Evidence Lacking in Coach’s Retaliation Claim

Aug 1, 2008

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed a lower court’s ruling against a coach, who had argued that a school district’s failure to renew his contract was an act of retaliation.
The panel of judges found specifically that Gregory Samuelson “failed to establish that the instances that he claims are protected expression (of speech) played a role in the decision of the Board.”
Samuelson became a teacher at LaPorte Community School Corporation in 1992. Among his other responsibilities he accrued over time was coaching at both the middle school and high school levels. At least some of these coaching positions were undertaken on the basis of a separate contractual arrangement with LSC. In 2003, the Board declined to renew Samuelson’s contract as coach of the high school girls’ varsity basketball team, a decision that did not affect his contract as a teacher.
At issue were “four instances of expression” that Samuelson claims “motivated the Board to decline to renew his contract as head coach of the girls’ varsity basketball team.”
The first instance involved Samuelson’s conversations with individual Board members, LSC’s athletic directors, parents and members of the community “about disparities he perceived in the treatment of girls’ sports programs.”
The second occurred when he “voiced his disapproval about the LSC’s selection and hiring of a middle school principal.”
The third involved his communication to board members about proposed technology changes in the school’s computer platform.
Finally, he spoke with a board member about his objections to a proposed school redistricting plan.
The court went on to write about Samuelson’s troubled tenure in running LSC’s high school girls’ basketball program. Despite some success on the court, petitions were frequently circulated among players and coaches that sought the removal of Samuelson.
Early in February 2003, the school’s athletic director and its principal recommended that the board not renew Samuelson’s contract. “The recommendations primarily focused on (1) the unrest among players, parents and coaches, (2) Mr. Samuelson’s poor fund-raising and unauthorized spending of team funds and (3) his coaching ability,” wrote the court. The board ultimately ratified the recommendation.
On February 17, 2005, Samuelson sued the LSC under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. His complaint specifically alleged violations of the First and Fourteenth Amendments and the Indiana Constitution. After discovery, Samuelson and LSC filed cross-motions for summary judgment. Samuelson’s response to LSC’s motion abandoned his claims under the Fourteenth Amendment and the Indiana Constitution. The district court granted summary judgment on Samuelson’s remaining First Amendment claims. Samuelson appealed.
The court first considered whether LSC’s chain-of-command policy, Guideline 1110, constitutes a prior restraint. The guideline required staff members to “refer matters requiring administrative action to the person in charge of the department, who shall refer such matters to the next higher authority, when necessary.”
The court ultimately decided that LSC’s chain-of-command policy, “when fairly read in its totality, does not constitute a prior restraint because it does not restrict any speech protected by the First Amendment.” Thus, the panel affirmed the grant of summary judgment on that claim.
Next the panel turned to Samuelson’s allegation that LSC retaliated against him for engaging in speech protected by the First Amendment. “We apply a three-step analysis in evaluating a First Amendment retaliation claim. Vukadinovich v. Bd. of Sch. Trs., 278 F.3d 693, 699 (7th Cir. 2002),” noted the court. “We first determine whether the employee’s speech was constitutionally protected. Id. If it was, we determine whether the protected speech was a motivating factor for the employer’s action. Id. If the employee can show that his constitutionally protected speech was a substantial or motivating factor in his termination, we examine whether the employer can show that it would have taken the same action in the absence of his exercise of his rights under the First Amendment. Id.”
The court continued that the plaintiff “has the burden to establish, by a preponderance of the evidence that protected First Amendment activity was a motivating factor in the nonrenewal of his coaching contract. Spiegla v. Hull, 371 F.3d 928, 942 (7th Cir. 2004), cert. denied, 128 S. Ct. 441 (2007).”
A key element of his claim was that he was effectively fired two days after he had asked the superintendent in an e-mail about the proper procedure for filing a Title IX complaint and one day after the superintendent ordered him not to speak to Board members without following the chain of command.
“Samuelson,” wrote the court, “has put forward no evidence that the Board ever saw or considered his e-mail exchange with (the superintendent). His motivation evidence is therefore insufficient.”
“Samuelson also has put forward no evidence that the Board was motivated to retaliate against him by the other incidences of speech upon which he relies. He has not shown that the Board considered any of those incidents. Moreover, standing alone, the timing of Samuelson’s expressions regarding the technology changes and Taylor’s hiring also cannot suffice to demonstrate that the Board was motivated by those incidents because they occurred more than a year before the Board’s decision. See id. (holding that a one-year gap was too attenuated to provide evidence that an employee’s speech was a motivating factor). With respect to his comments on redistricting, only one Board member was aware of his position on that subject, and she abstained from the vote.
“Stated simply, the record supports firmly the conclusion that Samuelson’s contract as coach was not renewed because of the troubled state of the girls’ basketball program. Every Board member who voted on Samuelson’s coaching contract testified that he or she had no knowledge of Samuelson’s position on any of the matters about which he claims to have spoken publically. Furthermore, the members stated that the sole basis for the Board’s vote was the troubled state of the girls’ basketball program and that the Board did not discuss or consider Samuelson’s opinions on any other issue. Samuelson has put forward no evidence contesting these statements or demonstrating that any of the voting Board members even knew that he had spoken out about any possibly protected issues.”
Gregory G. Samuelson v. Laporte Community School Corporation et al.; 7th Cir.; No. 06-4351, 2008 U.S. App. LEXIS 11314; 5/22/08
Attorney of Record: (for plaintiff) Stanley F. Wruble, Leone, Halpin & Konopinski, South Bend, IN USA. (for defendants) Bryan E. Curry, Bullaro, Carton & Stone, Chicago, IL USA.


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