A federal judge in the Northern District of Indiana has granted a defendant school district’s motion for a summary judgment in a case where coach claimed he was fired because he spoke over alleged violations of Title IX within the district.
The court found specifically that the district’s rule requiring employees to go through the appropriate channel in filing a grievance “outweighed” the plaintiff’s “interest in speaking directly to Board members on these matters of public concern.”
Furthermore, the court also concluded that the board members who cited to terminate the plaintiff’s contract had no idea that the plaintiff had raised problems with the district’s compliance with Title IX.
Gregory G. Samuelson was hired as a teacher by the LaPorte Community School Corporation in 1992. He coached several sports over the years, including softball and basketball. As an employee, Samuelson was subject to the schools’ chain-of-command policy that requires employees to address their grievances with the supervisor of that area before airing those grievances to the School Board.
In 1993, Samuelson co-founded the Girls Athletic and Academic Club, which focused on issues affecting girls’ athletics such as funding. Six years later, Samuelson was named LaPorte High School Girls’ Basketball Head Coach. In the 2000-2001 season, Samuelson’s team was very successful on the court, advancing deep into the playoffs.
However, all was not well. On March 8, 2001, 28 girls from the girls’ basketball program signed a petition that they delivered to members of the School Board specifically requesting the Board not renew Samuelson’s coaching contract for the 2001-2002 season. This petition was followed by a petition signed by more than 70 representatives of families in the school district requesting Samuelson’s dismissal as Girls’ Varsity Coach. On April 10, 2001, the School Corporation formally requested Samuelson’s resignation. The Board did not request his resignation.
While Samuelson remained as head coach, things got worse. He had an altercation with a parent. Further, all 13 members of the Girls’ Varsity team signed a petition stating: “We the members of the 2002-2003 LaPorte Lady Slicer Basketball Team refuse to play under the coaching of Head Coach Greg Samuelson due to his incompetence and lack of respect towards his players.”
The school’s principal recommended to the board that Samuelson be fired. As the process was unfolding, Samuelson wrote an email to the assistant superintendent inquiring as to the proper method by which to file a Title IX suit, writing: “I believe that the LaPorte Community School Corporation and some of its staff and administrators have inadequately applied the principles and/or regulations of Title IX of the Education Amendment Act of 1972.” The court noted that Samuelson asked about available protection from retaliation: “In the filing of any complaint or grievances under Title IX, will I be protected from any type of retaliation towards my teaching or coaching assignment on the part of the LaPorte Community School Corporation because of any past or present connection to any Title IX complaints or grievances.”
In response to this email and other grievances, the superintendent advised Samuelson in a memo to be careful not to violate the aforementioned chain-of-command policy, which he added could result in termination.
The board, on February 18, 2003, voted not to renew Samuelson’s contract. On February 17, 2005, Samuelson sued, alleging that the district, through its chain-of-command policy, violated his First Amendment rights because it was a “unconstitutional prior restraint. He further alleged that his coaching contract hadn’t been renewed in retaliation for his speaking out on matters of public importance concerning the (district).”
Finally, he alleged that these actions deprived him of due process, the privileges and immunities guaranteed to him by the Fourteenth Amendment and his right to free thought, speech, writing and printing in violation of Article 1 Section 9 of the Indiana Constitution.
The court began its analysis by looking at whether the chain-of-command policy constituted a prior restraint. If so, the government must then “demonstrate that the interests of both potential audiences and a vast group of present and future employees in a broad range of present and future expression are outweighed by that expressions’ ‘necessary impact on the actual operation’ of the Governmen” Crue v. Aiken, 370 F.3d 668, 678 (7th Cir. 2004) (quoting United States v. National Treasury Employees Union, 513 U.S. 454, 468, 115 S. Ct. 1003, 130 L. Ed. 2d 964 (1995)).
The court found that it is not a prior restraint, noting that the “policy’s plain text mandates that issues requiring administrative action should be brought first to the attention of the person in charge of the department.” It also added that the plaintiff, “after following the chain of command, (would have been) free to appeal to the School Board without express authorization of the supervisor or Superintendent. It is not a prior restraint.”
Turning to the retaliation claim, the court agreed with the plaintiff that the speech was “constitutionally protected.” However, his claim failed the next test, which was that the content of the speech was a mater of concern that outweighed the district’s “interest in promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs.
“Even if the balancing test produced a different result, and even if Mr. Samuelson’s speech was found to be a motivating factor in his discharge, the defendants still would prevail because they have provided ample evidence that they would have still not renewed his contract regardless of the protected speech.”
Gregory G. Samuelson v. LaPorte Community School Corp. et al.; N.D. Ind.; Cause NO. 3:05-CV-99 RM, 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 84429; 11/17/06
Attorneys of Record: (for plaintiff) Charles S Leone, LEAD ATTORNEY, Stanley F Wruble III, Leone Halpin and Konopinski LLP, South Bend, IN. (for defendants) Cornelius J Harrington, III, LEAD ATTORNEY, Bullaro & Carton PC – Chi/IL, Chicago, IL; Thomas A Carton, LEAD ATTORNEY, Bullaro & Carton PC – Mun/IN, Munster, IN; Timothy A Alspach, Bullaro & Carton PC – Hig/IN, Highland, IN.