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Matthiessen v. Board of Education of North Chicago Community High School District 123

decided: September 14, 1988.

BLANCHE MATTHIESSEN, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
BOARD OF EDUCATION OF NORTH CHICAGO COMMUNITY HIGH SCHOOL DISTRICT 123, LAKE COUNTY, ILLINOIS, DEFENDANT-APPELLEE



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 86 C 2818 -- Charles R. Norgle, Judge.

Harlington Wood, Jr., Joel M. Flaum, and Kenneth F. Ripple, Circuit Judges.

Author: Wood

WOOD, JR., Circuit Judge.

Plaintiff-appellant Blanche Matthiessen, a teacher employed by defendant-appellee Board of Education of North Chicago Community High School District 123 (the Board), was dismissed at the end of her third year. Matthiessen initiated this case in federal court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. ยง 1983, claiming that she was wrongfully terminated by the Board without a hearing in violation of her right to due process. Matthiessen's complaint includes a pendent state law claim seeking a declaration that she is a tenured teacher. Matthiessen seeks reinstatement, back pay, and damages for mental pain and anguish. Prior to trial, the Board moved for summary judgment. The district court granted that motion, finding that the plaintiff was not tenured under Illinois law. Therefore, the district court held that the Board did not violate Matthiessen's due process rights by dismissing her without granting her request for a pre-termination hearing. We reverse.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

The Board first employed Matthiessen as a probationary teacher at the beginning of the 1983-84 school year. She had no prior teaching experience. Matthiessen continued teaching for a second year. On March 19, 1985, toward the end of her second year of probationary teaching, Matthiessen met with her department head and immediate supervisor, Beatrice Luther. Luther advised Matthiessen that her probationary period would be extended for a third school year, 1985-86, which would postpone possible tenure. Luther then handed Matthiessen a letter to the same effect; the letter explained that the third year of the probationary period was to provide Matthiessen time to demonstrate improvement in six specified areas.*fn1 The letter also stated that Principal/Superintendent William Snodgrass concurred in Luther's recommendation to extend Matthiessen's probation. The letter concluded by advising the plaintiff that her improvement would be reviewed at the end of the third year and, if she had satisfactorily improved, tenure would be granted. After reading the letter, Matthiessen personally sought confirmation from the superintendent that her supervisor's recommendation would be accepted. Matthiessen was informed that the recommendation would be presented to the Board.

The Board met on March 21, 1985 and voted unanimously to extend plaintiff's probationary period for a third year. The parties dispute what notice the plaintiff received regarding the Board's action. Matthiessen alleges that she received neither written nor verbal notice of the extension of her probation. The superintendent, however, claims in his affidavit that he personally notified Matthiessen of the Board's action on the day following the Board's meeting.

The plaintiff continued to teach during the third school year and, according to her deposition, considered herself to be on probation. During the second semester of the third year, however, the teachers' union president advised Matthiessen that there was a procedural problem with her probationary status. The union president told her that the Board had not complied with the requisite statutory procedures in extending her probation for the third year. Matthiessen understood that if the Board had not properly extended her probation, she might have automatically become tenured under Illinois law.

On March 20, 1986, about a year after the meeting at which the Board had voted to extend the plaintiff's probation, the Board met and adopted a resolution. The resolution stated that the plaintiff's teaching performance had been reviewed during her third probationary year and that, concurring with the recommendation of the school administration, the Board had decided not to reemploy the plaintiff for the 1986-87 school year. The reasons for the Board's action were later set forth in a letter, which the plaintiff received on June 30, 1986. Following the Board's decision to terminate her, Matthiessen and her representative repeatedly requested a hearing, but their requests were denied.

II. DISCUSSION

This case is before us on a motion for summary judgment. Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure sets forth the standard for deciding such motions. "The pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, [must] show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); accord McGraw-Edison Co. v. Walt Disney Prods., 787 F.2d 1163, 1167 (7th Cir. 1986). Regarding a factual dispute, "the mere possibility that [it] may exist, without more, is an insufficient basis upon which to justify denial of a motion for summary judgment." Posey v. Skyline Corp., 702 F.2d 102, 106 (7th Cir.), cert. denied, 464 U.S. 960, 78 L. Ed. 2d 336, 104 S. Ct. 392 (1983). In reviewing the evidence "any inferences to be drawn from the underlying facts must be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, [but] only reasonable inferences will be considered," Hermes v. Hein, 742 F.2d 350, 353 (7th Cir. 1984). We will reverse the district court's decision regarding summary judgment "if a study of the record reveals that inferences contrary to those drawn by the trial court might be permissible." Munson v. Friske, 754 F.2d 683, 690 (7th Cir. 1985).

A provision of the Illinois School Code*fn2 requires a school board to provide written notice and an opportunity for a hearing prior to dismissing tenured teachers. The Board admittedly did not follow that practice in dismissing Matthiessen. The Board concedes that if the plaintiff was tenured at the time of her dismissal, and not still on probation, then her dismissal was in violation of the Illinois statute and the plaintiff is entitled to reinstatement with back pay. Thus, this case turns on the issue of whether or not Matthiessen was tenured under Illinois law.*fn3

Another provision of the School Code*fn4 provides that when a teacher without any prior experience, such as the plaintiff, nears the end of his or her second year of employment, the school board has only three options open to it. First, it can dismiss the teacher by giving notice of the reasons for the dismissal sixty days prior to the end of the school term, terminating the teacher's employment rights. The Board did not attempt to dismiss Matthiessen at the end of her second year. Second, the school board can extend the teacher's probationary period for a third year by giving the teacher notice by certified mail at least sixty days before the end of the school term. The notice must set forth the reasons for the extension of probation and the corrective actions that the teacher must take to achieve tenure at the end of the third year of probation. The Board at least attempted to follow this procedure. Third, the school board can do nothing, in which case the teacher is automatically reemployed as a tenured teacher. Although the Board attempted to take some action, the plaintiff nevertheless relies on this third provision in claiming that she is now tenured.

The plaintiff claims that the Board did not notify her by registered mail about the extension of her probation and the reasons for it. She only received the letter from her supervisor, outlining her supervisor's recommendations. Therefore, Matthiessen claims that the extension of her probation was ineffective and, as a result, she became tenured. Matthiessen claims that because she was actually a ...


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