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Presley v. Board of School Directors of Rankin School District No. 98

United States District Court, C.D. Illinois

December 16, 2016



          James E. Shadid Chief United States District Judge

         This matter is now before the Court on Defendants' Motion [28] for Summary Judgment. For the reasons set forth below, Defendants' Motion [28] is GRANTED.


         The following background is taken from Defendants' Statement of Undisputed Material Facts. See ECF Doc. 28. Plaintiff Tammy Presley was employed as a secretary at Rankin School District No. 98 (the “School District”) from 2007 until her involuntary termination on December 2, 2013. Plaintiff Jay Presley is Tammy Presley's husband and an elected member of Defendant Board of Education of Rankin School District No. 98 (“the Board”). He was elected to a four-year term on the Board in 2011 and reelected in 2016. Plaintiffs brought this action under Section 1983 and Section 9-102 of the Illinois Tort Immunity Act, naming as Defendants the Board, Superintendent Steven Johnson, Board President Debbie Lowman, Board Secretary Julia Nelms, and Board members Timothy Gay and Lyle Secrest.[1] Jay Presley alleges that his wife Tammy's termination was in retaliation for exercising his constitutional right to free speech in an email he sent to the Board regarding the School District's Administration and its use of funds. Plaintiffs further allege that the Defendants' conduct infringed on their liberty interest of intimate association with their spouse. ECF Doc. 28, at ¶¶ 1-7.

         Tammy Presley's supervisors at the School District were the Principal and the Superintendent, Steven Johnson. The first incident Tammy recalls that is relevant to her termination was on May 3, 2013, when she verbally complained to Superintendent Johnson that Carole Delahunt, the school bookkeeper, was an “adult bully” and used profane language at work. Tammy speculated that Superintendent Johnson did not look into her complaint, but admitted that she never followed up with him either. Id. Tammy received a “great evaluation and raise” from Superintendent Johnson on June 13, 2013. On June 18, 2013, Tammy exchanged emails with Delahunt and Johnson regarding book fees that were waived for Delahunt's nephews without proper documentation. On August 1, 2013, Superintendent Johnson issued a notice to all office employees, including Tammy, advising that “[o]n the occasion(s) when parents, guardians, or community members contact our office, all received issues, concerns or complaints are to be directed to my office. I will then direct the received issues, concerns or complaints as needed.” Id. at ¶¶ 8-16.

         On August 19, 2013, after first raising the issue with Superintendent Johnson, Ta m m y sent an email to the Board members about Tammy and another teacher's concern that students would be required to purchase planners. See ECF Doc. 34, at ¶ 8. On August 30, 2013, Superintendent Johnson issued a Memorandum to Tammy, titled “Re: Notice of Direction, ” stating that Tammy had admitted to forwarding an email chain on August 19, 2013, from her work/school email account to members of the Board without notifying the Superintendent first.

         Specifically, the letter stated:

In my conversation with you, I communicated that all school concerns that are brought to your attention should be shared with the Superintendent prior to a concern being raised with the Board of Education. This policy is designed to resolve issues at the lowest possible level. If issues are still not resolved to the satisfaction of all parties, concerned parties are free to address the issue through the chain of command up to the Board of Education.
If you receive information during the work day, through district email, or which otherwise pertains to school business which suggests that a school issue needs to be addressed, you are directed to raise the matter with me or other appropriate administrative personnel prior to raising the matter with members of the Board of Education. In short, you are directed to use the chain of command to address all school issues. Failure to follow this directive may result in discipline up to and including discharge from employment.

         In response, Tammy wrote the following on the Memorandum:

8/30/13- I disagree w/this statement. Action by teacher had gone through proper chain situation was not handled before I sent to Board. As parent I talked to teacher and she or I did not want to purchase assignment notebooks from our personal accounts.
ECF Doc. 28, at ¶¶ 17-19.

         On September 5, 2013, Tammy Spoke to Sarah Cummins at a little league baseball game. Cummins told Tammy that she had twice sent an email to the Board about the band program but had not yet heard a response. Tammy asked Cummins to forward her the email and she would make sure to pass it along to the Board. At 10:16 p.m. on September 5, 2013, Tammy emailed Board President Lowman the following message:

I was talking to a Spring Lake parent tonight and I was very upset to hear that she had sent a letter to our School Board President, Debbie Lowman about the band program and she hadn't heard a word back from her. As an employee of the school many parents come to me with questions and comments. I asked Mrs. Cummings forward the letter to me and I would forward to ALL board members. I think that it is very inconsiderate not to respond to a parent who has their time to type a letter up and send it to our school board. Don't know how many other items are not being shared with the other school board members, but I believe the board is to operate as a unit, the board is not one individual. . . .

         At 10:17 a.m. on September 6, 2013, Tammy forwarded the email from Cummins to all members of the Board. She also exchanged several emails with President Lowman, who reminded Tammy of the proper chain of command. Id. at ¶¶ 21-24.

         On September 16, 2013, Jay Presley sent an email to Board President Lowman setting forth a list of his concerns to be addressed at the next Board meeting. Jay forwarded this email to Tammy's personal email account on December 3, 2013, the day after she was terminated. Jay's email raised many questions, including: Superintendent Johnson's reprimand of an “employee” for “going around [the] administration with an issue, ” bussing schedules, book fee collection practices, and the nature of the bookkeeper's employment. Tammy testified that she was aware of some portions of the email before it was sent. Id. at ¶¶ 25-28.

         On September 25, 2013, Tammy filed a written complaint against Delahunt for bullying and making threatening remarks, which she sent to the Board after discussing it with Superintendent Johnson. On September 30, 2013, Tammy sent a request to the Board for a special hearing on her complaint against Delahunt. Shortly thereafter, Delahunt filed her own complaint against Tammy. Upon learning of Delahunt's complaint, Tammy sent an email to the Board and Superintendent Johnson on October 7, 2013, wherein she accused Johnson of having “a personal vendetta against” her. In the same email, she questioned whether the Board was taking her complaint seriously, remarking that “Sandy Hook School didn't think it [bullying] was serious either.” On October 18, 2013, Board President Lowman emailed Tammy to inform her that her complaint would be considered at the next Board meeting on October 23, 2013. Id. at ¶¶ 29-34.

         On November 6, 2013, the Board issued a “Notice of Direction” memorandum to Tammy, stating:

This Notice of Direction follows receipt of a complaint regarding your behavior and Board consideration of the matter at a meeting held on October 23, 2013. Specifically, the Board of Education has determined that you have, on multiple occasions, made comments and provided non-verbal communication to persons attempting to meet with Carole Delahunt in her office which have had the effect of discouraging these persons from doing so in an attempt to ostracize Ms. Delahunt from staff and others in the school community. The Board of Education finds these actions unprofessional and directs you to refrain from any such conduct in the future . . . .
In short, you are direct to, at all times in the future, conform your conduct in accordance with these expectations. Failure to follow this directive may result in discipline up to and including discharge from employment.

         Tammy denied receiving the document before she was terminated, but stated that the contents of the memorandum tracked remarks she received from the Board at the meeting on October 23, 2013. On November 15, 2013, Superintendent Johnson issued another written direction to Tammy and her colleague Trudy Dodson prohibiting them from using or displaying their “WTF” list in the office. Id. at ¶¶ 35-36.

         On November 26, 2013, Superintendent Johnson met with Tammy and gave her another memorandum documenting her suspension without pay until December 2, 2013, when the Board would consider disciplinary action on the recommendation of the Administration. At the December 2 meeting, Tammy read her response to the November 26 memorandum to the Board. In her response, Tammy stated that she spoke with Superintendent Johnson and confirmed that the September 5 email forwarding Cummin's concerns was the only reason for her suspension and possible termination. No reference was made to Jay Presley's email. Superintendent Johnson presented a written document to the Board for consideration at the December 2 meeting, wherein he recommended that Tammy be terminated for numerous reasons, including her failure to follow the chain of command. Tammy was notified of her termination in a letter dated December 3, 2013. ¶¶ 37-41.

         Plaintiffs' response lists only one fact from Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment as “disputed, ” but sets forth 15 Additional Material Facts. Plaintiffs assert that Superintendent Johnson resigned at the Board meeting on September 26, 2013, and further allege the following:

2. Superintendent Johnson after stating his resignation said that either Jay Presley or Tammy Presley [sic] should be required to resign their position because there was a conflict between Jay Presley's interest as a Board member and Tammy Presley's interest as a non-union employee of the office staff. PltfEx:2 Jay Presley Dec; See also ECF 28-3; TammyPresleyDep:138-39.
ECF Doc. 32-1, at 5.

         The remaining portions of Plaintiffs' Additional Material Facts largely recite the undisputed facts in Defendants' motion.

         Legal Standard

         Under Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment is proper “if 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 judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56; Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). Summary judgment is mandated “after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Id. at 322-23. However, “[t]he burden on the non-movant is not onerous.” Waldridge v. American Hoechst Corp., 24 F.3d 918, 921 (7th Cir. 1994). Rather, the non-movant ...

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