Law & Courts

Law Update

April 21, 2004 6 min read

$1 Million Jury Award Is Reinstated For Teacher Who Criticized Conditions

A federal appeals court has reinstated a $1 million jury verdict awarded to a special education teacher who claimed she was fired by public school officials in Portland, Ore., in retaliation for complaining that her students were getting a raw deal.

In a unanimous opinion on April 5, a three-judge panel of the San Francisco-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit reinstated a jury award that a federal magistrate judge threw out in 2002. The appeals panel said that the judge was unjustified in overruling the jury, and that teachers must be able to advocate for students with disabilities, “who may not be able to communicate effectively that they lack appropriate facilities.”

“Teachers are uniquely situated to know whether students are receiving the type of education and attention that they deserve, and in this case, are federally entitled to,” U.S. Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski wrote.

Pamella E. Settlegoode, 55, was hired by the 49,000-student Portland district in 1998 to teach physical education in several schools to students with disabilities, and she received positive evaluations during her first year, the opinion says.

But her supervisors turned sour on her after she began criticizing what she viewed as systemic discrimination against her students, including in a 10-page letter to her boss’s supervisor in which she evoked the treatment of African-American students under segregation. The itinerant, probationary teacher had trouble finding space to conduct classes, and “material and equipment were often lacking, inadequate, or unsafe,” according to the opinion.

Citing what it maintained were performance problems ranging from her communication with colleagues to her development of students’ individualized education plans, the district did not renew Ms. Settlegoode’s contract in 2000. She sued in U.S. District Court in Portland, alleging infringement of her First Amendment right to free speech, as well as violations of federal disabilities law and a state whistleblower law.

After a trial in the fall of 2001, a jury awarded her compensatory damages of $902,000 from the district and punitive damages of $50,000 each from her direct supervisor and that administrator’s boss. U.S. Magistrate Judge Janice M. Stewart set aside the verdict in January 2002 and ordered a new trial. She agreed with the district that it had legitimate reasons for firing Ms. Settlegoode, and that her lawyer had acted improperly during the trial to inflame jurors’ sympathy for students with disabilities.

But the 9th Circuit appeals panel saw the lawyer’s conduct as “well within the bounds of fair advocacy,” and it held that the district had failed to prove that Ms. Settlegoode would have been fired even had she not complained. For example, the only evidence of her allegedly poor preparation of IEPs came from the very administrators she accused of retaliating against her, the court said.

Judge Kozinski noted that district officials needed to “vault a very high hurdle: They must show that no reasonable juror could have found that the school district would have renewed her contract but for her speech.” Because the defendants proved no such thing, he wrote, "[t]he verdict trumps.”

The panel did not buy district officials’ claim that they were immune from liability. The district had presented “very little evidence” that Ms. Settlegoode’s complaints disrupted district operations, let alone to the extent necessary to offset her free-speech rights under the law, the panel held.

A spokeswoman for the Portland public schools said last week that the district was seeking clarification from the 9th circuit panel on certain points, and that once clarification was received the district would review its legal options in the case.

Privacy Rights

A school district in New York state did not violate the privacy rights of a teacher when officials confiscated personal belongings and teaching materials from his classroom after he was suspended for alleged sexual misconduct with female students, a federal appeals court has ruled.

“Certainly the discharge or suspension of an employee greatly reduces—if not eliminates—his reasonable expectation of privacy in his former workplace,” wrote Judge Richard W. Goldberg in a unanimous opinion from a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, in New York City.

High school math teacher William R. Shaul claimed that officials of the Cherry Valley-Springfield Central school system violated the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures when they cleared out his former classroom in January 1999. He lost in federal district court, and on March 25, the appeals panel upheld the judgment in favor of the 700-student district in Cherry Valley, N.Y.

When the district searched the classroom, Mr. Shaul had been suspended following his arrest on charges of harassing a woman he had been fined for having an “inappropriate relationship” with when she was his 15-year-old student in 1990. Mr. Shaul’s lawyer said the criminal charge was later dropped.

In a separate incident in late 1998, Mr. Shaul had been accused of sexually harassing a 10th grader under his supervision. A hearing officer found him guilty of those charges in March 2000. After a suspension, he resumed his teaching duties the following fall and still works for the district, where he began teaching in 1969.

Mr. Shaul argued in his lawsuit that he had been given far too little time to clear out his admittedly cluttered classroom after his suspension, and he complained that the district had failed to return to him classroom materials that he had prepared during his long teaching career.

He also contended that the district’s true motive was to find evidence against him, rather than to prepare the room for another teacher. As it turned out, a locked file cabinet that the district drilled open contained a photo album of the student involved in the 1990 case, and school officials unsuccessfully tried to introduce it as evidence at a later disciplinary hearing, court papers say.

The appeals panel said the district was within its rights to clear out the classroom. It also said the teacher was not entitled to get back the teaching materials, such as tests, quizzes, and homework assignments, because they had been created as part of his job duties and so belonged to the district.

Contract Dispute

A federal appeals court has ruled against a former chief administrator of a one-school Wisconsin district who sued after the local school board decided not to renew her contract.

Karen Beischel contended that the school board of the Stone Bank district should have brought in an outside decisionmaker instead of conducting a hearing itself before voting 4-1 in 1999 to not renew her two-year contract. Ms. Beischel alleged that at least three of the five board members were biased against her because they had admitted during the hearing that they had felt personally attacked by her.

Although a trial-level court ruled in Ms. Beischel’s favor, a three- judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, in Chicago, held on March 29 that the board had given her a fair hearing. The 315-student district is located in Oconomowoc, Wis.

“It is surely a strange posture Beischel finds herself in—arguing, in effect, that school board members cannot judge her fairly because she has been sufficiently abusive to them as to make them biased,” wrote U.S. Circuit Judge Terence T. Evans in the unanimous opinion.

Moreover, the appellate panel found that the board was right to refrain from “passing the buck on one of the most important, and perhaps difficult, decisions it is charged with making.”

—Caroline Hendrie

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