Flint, MI— A judge has ruled that Flint Community Schools’ former Superintendent Anita Steward can sue four board members individually, but a clause in her contract won’t allow her to sue the district itself .
If she wants to pursue further action against the school district, she’ll have to do through arbitration, a method of settling disputes out of court with a neutral third party.
Steward’s lawsuit, filed at the 7th Judicial Circuit Court Sept. 8, 2021, alleges the district and board members, individually and collectively, prevented Steward from performing her duties as superintendent by overstepping their authority and “thumbing their noses” at board bylaws.
President Danielle Green, Vice President Joyce Ellis-McNeal, Treasurer Laura MacIntyre, and Trustee Carol McIntosh were named individually in the suit.
The board filed a motion Nov. 4, 2021, to dismiss the lawsuit on the grounds of “improper venue,” meaning that disputes between the school district and the superintendent should be settled through arbitration.
“It is clear from the terms of the agreement that the only parties to the contract are the district and plaintiffs, and the court is allowing the individual defendants to be sued personally for violations on all counts,” Judge Brian Pickell said.
In other words, the district is protected from being sued in Steward’s contract, but she is free to sue individual members–something those members took issue with.
Green said she was surprised and was under the impression that she can’t be sued as an individual while acting in her capacity as an elected official.
“I’m surprised that Anita is even trying to sue us four personally. … I was just doing my board responsibilities and duties. And if you’re not open, honest, and transparent and we keep asking you to be that I’m going to vote to reprimand you,” Green said.
Ellis-McNeal echoed Green, saying that she was also told she had immunity as a school board member. She added that Steward is “trying to get blood out of a turnip.”
Steward’s lawyer Tom Pabst said he was happy with the decision.
“It was a great victory for Anita Steward today. I look forward to the jury trial in this case. The jury whereby will clear her name with the public and the public trial will show the community she did nothing wrong but instead was the victim of wrongful misconduct by the defendants,” he said.
Steward is seeking at least $100,000 in monetary damages saying that the board’s alleged “misconduct” and violations of Michigan Legislature caused Steward several injuries, including loss of employment, loss of wages and earning capacity, emotional and mental “anguish,” and “incurrence of actual attorneys’ fees and costs” to enforce her legal rights.
The school board’s counsel Cha’Ris Lee declined to comment. Co-counsel for the board Philip Clark of Thrun Law firm said he considers the ruling a “partial victory.”
Concerns surrounding Steward’s transparency had been mounting since February 2021. It finally came to a head when the board issued her a verbal warning in June 2021 for performance issues, lack of transparency, and running a “hostile” administration.
The board also barred Steward from speaking to community partners without the presence of the board president or their representative. The lawsuit claims this was an “unlawful gag order.”
Steward left for Family and Medical Leave on Aug. 31 at the recommendation of her doctor due to overwhelming pressure from the board, Pabst said.
She did not return from leave and announced her resignation in an email to then- President Carol McIntosh on Nov. 12, saying that the decision was not hers.
“Hello Board President. You continue to make it impossible for me to perform my job under my contract,” Steward wrote. “Therefore, I have no other choice but to consider myself constructively discharged and my employment with the school district constructively terminated at your hands, not mine.”
In employment law, constructive discharge means an employee resigns due to an intolerable work environment.
The lawsuit also alleges that MacIntyre, the sole white member of the board, showed favor towards Monaca Elston, Steward’s then executive assistant, who is also white, “in order to marginalize and minimize” Steward, who is Black.
In August 2021, the district’s Director of Finance, Ayunna Dompreh, also filed a complaint against McIntyre for discriminatory behavior. MacIntyre did not respond to requests for comment by press time.
Green said she’s known Steward since she was 9 years old.
“It’s unfortunate. We got a lot of history. We been knowing each other for a long time, and I was really surprised,” Green said.
“I intend to clear Anita’s good name and reputation via a public jury trial in Judge Pickell’s court,” Pabst said.
It is unclear whether the four board members can be represented by district counsel or if they will be required to seek individual representation. A trial date has yet to be scheduled.
McIntosh did not respond to requests for comment by press time.