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Hewitt v. Westfield Washington School Corporation

Supreme Court of Indiana

December 15, 2015

JEFFREY HEWITT, Appellant (Plaintiff below),
WESTFIELD WASHINGTON SCHOOL CORPORATION, et al., Appellees (Defendants below)

Page 426

          Appeal from the Hamilton Superior Court, No. 29D01-1202-PL-001050. The Honorable Steven R. Nation, Judge. On Petition to Transfer from the Indiana Court of Appeals, No. 29A04-1403-PL-130.

         ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANT JEFFREY HEWITT: Jason R. Delk, Daniel J. Gibson, Delk McNally LLP, Muncie, Indiana.

         ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE WESTFIELD WASHINGTON SCHOOL CORPORATION, et al.: Séamus P. Boyce, Noblesville, Indiana; Brent R. Borg, Kelleigh I. Fagan, Church Church Hittle & Antrim, Fishers, Indiana.


         David, Justice. Rush, C.J., Dickson, Rucker and Massa, J.J., concur.


Page 427

          David, Justice.

         This case involves termination of an elementary school principal after the school board learned that the principal had been involved in a sexual relationship with a teacher, one of his subordinates. At issue is whether the school board provided the principal with appropriate process when it terminated his employment as an administrator. In a case of first impression, we hold that the teacher's termination statute, found at Indiana Code § 20-28-7.5-1 et seq., does not apply to termination of an administrator when his underlying teaching contract is not being terminated. We further hold that the provisions in the form teacher's contract that make reference to an opportunity for hearing and a just cause determination also apply only to the termination of an administrator's underlying teaching contract. Under the facts and circumstances of this case, the principal was given sufficient notice and an opportunity to be heard.

         Facts and Procedural History

         On July 1, 2011, Jeffery Hewitt signed a contract with Westfield Washington School Corporation (Westfield) that provided that he would serve as Principal of Monon Trail Elementary School (MTES). Hewitt's contract was the regular teacher's contract used throughout Indiana, except that the contract was limited to a two-year term and specified that Hewitt would serve as Principal. With regard to termination, the contract provided:

It is agreed by the parties hereto that in case the said teacher should, after opportunity for hearing with benefit of legal counsel, be held by said employer to be guilty of incompetency, immorality, insubordination or other offense recognized as just cause according to law for cancellation of contract such teacher, subject to proper appeal shall be deemed to be dismissed and shall thereafter hold no claim for further compensation subject, however, to the provisions of law concerning the employment and dismissal of teachers which are in force and effect.

(Appellant's App. at 25.) In addition, the contract included a provision that the parties agree " that all laws governing the employment and dismissal of teachers shall be construed to be a part of this contract." (Id.)

Page 428

          In November of 2011, Hewitt was approached by the Superintendent of Westfield, Mark Keen, who informed Hewitt that there were some concerns with his performance as Principal. Following that meeting, Hewitt met with the Executive Director of Human Resources, Chris Baldwin, who asked Hewitt about rumors that Hewitt was engaged in a sexual relationship with another staff member at MTES. Hewitt admitted to having a sexual relationship with a MTES teacher from February of 2011 until November of 2011.

         Due to concerns about the appropriateness of the relationship between a supervisor and subordinate, the School requested Hewitt's resignation. On December 13, 2011, Hewitt tendered his letter of resignation, which was to become effective June 30, 2012. When the resignation was presented to the school board, the board was concerned with Hewitt's continued employment as principal and thus, Keen proposed the board accept the resignation but seek an earlier effective date. The board agreed to this approach. However, Hewitt refused to sign a revised resignation letter that would have made his resignation effective immediately and attempted to revoke his previous resignation.

         Based upon Hewitt's refusal to resign immediately, he was placed on leave while the school board sought cancellation of his administrator's contract. Baldwin sent a letter dated December 22, 2011 to Hewitt, explaining that a preliminary recommendation was being made to the board to have Hewitt's employment as an administrator terminated, effective immediately. Several reasons were listed for Hewitt's termination, including that Baldwin had concerns about Hewitt's ability to be an administrator. The letter also explained that Hewitt could request a " private conference with the School Board regarding this recommendation." (Appellee's App. at 67.) The letter provided that Hewitt would be allowed to bring counsel to the private conference and would be given an opportunity to respond to the reasons set out in the recommended termination.

         Hewitt responded in a letter dated December 26, 2011, requesting a private conference before the school board. Hewitt also requested that the school identify the applicable sections of the Indiana Code under which this action was being taken. The school's counsel responded, explaining that " there is no statute applicable to a private conference for cancellation of your administrator's contract." (Appellee's App. at 71.) The letter further explained that, " [t]he statutory process for a private conference is only applicable to the cancellation of a teacher's contract (which, again, the School Corporation has not yet sought cancellation in your case)." (Appellee's App. at 71.) The letter explained that at the private conference Hewitt would be permitted to request records, have counsel present, make a personal statement to the board, and describe what witnesses would say on his behalf; however, there would " not be witnesses or any formal evidence procedure." (Appellee's App. at 71-72.)

         On January 10, 2012, the school board met in an executive session for a private conference regarding the recommendation for immediate cancellation of Hewitt's administrator's contract. Hewitt was present at the private conference and represented by counsel. Once the public meeting began, the board moved for Hewitt's administrator's contract to be immediately terminated. This motion was approved by a 4-0 vote.

         On February 1, 2012, Hewitt filed a complaint against Westfield Washington School Corporation, the Board of School Trustees, and various named individuals. (collectively referred to as the " School" ) Hewitt's complaint alleged breach of contract

Page 429

and denial of due process, challenging the notice and procedure utilized by the school board in immediately terminating his administrator's contract.

         Hewitt and the School each filed cross motions for summary judgment. On January 29, 2014, a hearing was held on the School's motion for summary judgment and Hewitt's motion for partial summary judgment (on the issue of liability only). On February 18, 2014, the Hamilton County Superior Court granted summary judgment for the School on Hewitt's breach of contract and denial of due process claims and denied Hewitt's motion for partial summary judgment. Hewitt appealed and the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded for further proceedings. Hewitt v. Westfield Washington School Corp., 24 N.E.3d 459, 460 (Ind.Ct.App. 2014), reh'g denied.

         The Court of Appeals determined that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment for the School. Hewitt, 24 N.E.3d at 460. Specifically, the Court of Appeals found that pursuant to Hewitt's contract, he was entitled to a hearing and that the hearing procedures found in Indiana Code § 20-28-7.5 et seq., that are related to the termination of teacher contracts, applied to Hewitt's administrator's contract. Id. at 465. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals held that there were genuine issues of material fact regarding the School's hearing process that precluded summary judgment in its favor. Id. at 467-68. The Court of Appeals did not engage in a separate analysis regarding Hewitt's due process claim, but rather determined there were genuine issues of material fact " [f]or the same reasons" a genuine issue of material fact exists regarding Hewitt's breach of contract claim. Id. at 468.

         The Court of Appeals denied the School's Petition for Rehearing. The School subsequently sought transfer, which we granted, thereby vacating the opinion below. See Ind. Appellate Rule 58(A).

         Standard of Review

          " When reviewing a grant of summary judgment, our standard of review is the same as that of the trial court." Dreaded, Inc. v. St. Paul Guardian Ins. Co., 904 N.E.2d 1267, 1269 (Ind. 2009) (citations omitted). Considering only those facts that the parties designated to the trial court, we must determine whether there is a genuine issue as to any material fact and whether the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Ind. Trial Rule 56(C), (H); Freidline v. Shelby Ins. Co., 774 N.E.2d 37, 39 (Ind. 2002). Furthermore, " the trial court's judgment arrives on appeal clothed with a presumption of validity, and the challenging party bears the burden of proving that the trial court erred in determining that there are no genuine issues of material fact and that the moving party was entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Williams v. Tharp, 914 N.E.2d 756, 762 (Ind. 2009) (internal citation and quotation omitted.).


         I. ...

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