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Maas v. Bd. of Trustees





APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Richland County; the Hon. ALBERT W. McCALLISTER, Judge, presiding. MR. JUSTICE JONES DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

Plaintiff appeals from a summary judgment rendered for defendant board by the circuit court of Richland County in her action for certiorari for review of an administrative hearing conducted by the board, and for mandamus.

In and prior to the fall of 1974 the plaintiff was a tenured faculty member of Community College District No. 529. She was an instructor in physical education and was teaching on the campus of Olney Central College, one of three constituent colleges which comprise Community College District No. 529. In the fall of 1974 the plaintiff made an application for sabbatical leave for the 1975-76 academic year. In response to plaintiff's request, George Williams, dean of instruction and a member of the sabbatical leave committee, sent plaintiff a letter dated March 6, 1975, voicing reservations about Western Colorado University, which plaintiff proposed to attend, and requesting a written proposal for study, the objective she would be pursuing and how that objective would benefit Olney Central College. The letter also asked plaintiff to submit a copy of a catalogue or brochure that would describe Western Colorado University. In compliance with this request plaintiff submitted a proposal which envisioned 36 semester hours of study which, when taken with her post-graduate work at Eastern Illinois University, would entitle her to a doctor's degree from Western Colorado University. The required 36 semester hours would be comprised of 8 hours of in-residence work at the Grand Junction campus of Western Colorado University and 28 hours to be earned in Illinois by using the facilities of the University of Illinois and/or Eastern Illinois University.

It is plaintiff's own description of Western Colorado University that it is a "non-traditional school in that it refers to itself as a university without walls," and that "many of its students are non-resident and pursue their degrees while using the facilities of other institutions pursuant to inter-college cooperating agreements."

By letter dated May 6, 1975, the sabbatical leave committee notified plaintiff that a sabbatical leave had been granted her for one quarter with full pay (one-third of her base salary of $16,450 based upon FY-76 salary, equal to $5,483) and stated that the committee would recommend "that the administration grant Mrs. Maas a leave of absence for the two remaining quarters of the academic year of 1975-76." The letter also recited: "If you are prepared to accept the action of the Sabbatical Leave Committee, please advise me. The administration would also need your request submitted in writing for a leave of absence for the two remaining quarters of the academic year 1975-76."

The record indicates that there were one or more conversations between college officials and the plaintiff that took place in May 1975 in which plaintiff was told that she could have a sabbatical leave of one quarter with pay and a two-quarter professional leave without pay. Paul Thompson testified that part of such conversations occurred while he was president of Olney Central College and that he informed plaintiff in June 1975 that the proposal of the sabbatical leave committee was not severable. Plaintiff testified that she did not recall this conversation.

By letter dated May 12, 1975, plaintiff advised the dean of instruction and the sabbatical leave committee that it was her request that if another faculty member was granted leave and did not use it, then the unused portion be granted to her. Her letter stated that with that stipulation she would be most happy to accept the action of the committee and would submit a written request for leave of absence for the two remaining quarters of the 1975-76 academic year in the event no additional sabbatical leave became available.

Dean Williams responded with a letter dated May 20, 1975, which advised plaintiff that any sabbatical leave money unused by another faculty member would not be made available for her use. He asked her early response to the sabbatical as it had been offered to her.

Plaintiff sent Dean Williams the following letter dated June 11, 1975:

"This letter is to advise you that I will accept the sabbatical leave granted me for one quarter with full pay.

I will, therefore, take the sabbatical leave fall quarter of the 1975-76 school year."

It is to be noted that this letter made no reference to a request for professional leave for the two remaining quarters of the 1975-76 school year.

In the latter part of May 1975 plaintiff found a teaching contract for school year 1975-76 in her mailbox at the college. The contract was dated May 20, 1975, and had been placed in her mailbox as a part of the ongoing administrative routine of the college. Plaintiff executed the contract by signing it and placing it in the mailbox of John Stencil, her division chairman.

On June 18, 1975, the chancellor of the college, James Spencer, sent plaintiff a letter notifying her that her sabbatical leave had been approved by the board of trustees. This letter stated, in part, that "[t]he specifics of your leave are stated on page three in the Report of the Chancellor of the June meeting, should you have any questions regarding these recommendations."

A second teaching contract for the 1975-76 academic year which reflected the grant of sabbatical leave, dated June 17, 1975, was prepared and placed in plaintiff's faculty mailbox. This contract recited that plaintiff's base salary would be "$5,483.33 (1/3 of salary for Sabbatical Leave)."

On July 5, 1975, plaintiff left Illinois to fulfill her on-campus residence requirement at Western Colorado University and did not return until mid-August. Plaintiff testified that she had learned of the board of trustees' action which granted her one quarter of sabbatical leave and two quarters of professional leave of absence for 1975-76 from a local newspaper's report of the board's action at its June meeting. She had expressed surprise at the grant of professional leave because she had never requested it. She also stated that she had not been aware that the board was considering a grant of professional leave. This testimony was apparently contradicted by the board's exhibits Nos. 11 and 12. Exhibit No. 11 was a copy of the memorandum of the sabbatical leave committee to Chancellor Spencer, dated May 28, 1975, detailing the leave recommended for plaintiff as one quarter at full pay and recommending the granting of her request for two quarters of professional leave. Exhibit No. 12 was a copy of page 3 of the report of the chancellor to the board as an agenda item for its June 17 meeting. Page 3 detailed the sabbatical leave recommendation for plaintiff of one quarter with pay; it also stated that plaintiff requested professional leave for two quarters and recommended that the board grant the request. Exhibits 11 and 12 had been mailed to plaintiff prior to the meeting of the board. Plaintiff explained her failure to receive these items, and the second teacher's contract, by her testimony that she was on sick leave and did not teach in the spring of 1975 and was seldom on campus. On the few occasions she was on campus the lounge (the location of the faculty mailboxes) had been locked. She stated that she had not received these materials until September of 1975 when the accumulated mail had been sent to her at her home address in Olney.

Continuing her testimony, plaintiff stated that upon learning of the action of the board at its June meeting she had approached a Mr. Lathrop regarding the grant of unrequested leave and, according to plaintiff, he told her a request for professional leave need be made only at least one quarter prior to the leave time requested. Acting on this information plaintiff had decided to do nothing regarding the matter until she returned in the fall.

After plaintiff returned from Colorado she contacted President Thompson to pursue the matter of the professional leave of absence. She met with him on September 5, 1975, and told him she did not want the professional leave of absence; she wanted to resume her teaching. Thompson told plaintiff that it was his interpretation that acceptance of the sabbatical leave constituted an acceptance of the two quarters of professional leave as well. He also told plaintiff that she was not on the payroll for 1975-76 at all since the district had not received either the teacher's contract of May 20, 1975, or the sabbatical leave contract of June 17. He advised plaintiff that if she did not agree with his interpretation she could appeal his decision to Chancellor Spencer. President Thompson confirmed the content of this meeting with plaintiff by a letter to plaintiff dated September 5, 1975, with a copy to Chancellor Spencer.

Following the meeting with Thompson, plaintiff sought an appeal to Chancellor Spencer. A meeting was accordingly arranged for the following day, September 6, 1975, at the residence of Chancellor Spencer, with plaintiff, Chancellor Spencer and President Thompson present. The meeting was essentially a reprise of plaintiff's meeting the previous day with President Thompson. Plaintiff's contract status and sabbatical leave were discussed. Plaintiff persisted in her request of a sabbatical leave for a full year at half pay. Spencer and Thompson countered with the opinion that the matter of the sabbatical leave had been settled by the actions taken in May and June and that plaintiff had received notice of such action through more than one medium before leaving for Western Colorado University. Plaintiff denied the receipt of notice of the sabbatical grant as voted by the board in June. The September 6 meeting concluded without agreement. Chancellor Spencer testified that plaintiff had asked for a one year sabbatical leave at one-half pay, her original request. Upon being told this was probably not possible, plaintiff had then requested as an alternative plan sabbatical leave for the fall quarter with professional leave for two quarters for the purpose of pursuing her doctorate at either the University of Illinois or Eastern Illinois University, and not at Western Colorado University. He further testified that he had stated that he would take this request under advisement and present it to the board of trustees at their September meeting.

Plaintiff's version of the conclusion of the September 6 meeting varied somewhat from that of Chancellor Spencer. By her version she had stated that she intended to continue with her original plan to pursue a doctor's degree from Western Colorado University by using the facilities of the University of Illinois and Eastern Illinois University. She did not request or accede to a change of plan whereby she would drop her enrollment in Western Colorado University and change to the University of Illinois or Eastern Illinois University. She had told Chancellor Spencer she did not know whether or not she would sign a copy of the contract that had been sent to her in June if another one were sent to her.

The plaintiff has never, to this time, acceded to the original grant of sabbatical leave for one quarter and two quarters of professional leave.

Following the meeting of September 6, 1975, a series of letters were exchanged by plaintiff, President Thompson and Chancellor Spencer. Since the letters have a bearing on an issue regarding agreement-integration raised by plaintiff, we will note them briefly. On September 8, Spencer wrote plaintiff advising her that the board of trustees approved the recommendation of the sabbatical leave committee concerning sabbatical leave for 1975-76. A duplicate copy of the June 17, 1975, contract was enclosed. On September 9 plaintiff wrote Chancellor Spencer a letter in which, essentially, she reviewed her understanding of the entire matter and restated her position. On September 10, plaintiff wrote Chancellor Spencer an acknowledgment of receipt of his letter of September 8 and asked for a copy of the resolution of the board of trustees which had granted her the sabbatical leave and leave of absence "so that I may review the specifics of my leave." On September 11 Chancellor Spencer wrote plaintiff in reply to her letter of September 10 enclosing a copy of the May 28, 1975, recommendation of the sabbatical leave committee and a copy of the report of the chancellor which served as the basis of the board's grant of sabbatical and professional leave. The September 11 letter further stated:

"It is absolutely incredible to me that at this late date, you would be alleging that you have not received letters and contracts from me or others with administrative responsibility and that you should imply that you were unaware, not only of what the Board of Trustees did at its June meeting, but even more incredible is the view that you did not know what the Board was going to do at the June meeting. As a minimum, you knew about the contemplated action from the following sources:

1. By having received a copy of the enclosed May 28th memo from Mr. Williams to me.

2. You knew about it from having received a copy of our Board mailing one week prior to the meeting of the Board of Trustees. All employees are provided with this mailing.

Finally, you were certainly made aware of the Board's action by my letter to you dated June 18, 1975, a copy of which has been sent to you as well as a duplicate contract reflecting the Board's action which was also sent to you.

I do not know what the college administration wishes to recommend to me as to your status with the college, but my position at this time is that we have no contractual obligation to you whatever.

Since, however, the Board established a salary for you for the 1975-76 academic year at its meeting in May, after which you requested a sabbatical leave and a professional leave in order to be free to complete your Ph.D. during this year, I would assume that that contributed to your failure to accept, sign and return the contract offered you by the Board in May.

At this time, I can think of no reason you would not have signed and returned the contract extended to you by the Board of Trustees in June as recommended by a committee of your peers at OCC.

As stated earlier, as far as this office is concerned, there exists no contractual relations between you and the Board of Trustees; however, I will be pleased to be guided by the faculty and administration of the college in formulating any recommendation which might clarify what contractual relations, if any, do exist between the two parties." (Emphasis in original.)

On September 13 plaintiff replied to the Spencer letter of September 11. She restated her position, again denied receipt of any notice of the June 17 action of the board, stated her assumption that she was on a regular contract although she was then on sabbatical leave for the fall quarter, and, "[i]t is my greatest desire to seek an amicable settlement." On September 15, President Thompson wrote plaintiff:

"As we understand it, you are now seeking a response in either the affirmative or negative as to whether you will be granted a full year's sabbatical leave at half salary for the 1975-76 academic year. I think that response has already been communicated to you several times, most recently, by way of a contract for sabbatical leave for one quarter at full pay and two quarters of professional leave.

However, in order to allow you the fairest possible consideration, I am calling a meeting of the Sabbatical Leave Committee this week in order for them to reconsider your original request. Should their recommendation change, I will inform you of that fact and we will proceed accordingly from that point."

From the tenor of the correspondence following the September 5 and 6 meetings, it is readily evident that the college administration harboured considerable displeasure with plaintiff over the events surrounding her application for sabbatical leave for school year 1975-76.

On September 17 President Thompson wrote plaintiff as follows:

"You have received or will soon be receiving a letter and a contract indicating the action taken by the Board of Trustees of Illinois Community College District 529 at its September 16, 1975 meeting. This action supercedes the action I had proposed in my previous letter. I might say that the Board of Trustees thought my proposal was too liberal and that they felt they were being more than fair by re-issuing this contract for your acceptance.

I met today with the Sabbatical Leave Committee at Olney Central College. It was the unanimous opinion of the committee that the leave recommended for you last spring was indeed what they would support now. Therefore, there is no change in their position, in my position, or in the position of the Board of Trustees. I would also add that the interpretation that is placed upon this leave by the above mentioned groups is that acceptance of the sabbatical leave implies that you intend to use the full academic year for study as you requested.

I do hope this will help to bring speedy resolution to a problem that should have ...

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