On August 3, 2020, in Adams v. Board of Education of Harvey School District No. 152, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit upheld a $400,000 jury award against the school board, finding that the school board retaliated against its former superintendent for exercising her First Amendment right to file a police report against a board member.
According to the court, in the superintendent’s first few years at the district, things began to go downhill for the superintendent when, in the spring of 2015, she asked the board to approve a forensic audit of the district’s expenditures. After she submitted the audit paperwork to the board, one board member called the superintendent and, according to the superintendent, told her she was “itching for an ass-kicking.” Someone contacted the police regarding the threat, and the superintendent met with a detective. The superintendent later spoke to the board president and filed a formal complaint with the police. Shortly thereafter, a second board member—who is the wife of the board member who allegedly made the initial threat to the superintendent—approached the superintendent and stated that she had some concerns about her performance as superintendent. Relations between the superintendent and the board soured and eventually led to the board’s decision not to renew the superintendent’s contract.
The superintendent filed a lawsuit in federal court, alleging violations of her First Amendment and due process rights. The trial court determined that the superintendent’s police report, while filed as a private citizen and not made pursuant to her official duties as superintendent, was not purely private. The point of the police report was to bring to light alleged wrongdoing by a member of the school board. As such, her statements to the police constituted protected speech. After a trial, a jury found that the superintendent’s statements to police led to her termination, and it awarded her $400,000. The court also ordered the school board to pay $190,000 in attorneys’ fees. The board appealed the award and argued that the superintendent’s police report was a personal grievance, not a matter of public concern, and thus outside the scope of the First Amendment. The appellate court disagreed and affirmed the jury award, noting that it would be a mistake to look at the superintendent’s police report in isolation. The report was not a straightforward report of a crime. The problem began when the superintendent proposed a forensic audit, which unsettled at least one board member and devolved into a dispute about the superintendent’s tenure, all of which are matters of public concern.
This case serves as a cautionary tale and highlights the potential pitfalls of contentious relationships between school administrators and their respective school boards.
Contact an attorney in our Labor/Personnel practice group with questions regarding this case and school district employee speech rights.