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Manos v. Board of Education of Villa Grove Community Unit School District #302

United States District Court, C.D. Illinois, Springfield Division

December 11, 2017

DR. MARY ANN MANOS, Plaintiff,
v.
BOARD OF EDUCATION OF VILLA GROVE COMMUNITY UNIT SCHOOL DISTRICT #302, JIM CLARK, JIM KESTNER, CAROL EZELL, KERRY CHEELY, CASSANDRA EVERSOLE-GUNTER, CHARLES MITSDARFER, and TIMOTHY SPANNAGEL, Defendants.

          OPINION

          SUE E. MYERSCOUGH, U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE.

         In July 2015, Defendant Board of Education of Villa Grove Community Unit School District #302, comprised of Defendants Jim Clark, Jim Kestner, Carol Ezell, Kerry Cheely, Cassandra Eversole-Gunter, Charles Mitsdarfer, and Timothy Spannagel, terminated Plaintiff Dr. Mary Ann Manos from her position as Superintendent. Plaintiff filed suit alleging Defendants deprived her of a property interest in her employment and a liberty interest in her occupation in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and discriminated against her because of her gender in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Counts I, II, and VII). Plaintiff also brought state law claims for breach of contract, intentional infliction of emotional distress, defamation per se, and trespass to chattels (Counts III, IV, V, and VI).

         The parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment. Plaintiff seeks summary judgment on the property and liberty interest claims, Counts I and II. Defendants seek summary judgment on all claims.

         Plaintiff's Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (d/e 38) is DENIED. Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (d/e 39) is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART. Genuine issues of material fact preclude summary judgment on Counts I, II, III, and VI. The Court finds, however, that the individual Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity on Counts I and II. Defendants are awarded summary judgment on Counts IV, V, and VII.

         I. FACTS

         In 2012, the Villa Grove Community Unit School District #302 hired Plaintiff to serve as Superintendent under a three-year employment contract (Contract) beginning July 1, 2013 through June 30, 2016. Paragraph 11 of the Contract provided the following regarding discharge:

11. Discharge For Cause. Throughout the term of this Contract, the Superintendent shall be subject to discharge for just cause provided, however, the Board shall not arbitrarily or capriciously call for dismissal and the Superintendent shall have the right to service of written charges, notice of hearing and a hearing before the Board. If the Superintendent chooses to be accompanied by counsel at such hearing, the Superintendent shall pay all such personal expenses. Failure to comply with the terms and conditions of this Contract shall also be sufficient cause for purposes of discharge as provided in this Contract.

         Plaintiff began her term as Superintendent on July 1, 2013. Plaintiff also served as the high school principal for the 2013-2014 school year for additional pay.

         Plaintiff's salary as Superintendent was $115, 000 per year, which was less than her predecessor, Dr. Steven Poznic, earned. The parties do not indicate how much Dr. Poznic earned. The parties agree, however, that Dr. Poznic was a longstanding District employee who received a retirement incentive that increased his salary prior to retirement. The interim Superintendent through June 2017, Mr. Norm Tracy, who was hired after Plaintiff's termination, earned $70, 000 per year.

         In early 2014, the Board evaluated Plaintiff's performance to date, and the evaluations were universally positive. In March 2014, the District approved the extension of Plaintiff's contract by one year, through June 30, 2017.

         Defendants assert, and Plaintiff disputes, that Board members began to hear complaints from staff about the extension of Plaintiff's contract.[1] Board Member Jim Clark commenced an investigation regarding the allegations. Clark interviewed several staff members and purportedly received negative feedback about Plaintiff.

         In June 2014, Clark shared his findings with the Board. At a special Board meeting on July 10, 2014, the Board provided Plaintiff with a letter outlining the Board's concerns. The concerns included staff complaints about Plaintiff, as well as five instances when the Board felt misled by Plaintiff. (Some of these concerns are the same as the ones raised in support of Plaintiff's termination.) The letter included a section titled, “Board Expectations, ” that outlined the Board's expectations for Plaintiff and included changes in how she should handle matters. In response, Plaintiff stated that the issues were not her issues but rather blamed the District's staff. She also issued a written rebuttal and told the Board that she believed the letter violated Board policies. Plaintiff was not provided with the names of the individuals who were making allegations against her.

         In October 2014, the district bookkeeper, Shirley Badman, and the assistant bookkeeper, Chris Mayhall, met with Board President Steve Douglas and Board member Clark about concerns they had about the District's finances, morale in the District, and whether Plaintiff was following auditor procedures. In December 2014, more individuals purportedly spoke to Board members about additional concerns with Plaintiff.

         In February 2015, Clark met with Plaintiff to share the concerns staff members were raising, although Plaintiff asserts that Clark did not address any specific complaints with Plaintiff. Defendants contend that Board members continued to receive complaints about Plaintiff from staff and parents.

         In April 2015, Plaintiff's Contract was amended to provide Plaintiff with five additional vacation days per year. The remaining terms of the Contract remained in full force and effect.

         On May 4, 2015, Clark became President of the School Board, replacing outgoing President, Steve Douglas. On or about June 18, 2015, Clark scheduled a closed-session meeting for June 23, 2015 and directed Plaintiff to attend. According to Plaintiff, Clark did not advise Plaintiff of the topic of the meeting. Plaintiff told Clark she could not attend because she had outpatient surgery scheduled for June 22, 2015.

         On June 23, 2015, Clark emailed Plaintiff a letter stating that Clark would, at that evening's special Board meeting, “recommend to the Board of Education that [Plaintiff] be dismissed as Superintendent . . . and for approval of [his] decision to place [Plaintiff] on paid suspension pending a formal dismissal hearing.” By way of the letter, Clark placed Plaintiff on suspension with pay while the Board considered her dismissal. Clark directed Plaintiff to turn over all District property, remain off school property, have no contact with District employees, and not discuss her employment status or any District matter with any staff member or member of the public.

         Clark attached to the letter a Bill of Particulars containing 33 allegations (really 32 allegations because there is no number 3) against Plaintiff. The Bill of Particulars included allegations that Plaintiff failed to accurately prepare the annual budget and was fiscally irresponsible regarding several items, including the purchase of weight lifting equipment, air conditioning improvements, Rural Education Achievement Grant Expenditures, and Qualified Zone Academy Bonds.

         In the letter, Clark stated that he intended to ask the Board to adopt the charges as the basis of Plaintiff's suspension with pay and to set the matter for a formal dismissal hearing before the Board. The letter also advised Plaintiff that she “may appear at the Board of Education to answer the charges against [her] and may have counsel present. At the hearing, the Board of Education shall consider [Clark's] recommendation to dismiss [Plaintiff] from [her] position of employment.”

         Defendants note that Plaintiff testified at her deposition that she responded to the Bill of Particulars. The Court was unable to find the response in the summary judgment record. Plaintiff states, in her Reply (d/e 47), that there is no evidence that Plaintiff's attorney submitted a response to the Board or to Clark or that the Board considered any such response by Plaintiff during the hearing.

         Plaintiff's attorney, Gerald Smith, attended the June 23, 2015 special meeting. At the meeting, the Board discussed concerns about the District's finances and Plaintiff's relationship with the Board and staff. The Board decided to proceed with the suspension of Plaintiff with pay and a hearing to determine if she should remain employed as Superintendent. During the closed session of the hearing, the Board Secretary wrote that the new superintendent's start date would be “the day after [Plaintiff] is terminated.”

         On June 25, 2015, Smith notified the attorney for the School Board, Christopher Miller, that many of the allegations in the Bill of Particulars were vague and lacked sufficient detail to provide a defense. Smith also stated that he would request a continuance at the conclusion of the Board's evidence in order to prepare Plaintiff's response and/or defense to each allegation presented.

         Plaintiff's discharge hearing commenced on July 13, 2013. Immediately prior to the hearing, Plaintiff and her attorney received 27 separate exhibits the Board's attorney planned to present during the hearing, which amounted to over 112 pages of evidence.

         At the beginning of the hearing, Clark read a statement that Plaintiff would be provided an opportunity to present evidence and all witnesses on her behalf following the presentation of the Board's evidence:

Before the Board can determine whether Mary Ann Manos has, in fact, engaged in conduct that constitutes just cause to terminate her employment contract, it must hear the evidence.
This hearing is designed to protect her due process rights regarding the presentation of that evidence.
* * *
To begin these proceedings, Mr. Miller will present the charges against Mary Ann Manos and then present information and evidence supporting those charges in the form of written documents and the testimony of witnesses. The employee will be given an opportunity to cross-examine any witnesses presented and to challenge any of the written evidence entered.
Following the presentation of just cause for dismissal, the employee will have an opportunity to make a case against such recommended action. The employee may present evidence of her own, oral or written, and may call witnesses to testify. The Board will be given an opportunity to cross-examine any witnesses presented by the employee and to challenge any of the written evidence entered.

         Very early in the proceedings Plaintiff's attorney, Smith, objected to the Board's attorney calling witnesses about whom Plaintiff and Smith knew nothing. Smith also objected to the evidence not being disclosed until immediately prior to the hearing.

         Miller, the Board's attorney, spent over six hours presenting 12 witnesses, including Clark, and elicited testimony from all of the members of the Board. Plaintiff asserts, but Defendants dispute, that most of the Board's evidence consisted of evidence Plaintiff was learning for the first time. Plaintiff's attorney, Mr. Smith, cross-examined the witnesses.

         The Board's attorney concluded the presentation of evidence at approximately 12:30 a.m. on July 14, 2015. The following exchange occurred:

MR. MILLER: So, I have got no closing statement; we will rest on the testimony and the exhibits. The Board is going to deliberate. Do you have anything else to present?
MR. SMITH: Well, as a closing statement, I don't think any of the evidence that was presented here really indicates that there was any intent on her part to deceive or defraud.

         After making a closing statement, Mr. Smith then stated:

MR. SMITH: * * * The fact that we didn't get access to any of this information until tonight as it was being presented, we didn't have an opportunity to prepare an accurate or an adequate defense, so there are due process issues that will be addressed at a later time, too. We respect your time and we won't hang on any longer. We will let you deliberate. I bet there's no one downstairs anymore, but we will be downstairs.
MR. MILLER: Thank you.
MR. CLARK: Thank you.
MR. SMITH: There is one thing. I would like to request from the Board a continuation or a continuance so that we can have adequate time to digest this and to prepare a defense.
MR. MILLER: Until when?
MR. SMITH: One week would be fine.
MR. MILLER: We will discuss it. Well, I want on the record, what is it that you lack?
MR. SMITH: We did not have any time-
MR. MILLER: Well, we understand that, but how did that prevent you from ...

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