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Elliott v. Board of School Trustees of Madison Consolidated Schools

United States District Court, Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division

March 12, 2015

JOSEPH R. ELLIOTT, Plaintiff,
v.
BOARD OF SCHOOL TRUSTEES OF MADISON CONSOLIDATED SCHOOLS, Defendant.

ENTRY ON CROSS-MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

Hon. William T. Lawrence, Judge United States District Court Southern District of Indiana

Before the Court are three motions: the Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment (Dkt. No. 82); the Defendant’s cross-motion for summary judgment (Dkt. No. 56); and the Intervenor-Defendant’s motion for summary judgment (Dkt. No. 59). The motions are fully briefed, and the Court rules as follows.[1]

I. STANDARD

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a) provides that summary judgment is appropriate “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the admissible evidence presented by the non-moving party must be believed and all reasonable inferences must be drawn in the non-movant’s favor. Hemsworth v. Quotesmith.com, Inc., 476 F.3d 487, 490 (7th Cir. 2007); Zerante v. DeLuca, 555 F.3d 582, 584 (7th Cir. 2009) (“We view the record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and draw all reasonable inferences in that party’s favor.”). However, “[a] party who bears the burden of proof on a particular issue may not rest on its pleadings, but must affirmatively demonstrate, by specific factual allegations, that there is a genuine issue of material fact that requires trial.” Id. Finally, the non-moving party bears the burden of specifically identifying the relevant evidence of record, and “the court is not required to scour the record in search of evidence to defeat a motion for summary judgment.” Ritchie v. Glidden Co., 242 F.3d 713, 723 (7th Cir. 2001).

The fact that the parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment does not alter the standard set forth in Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. When evaluating each side’s motion, the Court simply “construe[s] all inferences in favor of the party against whom the motion under consideration is made.” Metro Life. Ins. Co. v. Johnson, 297 F.3d 558, 561-62 (7th Cir. 2002) (quoting Hendricks-Robinson v. Excel Corp., 154 F.3d 685, 692 (7th Cir. 1998)).

II. BACKGROUND

This case arises out of the termination of Plaintiff Joseph Elliott, a tenured[2] teacher, by Defendant Board of School Trustees of Madison Consolidated Schools (“the Board”). Before delving into the specific facts of this case, a brief background of Indiana law regarding teacher contracts is necessary.

In 1927, Indiana enacted the Teachers’ Tenure Act (“the Act”), “the principal purpose of [which] was to secure permanency in the teaching force.” Watson v. Burnett, 23 N.E.2d 420, 423 (Ind. 1939); see State ex rel. Anderson v. Brand, 5 N.E.2d 531, 532 (Ind. 1937), rev’d on other grounds by State of Indiana ex rel. Anderson v. Brand, 303 U.S. 95 (1938) (noting that the purpose of the Act was “to promote good order and the welfare of the state and of the school system by preventing the removal of capable and experienced teachers at the political or personal whim of changing officeholders”). A key cog in the Act was the provision for teacher tenure:

Any person who has served or who shall serve under contract as a teacher in any school corporation in the State of Indiana for five or more successive years, and who shall hereafter enter into a teacher’s contract for further service with such corporation, shall thereupon become a permanent teacher of such school corporation. . . . [S]uch contract shall be known as an indefinite contract.

Dkt. No. 41-2, Act of Mar. 8, 1927, Laws of the State of Indiana 259. The Act provided that an “indefinite contract” could only be cancelled on grounds of immorality, insubordination, neglect of duty, incompetence, a justifiable decrease in the number of teaching positions, a conviction, or for a good and just cause. Dkt. No. 41-4, Ind. Code § 20-28-7-1(a)(1)-(7) (2010).

Prior to 2011, in a reduction in force (“RIF”) situation, the Act was interpreted to mandate the retention of tenured teachers over non-tenured teachers.

If a justifiable decrease in the number of teaching positions should be held to give to the trustee the power to choose between tenure [and] non-tenure teachers, both of whom are licensed to teach in the teaching position which remains, he is thereby given the power to nullify the Teachers’ Tenure Act, and to discharge without cause a teacher who has, by reason of having served satisfactorily as a teacher during the specified period, secured a tenure status and an indefinite permanent contract.

Watson, 23 N.E.2d at 423; see also Stewart v. Fort Wayne Cmty. Sch., 564 N.E.2d 274, 278 (Ind.1990) (“Indiana Code § 20-6.1-4-10 and our decision in Watson protect [the plaintiff] from being fired before non-tenured teachers due to a reduction in force only as long as her qualifications make her eligible for the job she seeks.”). From 1927 through 2010, the Act remained substantively unchanged.

In 2011, however, Indiana embarked on a series of educational reforms. On April 30, 2011, legislation known as SB 1 was signed into law, affecting the employment, evaluation, and dismissal of Indiana teachers. Among some of the most significant changes was the redesignation of “permanent” teachers as “established” teachers. Ind. Code § 20-28-6-8(a). SB 1 also mandated, beginning in the 2012-2013 school year, annual performance evaluations for all teachers, rating them in one of four categories: highly effective; effective; improvement necessary; or ineffective. Ind. Code § 20-28-11.5-4. In conducting these evaluations, SB 1 requires that “[o]bjective measures of student achievement and growth [] significantly inform the evaluation.” Ind. Code § 20-28-11.5-4(c)(2). Further, under SB 1, teachers may be deemed “incompetent”-and subject to dismissal-if they receive an “ineffective” or “improvement necessary” rating in any three years out of a five-year period, or if they receive an “ineffective” rating for two consecutive years. Ind. Code § 20-28-7.5-1(3)(4).

However, most relevant to the case at bar is SB 1’s RIF provision: “After June 30, 2012, the cancellation of teacher’s contracts due to a justifiable decrease in the number of teaching positions [a RIF] shall be determined on the basis of performance rather than seniority.” Ind. Code § 20-28-7.5-1(d) (emphasis added). Thus, under SB 1, a tenured teacher rated as “ineffective” or “improvement necessary” cannot be retained over a non-tenured teacher rated as “effective” or “highly effective” during a RIF. If teachers are placed in the same performance category, the following criteria may be considered: the number of years of a teacher’s experience; if the teacher has additional content area degrees beyond the requirements for employment; the assignment of instructional leadership roles to the teacher; and the academic needs of students in the school corporation. Id.; Ind. Code § 20-28-9-1.5(b).

With this background in mind, the Court turns to the specific facts of this case, which are undisputed.

Plaintiff Joseph Elliott is a licensed teacher in the state of Indiana and certified to teach kindergarten and general elementary education. He also has an elementary administrator’s license. On August 24, 1993, Mr. Elliott was hired by the Board to teach at Dupont Elementary School. In August 1998, Elliott entered into his sixth successive contract with the Board, making him a permanent teacher with an indefinite contract under then-Indiana law, i.e., a tenured teacher. Mr. Elliott remained employed with the Board for fourteen more years.

Mr. Elliott received ten written evaluations during his nineteen years as an employee of the Board. See Dkt. Nos. 41-8 thought 41-17. Mr. Elliott primarily received ratings of “strength” and “satisfactory” in all categories; however, in 2002, he received “needs improvement” ratings in the “interpersonal relationship” category from his then-principal, Karla Gauger. Dkt. No. 41-13. This category including the following: demonstrates effective interpersonal relationships with students; demonstrates effective interpersonal relationships with others; and promotes positive self-concept of students. Ms. Gauger explained that Mr. Elliott “is very dedicated to education . . . At times, however, he has difficulty accepting, graciously, a different point of view.” Mr. Elliott received ratings of “strength” and “satisfactory” in all categories in 2012, his final evaluation before his termination. See Dkt. No. 41-17.

In 2012, Madison Consolidated Schools (“MCS”) was forced to reduce its workforce due to enrollment decline and financial struggles; two elementary school buildings, including Dupont Elementary School, were also being closed. In deciding which individuals’ contracts should be cancelled, MCS followed its RIF Policy which provided, in pertinent part, the following:

The purpose of this policy is to establish a procedure for reduction of licensed teachers due to a justifiable decrease in the number of teaching positions in the school system. When a reduction in force is determined to be needed under this policy, the provisions of I.C. 20-28-7.5 will be followed regardless of past practice.
The primary consideration in any reduction in force will be the maintenance of a sound and balanced educational program that is consistent with the functions and responsibilities of the school system. The following factors will be considered in determining which employees shall be included in the reduction in force:
1. Work performance;
2. Length of service in the school system;
3. Service in extra duty positions and ability to fill such positions;
4. Other beneficial services provided to the school system; and
5. Recommendations and advice from the Superintendent, the Superintendent’s ...

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