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Springer v. Durflinger

February 29, 2008


Appeals from the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois. No. 03 C 1200-John A. Gorman, Magistrate Judge.

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


Before FLAUM, MANION, and KANNE, Circuit Judges.

This "civil rights" case is about disgruntled parents who disliked their daughters' high school softball coach. After voicing their complaints to school administrators and receiving what they perceived to be an unsatisfactory response, Rollie and Cynthia Springer, and Ross and Carla Collins, interpreted a handful of normal events to be adverse, retaliatory acts on the part of the school. They filed a § 1983 lawsuit against the school district, its board members, and high school officials, claiming that they were retaliated against in violation of the First Amendment for having complained about the coach. Because the parents offer absolutely no evidence to support their theory of retaliation, the district court's summary judgment in favor of the defendants is affirmed. Additionally, the plaintiffs are ordered to show cause as to why they should not be held responsible for the defendants' costs and attorneys' fees on appeal.


Mr. and Mrs. Springer and Mr. and Mrs. Collins were unhappy with the way the coach of their daughters' high school softball team, Stacy Whitcomb, had handled things during the previous, spring 2001 season. In December 2001, the parents, through an attorney, requested a meeting with administrators of Morton Community High School. On January 30, 2002, the parents, along with their attorney and a local newspaper reporter, met with the superintendent of the Morton Community Unit School District 709, Dr. Norman Durflinger; the school district's attorney, Dennis Triggs; the principal of Morton Community High School, Teresa Lane; and the school's athletic director, Greg Prichard.

The parents told the school officials that they suspected that Coach Whitcomb had been suppressing the skills and abilities of their daughters, Laura Springer and Katie Collins, in order to showcase Whitcomb's younger sister, Sammi, a pitcher on the team. They accused Whitcomb of doctoring statistics to favor her sister, and complained that Whitcomb had been abusive to umpires, parents, team "boosters," and players. They felt that Whitcomb was doing a poor job of coaching the team and that she was not a positive role model image for their children. Mr. and Mrs. Collins were particularly upset that their daughter, Katie-the team's other pitcher-was not selected for MidIllini Conference honors, and they blamed Whitcomb for intentionally botching the nomination process.

Superintendent Durflinger committed to investigating the concerns raised by the Springers and Collinses. Within a month, the district responded to the parents' attorney with a report prepared by Triggs, who had followed-up on the complaints, talked with Coach Whitcomb, contacted an umpire, reviewed player statistics as reported by Whitcomb and the local newspaper, and inquired into the award process for the conference. Ultimately, Triggs concluded that there was "no evidence warranting disciplinary or other employment action" with respect to Whitcomb. He assured the parents' attorney that "School Administration and the softball coach herself are committed to making sure that no player, including Ms. Katie Collins, will be the subject of unfair treatment."

According to the parents, the school undertook specific actions in retaliation against them after they raised their concerns, effectively punishing them for speaking out against Coach Whitcomb. They cite, for example, the school board's failure to respond to two written requests the parents made to meet with the board about the softball situation. Yet, the parents acknowledge that they never took it upon themselves to appear before the school board to present their concerns at any of the board's 22 regularly scheduled, public meetings between January 30, 2002, and the end of the 2001-2002 school year.

The parents point to other happenings in the spring of 2002 that they believe evince a retaliatory scheme. On one occasion, the parents started a conversation with a school teacher, who cut the encounter short by saying school administrators instructed him not to have contact with the parents. Along the same lines, the parents said that members of the softball community disassociated from them after the January 30 meeting. And although they did not volunteer to serve as ticket takers, announcers, or parent boosters during the 2002 softball season, the parents were perturbed that neither Coach Whitcomb, nor the school, asked them to serve in such capacities.

Certain events surrounding the softball games themselves were also perceived by the parents as retaliatory. At the start of the softball season, the school implemented a new policy-applicable to the public in general-that prohibited videotaping from behind the backstop at the catcher's position. Mr. Collins had previously taped games from that vantage point. The school installed a wind tarp on the backstop, which impeded visibility from certain viewpoints. At one game, a school administrator asked Mr. Springer to leave the area behind the backstop. The request was made peacefully and Mr. Springer moved away from the area. During another game, Coach Whitcomb told Jack Gross (the newspaper-reporter friend of the parents who also attended the January 30 meeting) to get off the playing field-where he had been taking pictures of the game.

The parents also felt that Coach Whitcomb was to blame when Laura Springer got hit in the head by a softball during practice on May 8, 2002. Laura was catching at home plate while Whitcomb was hitting balls to the infield. The drill had been done in prior practices, and Laura knew the ball would be coming to her from first base. At some point during the drill, Laura failed to see the ball coming and it hit her in the head. Whitcomb was a couple feet away from Laura at the time, standing along the first base line (as she is left-handed), with a bat in her hands.

At the end of the 2002 season, the Springers and Collinses missed the awards ceremony "banquet" (not a banquet in the traditional sense of the word as no food was served and the entire event lasted less than thirty minutes). The parents' daughters had been told via the softball team's "phone tree" (through which team members called each other) that the banquet would start at 7:30 p.m., when it actually started at 7:00 p.m. However, for some inexplicable reason, neither of the families went to the banquet at 7:30, when they purportedly were told it started.

Finally, a year after the contentious 2002 softball season ended, Coach Whitcomb talked with an Indiana University ("IU") softball coach, Sarah Hayes, about Katie Collins. The conversation happened at an Illinois State University softball game that Whitcomb, the Collinses, and Hayes all happened to be attending. At the time of the conversation, Katie had already been offered a spot on the IU softball team for her upcoming freshman year, but she had not been offered a scholarship. The Collinses did not hear the conversation between Whitcomb and Hayes, but Mr. Collins videotaped it from a distance. Whitcomb testified that she told Hayes that Katie Collins was a great kid. Whitcomb pointed out ...

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