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Coleman v. East St. Louis School Dist. No. 189

March 11, 2010


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


I. Introduction and Procedural Background

On November 13, 2007, Sheryl Coleman and Luberta Allen filed a two-count Complaint against Defendant East St. Louis School District No. 189 ("the District") in St. Clair County, Illinois, alleging claims of breach of contract and duty of good faith, and defamation. Plaintiffs subsequently amended their complaint to allege counts of deprivation of constitutional rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and breach of contract and duty of good faith under Illinois law. The District removed the case to the United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois on February 28, 2008.

The District employed Plaintiffs as school principals during the 2006-2007 school year, Coleman at Hawthorne Elementary School and Allen at Lincoln Middle School. Plaintiffs state that, for the 2007-2008 school year, the District's Superintendent, Theresa Saunders, assigned Coleman to be the principal at Brown Elementary School and Allen to be the principal at the District Night High School. According to Plaintiffs, Saunders is vested with the authority to act for the District with respect to employment of school personnel. Plaintiffs submit that, in May 2007, Saunders publicly announced to the District's principals that they would receive a "step increase" in salary.

On June 27, 2007, Saunders distributed employment contracts to Plaintiffs. Coleman contends that her contract offer contained erroneous salary information for the position to which she had previously been assigned. Allen contends that her contract offer contained erroneous salary and assignment information for the position to which she had previously been assigned. See Doc. 2, Exhibit A (Allen's Employment Agreement) and Exhibit B (Coleman's Employment Agreement)

Plaintiffs submit that they attempted to communicate with Saunders regarding the erroneous information, but Saunders failed to respond to them. Thereupon, Plaintiffs lined out the salary provisions and, in Allen's case, the assignment provision as well, and wrote in what they believed to be the correct information. They then signed and returned the contracts to Saunders. According to Plaintiffs, on August 10, 2007, Saunders reported to the District Board of Education that Plaintiffs refused to execute a contract of employment. Plaintiffs maintain that Saunders recommended to the Board that Coleman be reassigned to a teaching position and then terminated because she did not have a teaching certificate. Allegedly, she also recommended to the Board that Allen be reassigned to a teaching position. Plaintiffs were given no hearing or other opportunity to respond to their reassignment to teaching positions or to the allegation that they refused to execute employment contracts. Plaintiffs assert that the District did not pay Coleman after August 20, 2007, and did not pay Allen after August 10, 2007.

The District moves for summary judgment, contending that it did not violate Plaintiffs' constitutional rights and that the purported employment agreements are not valid and enforceable against the District (Doc. 39). The motion is fully briefed and ready for disposition.

II. Analysis

Summary judgment is appropriate where the pleadings, discovery and disclosure materials on file and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue of material fact, and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Estate of Suskovich v. Anthem Health Plans of Virginia, Inc., 553 F.3d 559, 563 (7th Cir. 2009), citing Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). Accord Breneisen v. Motorola, Inc., 512 F.3d 972 (7th Cir. 2008); Levy v. Minnesota Life Ins. Co., 517 F.3d 519 (7th Cir. 2008).

In ruling on a summary judgment motion, the Court construes all facts and reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the non-moving party (here, Plaintiffs). Lloyd v. Swifty Transp., Inc., 552 F.3d 594, 600 (7th Cir. 2009); TAS Distributing Co., Inc. v. Cummins Engine Co., Inc., 491 F.3d 625, 630 (7th Cir. 2007); Reynolds v. Jamison, 488 F.3d 756, 764 (7th Cir. 2007).

The non-movants cannot rest on their pleadings, though. Rather, the non-movants must provide evidence on which the jury or court could find in their favor. Maclin v. SBC Ameritech, 520 F.3d 781, 786 (7th Cir. 2008). As the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently explained:

[T]he non-moving party must submit evidence that there is a genuine issue for trial. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e); Ptasznik v. St. Joseph Hosp., 464 F.3d 691, 694 (7th Cir. 2006). The existence of merely a scintilla of evidence in support of the non-moving party's position is insufficient; there must be evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the non-moving party.

Giant Screen Sports v. Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, 553 F.3d 527, 531-32 (7th Cir. 2009).

This Court applies the substantive law of Illinois, the state in which this diversity case was filed, to Plaintiffs' claim. Id., citing Global Relief Found., Inc. v. New York Times Co., 390 F.3d 973, 981 (7th Cir. 2004).

A. Municipal liability

To establish municipal liability under § 1983, a plaintiff must present sufficient evidence to show that an official policy, custom or practice caused the constitutional violation and, indeed, was "the moving force" behind the violation. Estate of Sims v. County of Bureau, 506 F.3d 509, 514 (7th Cir. 2007). See also Johnson v. City of Kankakee, 260 Fed.Appx. 922, 926, 2008 WL 186939, *3 (7th Cir. 2008), citing Monell v. Department of Social Services of New York, 436 U.S. 658, 691 (1978). So, municipal liability is limited to action for which the municipality is actually responsible. Estate of Sims, 506 F.3d at 515, citing Pembaur v. City of Cincinnati, 475 U.S. 469, 479 (1986). "Misbehaving employees are responsible for their own conduct; 'units of local government are responsible only for their own policies, not for misconduct by their workers.'" Id., citing Lewis v. City of Chicago, 496 F.3d 645, 656 (7th Cir. 2007), quoting Fairley v. Fermaint, 482 F.3d 897, 904 (7th Cir. 2007). There is no respondeat superior liability for municipalities under § 1983. Belcher v. Norton, 497 F.3d 742, 754 (7th Cir. 2007).

"A plaintiff may establish municipal liability under § 1983 by showing '(1) an express policy that causes a constitutional deprivation when enforced; (2) a widespread practice that is so permanent and well-settled that it constitutes a custom or practice; or (3) an allegation that the constitutional injury was caused by a person with final policymaking authority.'"Waters v. City of Chicago, 580 F.3d 575, 581 (7th Cir. 2009), quoting Estate of Sims, 506 F.3d at 515. For purposes of local governmental liability under § 1983, whether a particular official has final policymaking authority is a question of state law. City of St. Louis v. Praprotnik, 485 U.S. 112 (1988). "Authority to make municipal policy may be granted directly by a legislative enactment or may be delegated by an official who possesses such authority, and of course, whether an official had final policymaking authority is a question of state law." Praprotnik, 485 U.S. at 124, citing Pembaur v. Cincinnati, 475 U.S. 469, 483 (1986)(plurality opinion). In Praprotnik, the Supreme Court "reexamined the issue of 'when a decision on a single occasion may be enough to establish an unconstitutional municipal policy'" under § 1983. Auriemma v. City of Chicago, 747 F.Supp. 465, 469 (N.D.Ill. 1990), quoting Praprotnik, 485 U. S. at 924. A plurality of the Court held that "a municipality could not be held liable under § 1983 'for the unconstitutional transfer of a city employee where the officials who arranged for the transfer did not possess final policymaking authority with respect to employment decisions and had not been delegated such authority.'" Id., quoting Mandel v. Doe, 888 F.2d 783, 792 (11th Cir. 1989) (explaining holding of Praprotnik ).

In the current proceeding, Plaintiffs submit that they can demonstrate municipal liability by direct reference to official policy or by delegation of authority to a policymaker.

Plaintiffs assert that they "will demonstrate" that the express policy to offer written employment contracts to principals, as enacted by the District and as carried out by the District in an untimely manner, caused their constitutional deprivation. Plaintiffs contend that District Board of Education Policy 3:60 was carried out in violation of state law and is the mechanism by which Plaintiffs' civil rights were violated.

More is required to withstand a motion for summary judgment than a statement of what Plaintiffs "will demonstrate" and a bare reference to District Policy 3:60, which the Court reproduces in its entirety, with ...

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