A federal appeals court has upheld a $400,000 jury award to an Illinois school superintendent whose contract was not renewed amid turmoil that started with her effort to have an audit of district finances.
The superintendent, Denean Adams of the 2,200-student Harvey school district in suburban Chicago, alleged in court papers that after she started the process for the audit in 2015, one school board member phoned her and said Adams was “itching for an ass-kicking.”
Adams filed a complaint with the police, and after a period of further discord in which the superintendent suspended the business manager for alleged financial irregularities, the board informed Adams that her contract would not be renewed. She took medical leave in 2016 and did not return.
Adams sued the board, alleging retaliation for exercising her First Amendment free speech rights. A federal district court jury ruled for Adams and awarded $400,000 in damages. The trial judge added some $190,000 in attorneys’ fees.
The school board appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, in Chicago, arguing that a police report is a personal grievance, and not a matter of public concern, and thus was outside the scope of First Amendment protection.
In its Aug. 3 decision in Adams v. Board of Education of Harvey School District No. 152, a three-judge panel of the court ruled unanimously that Adams’s report to the police was protected by the First Amendment and that the jury reasonably concluded that the report played a role in ending her employment.
While a police report might normally be considered a personal grievance, the court said, Adams’s report was not a straightforward report of a crime.
“It was a report by the superintendent of a school district that she had been threatened with violence by a member of the school board,” the opinion said, adding that “a potential for physical altercations between public officials (the superintendent and an elected member) implies that an important public institution was not working properly. This is a legitimate subject of public concern.”
Further, the discord began when Adams proposed a forensic audit, and that idea “seems to have unsettled at least one member of the board.”
The appeals court opinion suggests that much of Adams’s speech during the episode was related to her job, and under Supreme Court precedent the board could have argued the speech was unprotected by the First Amendment on that basis.
“Almost everything that happened in this dispute is on-the-job speech within the scope of the superintendent’s and members’ duties,” the appeals court said. But the board had failed to raise an argument under the Supreme Court’s 2006 decision in Garcetti v. Ceballos until it was too late, the appeals court said.
The appeals panel rejected a cross-appeal from Adams seeking an increase in attorney’s fees from the $190,000 that was awarded to $485,000, calling the request “outlandish.”
A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.