United States District Court, N.D. Illinois
May 19, 2004.
KATHLEEN HAUSKNECHT, Plaintiff,
NAPERVILLE SCHOOL DISTRICT UNIT 203, Defendant
The opinion of the court was delivered by: MATHEW KENNELLY, District Judge
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Kathleen Hausknecht, a former teacher in Naperville School District
203, has filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the District claiming
that Sally Pentecost, the principal at the school where Hausknecht
taught, repeatedly gave her negative evaluations which ultimately led to
her termination in retaliation for reporting the suspected abuse of a
thirteen-year-old student. Hausknecht claims this violated her right to
free speech under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.
Hausknecht also brings a state law claim pursuant to the Illinois Abused
and Neglected Child Reporting Act, 352 ILCS 5/4, 5/9 based on the same
set of facts. The District has moved for summary judgment, contending
that Hausknecht cannot establish the District's liability for the alleged
violation; that Hausknecht did not engage in constitutionally protected
speech; and that even if she did, she has failed to establish a causal
connection between her speech and the District's decision not to renew
her contract. For the foregoing reasons, the Court grants the District's
motion for summary judgment. Background
Kathleen Hausknecht was hired as a teacher for Naperville Community
Unit School District 203 for the 1999-2000 school year at Madison Junior
High School. Under the Illinois School Code, teachers attain the status
of "Continued Contractual Service" or tenure after serving a probationary
period of four consecutive school terms. 105 ILCS 5/24-11. The District
uses a written evaluation plan for all teachers which consists of several
observation periods followed by a written observation report and
post-observation conference. Each teacher is also given a midyear and
year-end performance evaluation.
In December 1999, Hausknecht was observed by Sally Pentecost, who
currently serves as principal of the school but at the time was assistant
principal. Pentecost gave Hausknecht constructive criticism regarding her
lesson planning and delivery. Hausknecht's performance evaluations were
given by then principal, Predonna Roberts, who rated Hausknecht's
performance as "satisfactory" at the mid-year mark, and "excellent" at
the end of the school year. In her second year at the school, Hausknecht
was again observed by assistant principal Pentecost in September 2000.
Pentecost again raised issues regarding Hausknecht's lesson planning and
In October 2000, Hausknecht became aware of a situation involving a
13-year-old female student, referred to in the complaint as Jane Doe.
Based on e-mail exchanges and conversations at school, Hausknecht began
to suspect that Doe was being physically abused by her mother. Hausknecht
gave Doe a camera to obtain evidence of her abuse and encouraged her to
make a report to the school counselor, Deborah Olsen. The policy of the
school was that any teacher suspecting that a student is being abused
should advise the student's counselor, who was then required to file a report with the Illinois Department of Children
and Family Services. Doe reported her abuse claim to Olsen on October 16,
2000, but Olsen was hesitant to file a report with DCFS due to a
perceived lack of evidence substantiating the student's concerns. And
according to Hauskenecht, Pentecost, who had become principal shortly
after Doe reported her abuse claim to Olsen, did not want Olsen to report
the matter because Doe's mother was a teacher in the adjoining school
district. Plaintiff's Complaint ¶ 8.
On October 18, 2000, Hausknecht was observed by Pentecost, who again
expressed the same criticisms that she had previously raised regarding
Hausknecht's lesson planning and delivery.
On October 20, 2000, Jane Doe's parents brought to the school copies of
the e-mails that had been exchanged between Hausknecht and Jane Doe and
complained to the principal and the School District about this contact
outside of school. Hausknecht was instructed to cease any further e-mails
with the student, and she agreed to do so.
In December 2000, Pentecost, who by this time was principal of the
school, gave Hausknecht a "satisfactory" rating for her mid-year
evaluation. Pentecost also observed Hausknecht twice in January 2001 and
again criticized her on her lesson planning and delivery. Despite these
criticisms, however, Pentecost gave Hausknecht another "satisfactory"
rating for her year-end review, and Hausknecht was retained for the
When Hausknecht returned for her third year of teaching, Erin Anderson
had been hired as assistant principal. Anderson (who evidently was not at
Madison School when the Jane Doe incident occurred) observed Hausknecht
in the fall of 2001 and was also displeased with her lesson planning and
delivery. As a result, Anderson gave Hausknecht a rating of
"unsatisfactory" in her mid-year report. The report noted that "although she had a
genuine care and concern for students . . ., she continued to struggle
in the area of planning and preparation." Defendant's Exhibit 11. The
report also noted that the school's administration was "committed to
assisting Mrs. Hausknecht where possible" and "hope[d] to see significant
improvement in the areas mentioned." Id.
Hausknecht was observed again on February 11, 2002 by Charles Fuller
and on February 27, 2002 by Pentecost. Both administrators found
Hausknecht's lesson planning to be deficient. In March 2002, Hausknecht
received another "unsatisfactory" rating, and she was advised that she
would not be recommended for continued employment with the School
District. The year-end report noted that "while some attempts were made
by Mrs. Hausknecht to address concerns, those efforts were inconsistent
and met with varying levels of success." Defendant's Exhibit 16.
In March 2002, the Board of Education of the District voted not to
rehire Hausknecht for the 2002-2003 school year. In April 2003,
Hausknecht filed this suit, claiming that she was terminated in
retaliation for exercising her First Amendment rights with respect to the
child abuse report and her obligations under the Illinois Abused and
Neglected Child Reporting Act.
Summary judgment is proper when "the pleadings, depositions, answers to
interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if
any, 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). The Court evaluates admissible evidence in the record
in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Bennett v. Roberts,
295 F.3d 687, 694 (7th Cir. 2002). But "[t]he nonmovant will successfully
oppose summary judgment only when it presents `definite, competent evidence to rebut the motion.'" Vukadinovich v. Bd.
of Sch. Tr. of N. Newton Sch, Corp., 278 F.3d 693, 699 (7th Cir. 2002)
(citation omitted). "The mere denial of a particular fact without
specific references to affidavits, parts of the record, and other
supporting materials is insufficient, and, where a properly supported
factual assertion is met with such a naked denial, the fact may be deemed
admitted." Fuller v. Caterpillar Inc., 124 F. Supp.2d 610, 614 (N.D.
In order for Hauskenecht to succeed on her retaliation claim for the
exercise of her First Amendment rights, she must show that her speech was
constitutionally protected and that the District's actions were motivated
by her constitutionally protected speech. If she can do so, the burden
shifts to the District to show that it would have taken the same action
in the absence of Hauskenecht's exercise of her rights under the First
Amendment. If the District carries that burden, Hauskenecht bears the
burden to show that the District's proffered reasons were pretextual and
that discrimination was the real reason for her termination. Vukadinovich
v. Bd. of Sch. Tr. of N. Newton Sch. Corp., 278 F.3d 693, 699 (7th Cir.
A. Constitutionally Protected Speech
The Board claims that Hauskenecht did not engage in constitutionally
protected speech because she did not actually report Doe's alleged abuse.
According to the Board, Hauskenecht merely supported Doe in her decision
to report the abuse to Deborah Olsen, the school counselor, who then
reported the matter to DCFS. This conduct, according to the Board, is not
entitled to First Amendment protection. Hauskenecht contends that Olsen
filed a report with DCFS only after Hauskenecht pressured her. Because we
can decide this motion based on the motivating factor issue alone, we need not decide whether Hauskenecht's speech
is constitutionally protected. We assume for present purposes that her
speech was constitutionally protected and turn to the question of whether
her speech was the substantial or motivating factor for her termination.
B. Substantial or Motivating Factor
The Court's role in evaluating Hauskenecht's retaliation claim is to
determine whether a reasonable jury could find that her abuse report was
a substantial or motivating factor in the District's decision not to
rehire her. Stagman v. Ryan, 176 F.3d 986, 1002 (7th Cir. 1999). To
survive the District's motion for summary judgment, Hauskenecht must
present evidence from which a reasonable jury could find that "`but for'
[her] protected activities" she would not have been terminated from her
teaching position. Id. at 1003. Hauskenecht argues that the alleged
constitutional violations she suffered were committed pursuant to a
widespread policy established by Pentecost, which, because she was the
primary decision maker at the school had the force of law, thereby making
the District liable. Though it is unclear whether these allegations are
sufficient to impose liability upon the District, the Court does not
believe resolution of this question is essential to the disposition of
Hauskenecht asserts that the Board's decision not to rehire her was
substantially based on the fact that she reported the suspected physical
abuse of Doe. She claims that her pressuring of Olsen to file an abuse
report with DCFS against principal Pentecost's expressed wishes, angered
Pentecost and caused her to give Hauskenecht negative performance
evaluations, which in turn ultimately led the school administration to
recommend to the School Board that Hauskenecht not be retained as a
teacher. Hauskenecht's claim is unsupported; she has failed to establish
a causal link between her protected conduct and the actions of either Pentecost or
the School Board.
First, Hauskenecht has presented no direct evidence that Pentecost took
her protected conduct into account in conducting her performance
evaluations or that the Board did so in their decision not to renew her
contract. Direct evidence is evidence which, if believed by the finder of
fact, "will prove the particular fact in question without reliance upon
inference or presumption." Volosek v. Wisconsin Dept. of Agriculture,
344 F.3d 680, 689 (7th Cir. 2003). Further, there is no indication that
the School Board even knew about the Doe incident, let alone considered
it in its decision not to renew Hauskenecht's contract. Rather, the
evidence reflects that the Board's decision was based on the
recommendation of the school's administration.
Hauskenecht's failure to offer direct evidence of retaliation,
however, is not fatal to her claim. To support a claim for retaliatory
treatment, Hauskenecht need only allege a chronology of events from which
retaliation may be inferred. Black v. Lane, 22 F.3d 1395, 1399 (7th Cir.
1994). However, Hauskenecht has failed to satisfy this standard.
She argues that the timing of her lower performance reviews supports
her retaliation claim, claiming that Pentecost began giving negative
reviews shortly after Hauskenecht urged the reporting of the alleged
abuse of Doe. The evidence, however, reflects that Pentecost began
criticizing Hauskenecht's lesson planning and delivery long before the
Doe incident ever took place. These same criticisms were consistently
raised throughout the entire period that Hauskenecht was a teacher with
the school district. See Hausknecht Deposition pp. 46-53, 55-72;
Defendant's Exhibits 2, 5-9, 11-13, 15-16. In defending a motion for
summary judgment, Hauskenecht may not "rest upon the mere allegations or
denials of the [Board's] pleadings", but she must "set forth specific
facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e). Hauskenecht has failed to offer any "specific facts" that
the abuse report had any bearing on her performance evaluations.
Hauskenecht contends that Pentecost could not have successfully
retaliated against her had she immediately diminished Hauskenecht's
performance evaluations from excellent to unsatisfactory. This argument
offers little in terms of establishing the necessary casual connection
between Hauskenecht's abuse report and her being downgraded in her
performance reviews. Moreover, the record indicates that Hauskenecht's
performance was downgraded from "satisfactory" to "unsatisfactory" not by
Pentecost, but by assistant principal Erin Anderson. Hauskenecht was also
given a similar negative evaluation shortly thereafter by Charles Fuller.
Hauskenecht has presented no evidence that either of these individuals
were even aware of the Doe incident, much less that they based their
evaluations of her performance on it.
The Court's finding that there is no indirect evidence of a causal
connection is further supported by the substantial time lapse between the
abuse report and the non-renewal of her contract. The first
unsatisfactory evaluation of Hauskenecht occurred over a year after the
Doe incident, and it was not until seventeen months after the incident
that Hauskenecht was told she would not be recommended for rehiring. This
substantial lapse in time undercuts the claim of a causal connection
between these events. See Johnson v. University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire,
70 F.3d 469, 480 (7th Cir. 1995) (plaintiff's termination based on
performance reviews that occurred sixteen months after alleged First
Amendment conduct took place did not support a causal connection.)
Finally, Hauskenecht has forwarded no evidence to establish that the
District's claim that she was terminated for unsatisfactory job
performance was pretextual. She has not offered evidence that she was treated differently than similarly situated
individuals. Moreover, she has not attempted to offer any evidence that
her negative reviews were unwarranted or that they were an insufficient
basis for termination. Rather, Hauskenecht merely makes the bald
assertion that Pentecost "used a pretext performance deficiency to make
the case for termination and retaliation against [her]." However, her
subjective belief that the Board's actions were retaliatory and that the
Board's claimed reasons for terminating her were pretextual in nature
does not create a genuine issue of material fact. Johnson, 70 F.3d at
479-80. As a result, summary judgment on this claim is proper.
II. State Law Claim
Hauskenecht has also filed a state law claim under the Illinois Abused
and Neglected Child Reporting Act alleging she was terminated in
retaliation for carrying out her obligation to report suspected abuse.
Assuming Illinois recognizes a cause of action under this statute, and
assuming Hauskenecht could show that her actions constituted activity
protected under the Act, her claim of retaliation must fail for the same
reason as her § 1983 claim, namely for lack of evidence from which a
reasonable jury could find a causal connection between her report of
abuse and the District's decision not to rehire her.
For the reasons stated above, the Court grants defendant's motion for
summary judgment [Docket # 8]. The Clerk is directed to enter judgment in
favor of the defendant.
© 1992-2004 VersusLaw Inc.