Former La Cañada Elementary School principal Christine Castillo has retained high-profile attorney Mark Geragos and is suing La Cañada Unified School District, alleging sex discrimination as well as intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress.
In a complaint filed Wednesday, Dec. 28, the former principal alleged she was discriminated against, demoted and put on indefinite leave because Superintendent Wendy Sinnette was unhappy that Castillo informed her she was pregnant a month after accepting the principal position in July 2012.
In a statement, the LCUSD Governing Board denied those charges: “It is unfortunate that the representatives for Ms. Castillo are pursuing a legal strategy that has nothing to do with the facts. Her placement into the classroom [in 2015] had absolutely nothing to do with her maternity leave of four years ago.”
According to the board’s statement, the district “has strict protocols and adheres to a zero-tolerance policy of discrimination of any kind, and this is no exception,” adding that LCUSD “simply adhered to performance policies that hold our principals to understandably high standards.”
According to the lawsuit, Castillo believes that damages she suffered came “as a direct and proximate result of the tortious, unlawful and wrongful acts of [LCUSD]” and that the district’s treatment of her “was extreme and outrageous and beyond all bounds of decency tolerated in a civilized society.”
Castillo is seeking unspecified damages and a jury trial. She is not seeking reinstatement.
Geragos, her attorney, is a La Cañada Flintridge resident who is known for representing celebrities. In 2015, he filed a $1 billion class-action lawsuit against Los Angeles Unified School District for its practice of “teacher jails.”
In Castillo’s case, LCUSD is limited in what it can discuss because of policies involving personnel matters, according to the board’s statement, which was emailed by board member Ellen Multari on Monday: “The district is regrettably prohibited from speaking directly about the circumstances involving Ms. Castillo’s employment without her permission. She and her attorneys have not given the district permission to comment.”
Castillo’s tenure with LCUSD began in July 2012, when she moved from Seattle with her husband, La Cañada High School principal Ian McFeat, to take principal positions in the district. At LCE, Castillo replaced the recently retired Elissa DeAngelo.
In August, Castillo met with Sinnette to tell her she was pregnant. According to the lawsuit, Sinnette reacted “very negatively” to the news during the meeting, at which McFeat was present.
The suit states that Sinnette said she would have liked to have known about the pregnancy sooner and that she made statements such as “This is really going to upset your staff and parents,” “I made it clear what this job required” and “I need a drink.”
According to the lawsuit, when Sinnette broke the news to the board, its members indicated they were “disappointed that the Plaintiff has ‘waited’ to tell Sinnette about her pregnancy.” In another meeting with Castillo in August, Sinnette allegedly also said, “I was very clear with you about what this job required,” and, “this staff needs a lot of support, and I told you that,” as well as, “I have to think about what we are going to tell your teachers and parents. This isn’t going to go over well.”
In their statement, current board members disputed the characterization, countering: “We stand firmly alongside our superintendent, Wendy Sinnette, and will not tolerate any misrepresentation of her character or her behavior.”
The suit states that when Castillo sought information about pregnancy leave — before and after her daughter, Alissa McFeat, was born on Dec. 19, 2012 — Patty Hagar, then LCUSD’s assistant superintendent of human resources, didn’t offer clear answers. The suit states that she told Castillo that she had never had a principal go on maternity leave and that she grew “increasingly irritated” by requests for help.
According to the suit, Castillo researched her options herself and learned she was entitled to only 10 sick days and claims that she’d missed a deadline to apply for disability.
The suit also states that when Castillo began to experience complications with her pregnancy, the district did not readily accommodate her requests to leave work early or work from home, and that she was required to work “as much as 12 hours a day to complete … extra tasks.”
The suit states that the work-related stress “resulted in birthing difficulties” that led to a caesarean section. Castillo continued to work until Dec. 18, the day before her daughter was born.
Soon after Castillo returned from maternity leave in April 2013 she was, the suit states, subjected to a staff survey, the results of which were referenced in her evaluation for the 2012-13 academic year: “Sinnette included negative remarks from the LCUSD staff survey in this evaluation, which also featured other negative ratings that failed to take [the] recent pregnancy and associated leave into consideration.”
The suit also states that she was denied an opportunity that was presented to the district’s other two principals to work on a project for extra pay. She was also required to take three trips that presented a hardship for the new mother, according to the suit. Between late-summer of 2013 and February 2014, Sinnette required Castillo to travel to San Diego for a staff retreat, to Washington, D.C., to accept LCE’s Blue Ribbon Award; and to Pennsylvania for a weeklong field trip.
On March 4, 2014, the suit states Castillo received a poor performance review, when Sinnette allegedly told her, “I don’t believe you have operated at your fullest potential. I know that having a baby is hard and that you do a lot … it was great that you had a baby, but that impacted how things started out for you. You leaving mid-year did not help winning over the staff.”
A year later, Sinnette and Hagar met with Castillo and told her that the board was considering not reelecting her for the next school year, citing “negative staff relationships,” according to the suit.
On April 2015, Castillo filed an internal complaint against LCUSD for pregnancy discrimination, which led to an internal investigation, the suit states. In June, minutes after Castillo was told that her claims were not substantiated and that she could expect a summary of the findings in a week, she was informed by Sinnette that she was being reassigned to a classroom position, according to the suit.
Following a board meeting that same evening, Andrew Blumenfeld, then the board president, addressed the reassignment: “In this district, it’s rarely about addressing underperformance, it’s almost always about finding a way to do even better.”
Castillo’s final day at work was June 16, 2015, after which she took leave pursuant to a doctor’s note, according to the suit.
The lawsuit states that in November 2015, the summary of the investigation found that LCUSD did not have an updated maternity leave policy, that Castillo’s options for maternity leave were not properly addressed and that an LCUSD employee improperly released confidential information about Castillo to a third party. Also in November, she was informed she was no longer entitled to the 1st-grade teaching position she had been offered, according to the suit.
Castillo is currently on a list of LCUSD employees on indefinite leave, the suit states.