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Vukadinovich v. Board of School Trustees of North Newton School Corporation

January 22, 2002

BRIAN VUKADINOVICH, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT
v.
BOARD OF SCHOOL TRUSTEES OF NORTH NEWTON SCHOOL CORPORATION, ARY J. NELSON, BONNIE J. STOREY, ET AL., DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, Hammond Division. No. 00 C 37--Allen Sharp, Judge.

Before Posner, Kanne, and Evans, Circuit Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kanne, Circuit Judge

Argued September 10, 2001

After the North Newton School Corporation ("School") terminated his employment, plaintiff Brian Vukadinovich brought a lawsuit against the Board of School Trustees of the North Newton School Corporation ("School Board") and various school officials under 42 U.S.C. sec. 1983. Vukadinovich alleged that the defendants violated his First Amendment rights by firing him in retaliation for his exercise of free speech and that his termination hearing violated the Fourteenth Amendment, as it did not comport with principles of due process. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants, finding that Vukadinovich was fired for insubordination and neglect of duty, and not in retaliation for exercising his First Amendment rights. The court also granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants on Vukadinovich's Fourteenth Amendment claim, finding that his termination hearing afforded him due process. We affirm.

I. History

A. Vukadinovich's Dispute with School

On January 9, 1996, the School hired Vukadinovich as a teacher in the Industrial Arts/Technology Department and as the head coach of the boys' basketball team. Shortly before the 1999-2000 school year, Vukadinovich wrote a letter to Superintendent Louis Lindinger complaining about his coaching salary and demanding a renegotiation of his contract. On October 8, 1999, the School presented Vukadinovich with a contract to coach the boys' basketball team at the same salary that he had made the year before. After Vukadinovich refused this offer, the School hired someone else to coach the team at the same salary offered to Vukadinovich.

This course of events spurred Vukadinovich to approach the local media, decrying the manner in which the School and Superintendent Lindinger had treated him. For example, on November 2, 1999, the Rensselaer Republican published a letter written by Vukadinovich, in which he called Superintendent Lindinger a liar, accused him of using "fear and intimidation tactics," and stated that "Lindinger will indeed answer for his lies and refusal to follow the laws." On November 10, 1999, the Newton County Enterprise published a letter written by Vukadinovich, in which he accused Superintendent Lindinger of "ruining the school corporation" and launched personal attacks against him. By December 1999, the scope of Vukadinovich's attacks expanded, as he now accused School Board members of "living high on the hog" and criticized School Board members for spending taxpayer money on business trips. Over the next few months, the local papers continued to publish Vukadinovich's letters, in which he attacked Superintendent Lindinger's high salary and the way that the School Board spent money.

On February 11, 2000, the Newton County Enterprise published a letter from the School Board, in which the School Board responded to Vukadinovich's accusations. The School Board noted that "it was not until Mr. Vukadinovich had a contractual dispute over the boys high school coaching position that he ever had the desire to be an 'educational gadfly' for our community." The School Board's letter also pointed out that Vukadinovich had been involved in similar disputes with previous employers, had engaged in similar letter writing campaigns, and had filed (and lost) lawsuits after he was discharged.

B. Vukadinovich's Termination

In December 1999, after Vukadinovich had already written many letters critical of the defendants, Principal John Larson gave him a positive job-performance evaluation. Shortly thereafter, however, technology consultant Dan Grayson informed the School that its Technology Department, which was headed by Vukadinovich, did not meet state qualifications. Grayson issued a report ("Report") suggesting how the School could improve the Department. In response to the Report, on February 8, 2000, Principal Larson directed Vukadinovich to submit his lesson plan book and to identify how it addressed the state qualifications. Principal Larson made an identical directive to the heads of three other departments that also did not meet state qualifications--the Math, Language, and Special Education Departments. The heads of these three departments all promptly complied with Principal Larson's directive.

On February 13, 2000, Vukadinovich responded to Principal Larson's directive by writing him a letter, in which he refused to comply with the "harassing and retaliatory request." On March 9, 2000, Principal Larson issued a second letter directing that Vukadinovich submit his lesson plan to him by 8:00 a.m. on March 13, 2000. In response, Vukadinovich went to Principal Larson's office at 7:45 a.m. on March 13, 2000, but Principal Larson was not there. Assistant Principal Jerry McKim signed an acknowledgment indicating that Vukadinovich had attempted to give his lesson plan book to Principal Larson, but was unable to do so due to Principal Larson's absence.

The next day, Principal Larson wrote a letter to Vukadinovich issuing a third directive to him and reprimanding him for failing to comply with his previous two directives. Principal Larson directed Vukadinovich to submit his lesson plan and identify how it addressed state qualifications by 8:00 a.m. on March 17, 2000. The letter also warned Vukadinovich that his "failure to comply with this directive [would] be viewed as a willful refusal to comply with the directive, and [would] result in further discipline which could include a recommendation that [his] teaching contract be cancelled for insubordination." Not only did Vukadinovich ignore this directive, but he wrote a letter on March 27, 2000, accusing Principal Larson of "adultery," "womanizing," and "massage parlor visits."

That same day, Vukadinovich entered Principal Larson's office while Principal Larson was meeting with another teacher, David Hayes. Vukadinovich attempted to give Principal Larson his lesson plan book, but because he was meeting with another teacher at the time, Principal Larson told him to either leave the book with him or to copy the book and leave him a copy of it. As ...


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