A panel of judges with the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed the ruling of a district court that a school district and its administrators did not retaliate against a set of two parents, who had complained about a high school softball coach.
The panel even went a step further and ordered the parents to show cause as to why they should not be held responsible for the defendants’ costs and attorneys’ fees on appeal.
Rollie and Cynthia Springer, and Ross and Carla Collins were unhappy with the way the coach of their daughters’ high school softball team, Stacy Whitcomb, had handled things during the previous, spring 2001 season. In December 2001, the parents, through an attorney, requested a meeting with administrators of Morton Community High School. On January 30, 2002, the parents, along with their attorney and a local newspaper reporter, met with the superintendent of the Morton Community Unit School District 709, Dr. Norman Durflinger; the school district’s attorney, Dennis Triggs; the principal of Morton Community High School, Teresa Lane; and the school’s athletic director, Greg Prichard.
They accused Whitcomb of doctoring statistics to favor her sister, and complained that Whitcomb had been abusive to umpires, parents, team “boosters,” and players. They felt that Whitcomb was doing a poor job of coaching the team and that she was not a positive role model image for their children.
After they received what the deemed to be an unsatisfactory response from the administrators, the parents interpreted a handful of “normal events to be adverse, retaliatory acts on the part of the school,” according to the court.
Among those events was an incident involving Coach Whitcomb and Indiana University Softball Coach Sarah Hayes, who was recruiting Katie Collins, the daughter of one of the parents.
“The conversation happened at an Illinois State University softball game that Whitcomb, the Collinses, and Hayes all happened to be attending,” wrote the court. “At the time of the conversation, Katie had already been offered a spot on the IU softball team for her upcoming freshman year, but she had not been offered a scholarship. The Collinses did not hear the conversation between Whitcomb and Hayes, but Mr. Collins videotaped it from a distance. Whitcomb testified that she told Hayes that Katie Collins was a great kid. Whitcomb pointed out to Hayes that she could see Mr. Collins videotaping them, and then Whitcomb said, apparently referring to Mr. Collins, ‘I just recommend keeping good records and document[ing].’
“Coach Hayes said in her deposition that she remembered leaving the conversation with the impression that Katie was ‘an awesome person and a good–had very good character, a really hard worker.’ She also recalled ‘leaving there feeling as though . . . Katie’s parents were a little bit overbearing.’ After some follow-up respecting the Collinses, the IU coaches decided that there was nothing to be concerned about, and Katie played for IU her freshman year. Katie was not offered a scholarship because, according to Hayes, ‘she was at the athletic level of a walk-on.’”
The parents ultimately filed a § 1983 lawsuit against the school district, its board members, and high school officials, claiming that they were retaliated against in violation of the First Amendment. The defendants moved for summary judgment, a motion to the district court granted “based on the utter dearth of evidence demonstrating retaliatory motive.” The parents appealed.
“The parents argue that the few available scraps of circumstantial evidence, when pieced together, prove retaliation. They cite Sylvester v. SOS Children’s Villages Illinois, Inc., 453 F.3d 900 (7th Cir. 2006), for the proposition that ‘a number of weak proofs can add up to a strong proof.’ Id. at 903 (quoting Mataya v. Kingston, 371 F.3d 353, 358 (7th Cir. 2004)). In Sylvester–a retaliation case in the employment context–the plaintiff was fired shortly after having made a sexual harassment complaint; her employer had just given her a positive performance review; and the board authorized her termination depending on how she reacted to the firing of other sexual harassment complainants. Id. at 905. What distinguishes this case from Sylvester is the nature of the circumstantial evidence: the timing, unusualness, and severity of the employer’s acts in Sylvester combined to create a genuine issue of material fact about retaliation.
“In contrast, the type of circumstantial evidence in the instant case is totally unremarkable because of its normalness. Each of the alleged retaliatory events – and the combination of events like these – predictably occur in high schools around the nation every spring. Schools improve their fields and backstops, react to complaints by implementing new policies that affect some parents more than others, and respond to disruptive parents and spectators as a matter of course. Some parents are chosen to be team boosters, while others are not. Some parents avoid others who are seen as complainers, or with whom they disagree about how a sports team should be run. Inattentive kids playing sports get hit by balls. Details about sports banquets get muddled when students call each other. Teachers are told not to talk to certain parents when attorneys are involved in the situation. One coach shares her personal opinions about a player and the player’s family with a prospective coach–an act akin to a former employer giving a negative reference to a prospective employer, which typically enjoys some form of qualified immunity. See, e.g., Delloma v. Consolidation Coal Co., 996 F.2d 168, 171-72 (7th Cir. 1993). We cannot infer that these separate incidents–which easily could have happened to numerous softball families in high schools across America last season – amount to circumstantial evidence of retaliation. Cf. East-Miller v. Lake County Highway Dep’t, 421 F.3d 558, 564 (7th Cir. 2005).
The panel concluded that “because the parents offer absolutely no evidence to support their theory of retaliation, the district court’s summary judgment in favor of the defendants is affirmed. Additionally, the plaintiffs are ordered to show cause as to why they should not be held responsible for the defendants’ costs and attorneys’ fees on appeal,” which it described as “frivolous.”
Springer v. Durflinger; 7th Cir.; 2008 U.S. App. LEXIS 4388; 2/29/08;
Attorneys of Record: (for plaintiffs) Donald R. Jackson, Peoria, IL USA. (for defendants) David B. Mueller, CASSIDY & MUELLER, Peoria, IL USA.