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Titchener v. Avery Coonley School

OPINION FILED JUNE 30, 1976.

ZOE TITCHENER, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,

v.

THE AVERY COONLEY SCHOOL ET AL., DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES.



APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Du Page County; the Hon. GEORGE W. UNVERZAGT, Judge, presiding.

MR. JUSTICE SEIDENFELD DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

The plaintiff was not retained to teach at the defendant private school beyond the 1973-74 teaching year. She sued the school and its headmaster, John P. Malach, seeking damages and equitable relief on the theory that she had been wrongfully discharged and that defendant Malach had wrongfully interfered with her contractual relationship with the school. Defendants' motion for summary judgment was granted. Plaintiff appeals contending that there are triable issues of fact which preclude entry of summary judgment.

The summary judgment was entered upon the pleadings, the affidavit and deposition of defendant John Malach and the affidavit of the plaintiff Zoe Titchener. In addition, documentary evidence was considered, including the teaching contract between the parties and the Code of Ethics of the Independent Schools Association of the Central States (ISACS), an association of which defendant school was a member.

The contract, as relevant, included the provision:

"(a) That the said Zoe Langlois Titchener is hereby employed as a full-time teacher at the School for the period beginning the fourth day of September 1973 and ending on the twelfth day of June 1974 * * *."

In his affidavit attached to the motion for summary judgment John P. Malach stated that it was the school policy to hire on a year-to-year basis; that plaintiff's final contract with the school started on September 4 of 1973 and ended on June 12, 1974; and that there are no tenured positions at the school. He then reviewed the history of plaintiff's association with the school. He said that she had taught there from 1961 through 1965 but that in 1965 she left the employ of the school to accompany her husband on a trip to Australia. In 1971 she submitted an application for employment which was approved and resulted in her employment for the years 1971-72, 1972-73 and 1973-74. He stated that he did not solicit or encourage her to terminate her affiliation with the LaGrange School District and that he had never promised her either lifetime employment or a job for as long as she desired employment. The affidavit detailed several confrontations between plaintiff and Malach which apparently arose over the fact that every teacher was to do her own "ditto" work and to make use of "learning spaces" located in the classroom. He stated that at one point Mrs. Titchener became extremely angered and snapped her fingers at him so that he felt his personal well-being was threatened.

Malach's deposition was also attached to the motion for summary judgment. In it Malach testified that during his period as a headmaster, he was the only person to determine who was to be retained and who was not to be retained as teachers; that plaintiff was the person who approached him and asked him if she could return to the faculty; and that he was the one who met with her when he had determined not to renew her contract and detailed the reasons for his decision. In the deposition Malach stated that during his 14 years as headmaster he had refused to renew the contracts of 12 to 15 teachers. He cited examples of non-renewals such as a teacher who could not relate to a "new breed of student"; a teacher who allowed too much permissiveness in her classroom; an ineffective teacher who could not relate to the children; and a teacher who could not relate to the educational needs of bright students.

The Code of Ethics of the Independent Schools Association attached to the motion for summary judgment stated that when an employee's performance is deemed unsatisfactory adequate notice with specific reasons and an opportunity for a hearing shall be given before official action is taken.

It appears from the affidavits that after she was notified of her dismissal by Malach, the board of directors of the defendant school granted her a hearing in which she was allowed to tell her side of the story and that the board concluded that her contract should not be renewed.

Plaintiff's affidavit in opposition to the motion for summary judgment essentially stated that prior to the school year of 1971-1972 she was a tenured school teacher in the LaGrange Public School System; that during that year she heard of a vacancy at defendant school and contacted Malach about the opening; that Malach offered her a higher salary and agreed to pay her expenses to annual school conferences and agreed to enroll her in the school's retirement plan. She stated that before she agreed to accept the offer defendant Malach told her "Your future is here at Avery Coonley and I hope it will be for many years to come." She said she interpreted this statement to mean that she would be able to teach at the school for as long as she wanted to continue. She also stated that since she had previously taught there, she was aware that a system of tenure existed in which teachers were retained indefinitely unless their teaching practices were proven unsatisfactory by parents or by poor student performances on standardized tests. She said that she had never threatened defendant Malach's well-being. She also said that after she was informed of her dismissal in March of 1974 she was never given a hearing by the board of directors of the school or informed of the reasons for her dismissal.

Plaintiff first contends that summary judgment was improper because an issue of a triable material fact (see Ruby v. Wayman, 99 Ill. App.2d 146, 150 (1968)) existed as to whether the contract by its terms was for a one-year period or "for life." She points to the alleged statement of defendant Malach, "Your future is here at Avery Coonley and I hope it will be for many years to come," and argues that it, therefore, became a question for the jury as to whether her contract was for a term of one year or for permanent employment.

• 1 The written contract is unambiguous in its provision for a one-year term of service. As a general rule an agreement which has been reduced to writing is presumed to speak the intention of the signing parties and may not be changed by extrinsic evidence. (See, e.g., Western Illinois Oil Co. v. Thompson, 26 Ill.2d 287, 291 (1962).) The construction of the legal effect of an unambiguous written contract is also, as a general rule, a matter of law for the court to decide. See Trustees of Schools v. Schroeder, 2 Ill. App.3d 1009, 1017 (1971).

Plaintiff's essential argument is, however, that extraneous evidence is admissible because the agreement does not purport to incorporate the entire understanding of the parties, such as to matters of tenure, and, therefore, it is within the province of the trier of the facts to determine what terms comprise the contract as demonstrated by extrinsic evidence showing the intention of the parties. See Trustees of Schools v. Schroeder, at 1017.

The written contract, however, cannot fairly be said to comprise only a part of the undertakings of the parties. The written agreement clearly states the intention of the parties to create a fixed term of employment for one ten-month school year and the ...


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