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KNAPP v. WHITAKER

December 5, 1983

TERRY C. KNAPP, PLAINTIFF,
v.
HARRY WHITAKER; RUSSELL MCDAVID; JOHN HATTON; PEORIA SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 150, A BODY POLITIC AND CORPORATE, AND GEORGE BURDETTE, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Mihm, District Judge.

ORDER

On November 12, 1981, Plaintiff, Terry C. Knapp, a public high school teacher, filed suit against Peoria School District No. 150 and three individually named Defendants, Harry Whitaker, Superintendent of Schools; Russell McDavid, Principal of Woodruff High School; and John Hatton, Assistant Principal, alleging an abridgment of his First Amendment right to free speech and further alleging that Defendants had retaliated against him for exercising his First Amendment rights. An additional Defendant, George Burdette, the Assistant Superintendent of Schools, was named at a later date.

After a jury trial, which began January 25, 1983, Plaintiff was awarded $514,333 in compensatory damages.*fn1 Immediately prior to trial the Plaintiff filed a motion for partial summary judgment, requesting the Court to rule that his speech was, as a matter of law, protected by the First Amendment and that the actions taken by the Defendants, in response to Plaintiff's protected speech, constituted a violation of his First Amendment rights. At trial, the Court ruled that Mr. Knapp's speech was protected and that the Board policy, relied on by the Defendants as justification for their actions against Plaintiff, was unconstitutional on its face as well as the manner in which it was applied to Mr. Knapp.

The jury was advised of the Court's ruling by jury instruction*fn2 and were given four two-part special interrogatories to record their verdict. The jury answered these in favor of the Plaintiff in each instance, specifically finding that Knapp's constitutionally protected conduct was a "substantial or motivating factor" in the Defendants' decision to transfer Plaintiff, deny him a personal leave day, give him negative evaluations, and remove him from his coaching position.

Following trial, the Defendants' motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, for a new trial, or amendment of the judgment were denied by the Court.

FACTS

The history of this case dates back to the fall of 1980, when the teachers and School District 150 were engaged in collective bargaining negotiations. During these negotiations, one of the three most important topics (according to the teachers) was the issue of the effectiveness of the operation of the grievance procedure under the collective bargaining agreement.

The teachers made their dissatisfaction with the grievance procedure known to the school board at a school board meeting on October 20, 1980. At that meeting, the board members present invited any teachers with examples of how the grievance procedure was not working to bring them to their attention.

Pursuant to this invitation, the Plaintiff contacted board member Betty Cleaver, informing her that he had information about the grievance procedure. Plaintiff and Mrs. Cleaver scheduled a meeting to discuss the grievance procedure at a later date and Mrs. Cleaver indicated that it would be appropriate for Mr. Knapp to contact other board members regarding the grievance procedure. During the week following the October 20 board meeting, the Plaintiff met with several board members to discuss the grievance procedure.

There is no dispute that Plaintiff arranged these meetings at the convenience of the respective board members and was courteous and well mannered throughout. The meetings took place at either the board members' homes or offices.

At these meetings, the Plaintiff explained how the grievance procedure had failed to work in the past and gave specific examples of its failure. The examples cited by Plaintiff involved problems with mileage and liability insurance, evaluations, curriculum and classroom assignments. Plaintiff cited these examples primarily in the context of the failure of the grievance procedure.*fn3

All of the board members actively participated in the conversations with Mr. Knapp and indicated their desire for future communications. At no time during these meetings was Mr. Knapp informed that he was violating any board policy nor did any board members seek to have Mr. Knapp disciplined for his conduct.

Furthermore, while some of the board members contacted Superintendent Whitaker and informed him of Plaintiff's conversations with them, Mr. Whitaker made no effort to inform Mr. Knapp that he was in violation of board policy or had done anything improper.

In March, 1981, Plaintiff filed a grievance based on (1) the unequal mileage reimbursement from the school district with regard to coaches and (2) the lack of liability insurance provided to coaches who drove students to athletic events. The grievance was denied, however, on the basis that it involved a matter not personal to Plaintiff and was considered a "class action" matter.

Following this denial, Plaintiff attempted to obtain sponsorship at the next school board meeting to be held April 6, 1981 in order to express his views regarding the grievance procedure. He contacted several board members for this purpose and sent a copy of his previously denied grievance to all board members (at board member Ed Glover's request and with the permission of Defendant Russell McDavid). Eventually, board member Marilyn Ketay agreed to sponsor Knapp at the April 6 meeting.

On April 1, 1981, Superintendent Whitaker met with Plaintiff and orally reprimanded him for his conduct of contacting board members. At this meeting, Whitaker informed Plaintiff of board regulation 2111.11, which requires that any communications to board members be made through the office of the Superintendent. Whitaker told Knapp at this meeting that he was "not to talk to any board member about any educational issues". Mr. Knapp indicated to the Superintendent that he felt this violated his rights, to which Mr. Whitaker responded "Your rights end where my nose begins". Mr. Whitaker concluded by indicating that any further contacts by Knapp to board members would result in Mr. Knapp being found insubordinate.

That same day Mr. Whitaker sent a written memorandum to the Board of Education, severely criticizing Knapp for contacting board members, and indicating that he would monitor Mr. Knapp's conduct in the future. He also expressed his opinion of Mr. Knapp's grievance. The memo to the Board reads as follows:

  "I have been receiving information that Terry Knapp
  is contacting the Board again on an issue concerning
  payment for the transportation of students. In fact,
  Dr. Glover has said that Terry has talked to him and
  he is probably going to sponsor him Monday night. I
  think Marilyn has also been contacted by Terry plus,
  I believe, he sent each Board member a written
  grievance. I don't know if he has contacted any of
  you by phone, other than Dr. Glover and Marilyn
  Ketay.
  I asked for a meeting with Terry and I met with him
  this morning. I pointed out that Board policy
  2111.10, Superintendent of Schools, Item # 11 states
  `communicate, or cause to be communicated, to all
  employees all action of the Board relating to the
  several employees, and all communications made to the
  Board shall be through him.' I pointed out that this
  wasn't the first time that he was outside of Board
  policy and that from now on communication with the
  Board should go through the superintendent. He was
  very argumentative, as always, and said Board members
  encouraged him to call them, write them, etc. and
  that he was going to pay attention to the Board
  members. I again pointed out to him that he is
  outside of Board policy and that I expected him to
  stay within Board policy.
  If Terry continues to bypass the administration with
  regard to communications, I am going to recommend his
  dismissal. He is becoming a person who is quite
  belligerent and creates havoc at Woodruff High
  School. I am sorry that Russ ever employed him
  because this has been his history at other school
  districts. I will keep you posted.
  His gripe is that Woodruff only pays him 12 cents per
  mile when he transports youngsters for ball games.
  Student Activity Funds Policy 5135.11 speaks to the
  authority of the superintendent and principal with
  regard to setting regulations and policies for the
  school activity fund. Items 2, 3, 21, and 22, I
  believe, give the superintendent and principal the
  right to regulate the activity funds and determine
  how much will be paid to those who work in the
  activities.
  Also, Board Policy 4116.2 states that `a grievance'
  is a condition in the school system which an
  individual teacher believes is wrong, unjust or
  oppressive, but excluding issues such as changes in
  salary and policy of the Board of Education which
  relate to teachers as a whole. Since the teachers at
  Woodruff are all treated alike with regard to how
  much they are paid for transportation of ...

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