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Vukadinovich v. Hanover Community School Corp.

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Hammond Division

October 12, 2016

BRIAN VUKADINOVICH, Plaintiff,
v.
HANOVER COMMUNITY SCHOOL CORPORATION, ET AL., Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          PHILIP P. SIMON, CHIEF JUDGE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT

         Brian Vukadinovich was fired from his job as a teacher at Hanover Community Schools and, representing himself, he brought this action against Hanover Schools and some of its administrators. The case was tried over the course of five days. The parties now have filed eight post-trial motions. This Opinion and Order is the result of reviewing thousands of pages of testimony and evidence and hundreds of pages of often misguided and vitriolic briefing, much of which was of no assistance to me. At the heart of this over-litigated dispute is a simple single-plaintiff employment dispute that proceeded to trial on claims of age discrimination and retaliation as well as a due process claim. The jury found in favor of Vukadinovich, but only on the due process claim, and it awarded him $203, 840.39 in damages. The issues arising from that verdict are addressed below.

         Background

         I will provide a brief summary of the facts and history of this case as background and dive deeper into the evidence and testimony where necessary later when addressing specific post-trial motions. Brian Vukadinovich was fired from his teaching job at Hanover Schools.[1] Vukadinovich worked there for eight school years until his employment ended in June 2012. Vukadinovich was first informed of his potential termination by letter given to him by school principal Justin Biggs on May 2, 2012. The letter stated that the reason for the nonrenewal of Vukadinovich's contract was a “reduction in force.”

         Vukadinovich requested a meeting to discuss his potential termination with the School's superintendent, Carol Kaiser, which was held on May 11, 2012. Vukadinovich challenges the sufficiency of this meeting, arguing that Kaiser deflected his inquiries about the reasons for his termination and opportunities to save his job. After their meeting, Kaiser recommended to the School Board that Vukadinovich's contract not be renewed because of a justifiable reduction in force, explaining that his classes were under enrolled. Vukadinovich requested a meeting with the School Board, but they refused to meet with him and then later voted not to renew his contract.

         Vukadinovich sued the Hanover School Corporation, the School Board, the superintendent, the principal, and individual School Board members alleging that his contract was not renewed due to his age-he was 60 at the time of his termination-and in retaliation for his successful settlement of an earlier lawsuit. He also alleged that he was not afforded a meeting with the School's governing body, the School Board, in violation of his constitutional due process rights, as well as in violation of his employment contract and state law.

         The parties filed cross motions for summary judgment and, after my rulings on those motions, the claims that remained for trial were age discrimination against the School, retaliation against the School, and constitutional procedural due process against the School, its former principal (Justin Biggs), and its former superintendent (Carol Kaiser). The case proceeded to trial on those claims.

         After Vukadinovich rested at the close of his case, I granted Biggs' motion for judgment as a matter of law on the only claim remaining against him (the due process claim), and he was dismissed from the case. [DE 372.] The remaining issues went to the jury, which found in favor of the School on the age discrimination and retaliation claims and in favor of Vukadinovich on the constitutional procedural due process claim. The jury awarded him $203, 840.39 in compensatory damages. [DE 373, 379, 380.]

         The parties filed several post-trial motions. Vukadinovich moved for a hearing on damages [DE 382], a new trial as to the retaliation claim due to plain error or omission of a jury instruction [DE 389], judgment notwithstanding the verdict as to the compensatory damages claim against Kaiser [DE 391], judgment notwithstanding the verdict as to the retaliation claim against the School [DE 392], judgment notwithstanding the verdict as to the age discrimination claim against the School [DE 393], and judicial notice of a newly discovered fact [DE 403]. The School filed a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law on the due process claim or, in the alternative, motion to vacate the damage award. [DE 394.]

         Discussion

         Because there are so many post-trial motions pending before the Court, I have attempted to group them together below. The first group of motions concerns challenges to the due process claim. The second group relates to challenges to the age discrimination and retaliation claims. And the third group of motions are best described as miscellaneous motions. I take up each group of motions below.

         Motions Relating to the Due Process Claim

         In their renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law, both the School and Superintendent Kaiser challenge the jury's finding that Vukadinovich's due process rights were violated. They argue that there was no due process violation. The School further argues that even if there was a due process violation, the School cannot be held responsible for the actions of its superintendent, Ms. Kaiser. For her part, Kaiser claims she is entitled to qualified immunity. [DE 394 at 5-6.]

         In the amended complaint, Vukadinovich says that the School, the superintendent, the principal, and each School Board member violated his due process rights when they failed to follow what Vukadinovich alleged were statutory requirements under state law for a private meeting with the School Board. He further claimed that the defendants' decision to terminate him without a chance to tell his side of the story was a violation of his constitutional due process rights. On summary judgment, I granted the defendants' motion on the state law claims. [DE 325 at 20.] State law did not mandate a meeting with the School Board before it fired Vukadinovich. But I found that a genuine dispute existed as to whether the process afforded to Vukadinovich-the meeting with Kaiser-was sufficient to satisfy constitutional due process requirements. [Id. at 22-23.] So the federal due process claim was allowed to go forward against Biggs and Kaiser in their individual capacities, as well as against the School, and summary judgment was granted as to all other defendants. [Id. at 23.] The principal issue at trial was whether Vukadinovich's meeting with Superintendent Kaiser was sufficient to satisfy due process requirements. A subsidiary issue was whether the School could be on the hook for damages if Kaiser violated Vukadinovich's due process rights by providing an insufficient hearing.

         Here's what the jury found: (1) that Kaiser violated Vukadinovich's due process [DE 380]; (2) that the School Board delegated to Kaiser the responsibility for deciding the process that was due to teachers being terminated; (3) that there were compensatory damages caused by the violation of Vukadinovich's due process; and (4) that $203, 890.38 was due to Vukadinovich because of the School's violation of Vukadinovich's right to due process [DE 379].

         The School first challenges the due process verdict on the grounds that there could be no due process violation if Vukadinovich was unable to prove his age discrimination and retaliation claims. To support this puzzling argument they point to language in my summary judgment opinion. [DE 394 at 10.] But this argument misinterprets what I was getting at in my opinion. In the summary judgment opinion, I noted that “[t]here is no reason, everything else aside, that this meeting with the superintendent couldn't have been sufficient to qualify as the process that Vukadinovich was due . . . [because Kaiser] had the power to consider the competing interests, to weigh them, and to consider the nonrenewal of Vukadinovich's contract if she heard something convincing.” [DE 325 at 22.] A disputed issue remained, however, regarding whether or not Kaiser actually did these things. It is true that I noted in my opinion that “[i]f the jury finds that Biggs terminated Vukadinovich for impermissible reasons, and that the hearing with Kaiser was a sham and a mere formality, then the hearing couldn't have satisfied the due process requirements.” [Id. (emphasis added).] The School's argument seems to be that the only “impermissible reason” is one based on age or in retaliation. But I was not asserting that the only way the meeting could be found to be procedurally deficient was if the jury found that Vukadinovich proved his age discrimination and retaliation claims. [Id.] Rather, I was making the point that while a meeting with the superintendent could be sufficient process to satisfy constitutional due process requirements, it might not be if the hearing was a sham.

         Under the Due Process Clause a deprivation of property must be preceded by notice and an opportunity for a hearing appropriate to the nature of the case. The parties agree that Vukadinovich had a property interest in his employment by virtue of both the Indiana statutes and his employment contract. In the context of public employment, due process requires that an employee be given notice of his potential termination, an explanation of the reasons for the decision to potentially terminate him, and an opportunity to present his side of the story. Cleveland Bd. of Ed. v. Loudermill, 470 U.S. 532, 545-46 (U.S. 1985) (explaining procedural due process requirements); Doyle v. Camelot Care Centers, Inc., 305 F.3d 603, 617-18 (7th Cir. 2002) (same). There is no question that Vukadinovich received a hearing from Kaiser. The issue is whether the substance of the hearing provided by Kaiser was sufficient to satisfy the requirements of the Due Process Clause.

         There is no fixed formula to determine whether a hearing is sufficient to satisfy the requirements of due process. Rather, it is a flexible inquiry taking into account the situation at hand. Cleveland Bd. of Educ. v. Loudermill, 470 U.S. at 545. “In general, something less than a full evidentiary hearing is sufficient prior to adverse administrative action.” Id. That said, the decisionmaker must be willing to listen to an employee's side of the story at the hearing. “A hearing where the decisionmaker has prejudged the outcome does not comport with due process because it effectively denies the employee the opportunity to respond to the accusations against him.” Powers v. Richards, et al., 549 F.3d 505, 512-13 (7th Cir. 2008); see also Ryan v. Illinois Dep't of Children & Family Servs., 185 F.3d 751, 762 (7th Cir. 1999) (“Due process requires that, prior to termination, an employee be given the chance to tell her side of the story, and that the agency be willing to listen. Otherwise, the ‘opportunity to respond' . . . is no opportunity at all.”). In other words, the hearing has to mean something; it can't be a sham. Otherwise, what's the point?

         Based on the evidence presented at trial, a reasonable jury could have found that the process afforded Vukadinovich was insufficient to satisfy the requirements of due process. One glaring issue for the defendants at trial was the fact that no one could point to the clear, uncontested, and uncontradicted reason that Vukadinovich was terminated. In fact, the testimony of the defense's key witnesses-Biggs and Kaiser- was inconsistent and, at times, nonsensical. The evidence showed that the School was playing a game of Whack-a-Mole with Vukadinovich-they would tell him one reason for his termination and when he would try to dispel it, they would then come up with another reason.

         The problem with the School's wishy-washy explanation of the reason for Vukadinovich's termination was magnified at trial when the jury was able to consider the credibility of Biggs and Kaiser. Recall that Vukadinovich was acting pro se, and when he was questioning Kaiser and Biggs, they were both extremely evasive and combative, often responding to his questions with a query of their own or by repeatedly asking him to define what are otherwise commonplace terms. It was an excruciating exercise to observe, especially when they put up no such fight when questioned by defense counsel. These theatrics were not only distracting and off putting, but they also added flavor to the argument that the reasons the defendants gave for Vukadinovich's termination were pretextual. To put it bluntly, after several years of presiding over this litigation, including a five day jury trial, I cannot tell you why Vukadinovich was terminated. The jury surely must have sympathized with Vukadinovich, who simply wanted a straight-forward explanation for why he was being let go. In the end, it was reasonable for a jury to look at the mess of contradictory evidence and courtroom theatrics and conclude that Vukadinovich was not given a sufficient explanation of the reasons for the decision to potentially terminate him and, therefore, a meaningful opportunity to respond, all in violation of his right to due process.

         I will break down some of the key contradictions in evidence presented at trial to provide a sense of the confusion that the School created that reasonably could have resulted in the jury finding that Vukadinovich's right to due process was violated. Biggs gave notice to Vukadinovich of his potential termination on May 2, 2012, when Biggs hand delivered Vukadinovich a letter. The letter stated, “The reason for this preliminary decision is as follows: The teacher is subject to a justifiable decrease in the number of teaching positions, more commonly called a reduction-in-force (RIF) per IC 20-28-7.5-1(b)(3).” [Pl. Ex. 19.] The jury heard Biggs testify that when he gave Vukadinovich the letter, Vukadinovich asked if the decision had anything to do with his performance and Biggs said that it did not. Biggs testified that Vukadinovich's classes were discontinued for a lot of reasons, one being that his classes did not adequately prepare students for college and careers, but admitted that this reason was not provided in the termination letter given to Vukadinovich.

         Biggs also testified that enrollment numbers had something to do with the decision to eliminate Vukadinovich's classes, resulting in his termination. Biggs later testified, however, that enrollment numbers did not determine what classes were cancelled. He explained that one of the main reasons Vukadinovich's classes were discontinued was because they didn't fit the career vision that the superintendent had for the school, but admitted that no one ever bothered to this tell to Vukadinovich during the termination proceedings.

         The jury also heard Kaiser testify that Vukadinovich was fired because his classes were not Career Technical Education (“CTE”) classes, which she explained are part of a program specified and subsidized by the State of Indiana to provide certain types of classes to high school students to prepare them for success after high school. After receiving the written notice of potential termination from Biggs, Vukadinovich met with Kaiser on May 11, 2012. The jury heard Kaiser testify that, when she met with Vukadinovich, she did not tell him that the CTE issue was the reason for his termination. And what was her explanation for keeping him in the dark? It's because Vukadinovich never specifically asked about it, as if it was some sort of guessing game. So instead of spending his time in the meeting with Kaiser responding to the CTE class issue, Vukadinovich focused his inquiry on the enrollment needed to save his job and opportunities to increase enrollment. This was entirely sensible-that was the reason he was being fired, or so he was led to believe. Nonetheless, Kaiser testified, when questioned by Vukadinovich during his case ...


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