donner presiding. Garrett-Owens explained that the University charged Zarza with "unsatisfactory work performance, specifically creating a hostile work environment of fear, intimidation, and harassment." R.48-44 at 2. Zarza denied the charge, asserting that she was a good supervisor and a loyal employee.

The University fired Zarza five days later. Donner, Garrett-Owens, and Rastigue served as the primary decisionmakers, though Lawter and Brancheau contributed.

Zarza sued the University, asserting several retaliatory termination claims. After discovery, one claim remained.

Outcome: 08/04/2023 63 STIPULATED ORDER of Dismissal With Prejudice. Signed by District Judge Shalina D. Kumar. (JOwe) (Entered: 08/04/2023)

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