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School City of Hammond District v. Rueth

Court of Appeals of Indiana

February 14, 2017

School City of Hammond District, Appellant-Defendant,
Chad Rueth, Appellee-Plaintiff

         Appeal from the Lake Superior Court Trial Court Cause No. 45D11-1304-CT-64 The Honorable Diane Kavadias Schneider, Judge

          Attorneys for Appellant Richard K. Shoultz Neal Bowling Lewis Wagner, LLP Indianapolis, Indiana

          Attorney for Appellee Mark K. Leeman Logansport, Indiana

          RILEY, JUDGE.


         [¶1] Appellant-Defendant, School City of Hammond District (the District), appeals the trial court's entry of judgment pursuant to a jury verdict in favor of Appellee-Plaintiff, Chad M. Rueth (Rueth), on his claims of defamation and blacklisting.

         [¶2] We reverse.


         [¶3] The District raises nine issues on appeal, two of which we find dispositive and which we restate as follows:

(1)Whether there is sufficient evidence to sustain the jury's verdict against the District for defamation; and
(2)Whether there is sufficient evidence to sustain the jury's verdict against the District for blacklisting.


         [¶4] In 2004, Rueth was hired as a middle school history teacher at Gavit Middle/High School (Gavit), which is a school within the District in Hammond, Lake County, Indiana. Rueth also served as the girls' varsity basketball coach for the high school side of Gavit. In 2007, Rueth was asked to be the high school's assistant athletic director in addition to his teaching duties. That same year, the District hired Michelle Ondas (Principal Ondas) to serve as the assistant principal of Gavit. For a brief period in 2008, Principal Ondas acted as interim principal. During that time, she terminated the athletic director and offered the position to Rueth. The athletic director position at Gavit was part time and based on a one-year contract, with a stipend of $9, 182. Thus, in addition to his athletic director duties, Rueth continued to teach a few classes.

         [¶5] When Rueth commenced his job as athletic director, he discovered that the school's athletic fund had been depleted. As such, he looked for ways to both raise funds and cut costs without any sacrifice to the student-athletes. Despite his success in restoring funds to the athletic account, Rueth had clashes with (then-assistant principal) Principal Ondas regarding the proper channels of communication and his conflicts with coaches and other faculty members. At the end of each academic year, the then-principal renewed Rueth's contract as athletic director.

         [¶6] In June of 2011, Principal Ondas was promoted to principal. Shortly after assuming her new role, Principal Ondas met with Rueth to outline her expectations of him for the upcoming school year. As part of this meeting, Principal Ondas completed an evaluation form, noting several areas in which Rueth needed to demonstrate improvement, such as his level of enthusiasm and initiative, his relationship with students and colleagues, his respect for the channels of authority, and his effectiveness in communication. Principal Ondas also summarized goals for Rueth, which consisted of better promoting the school, communication, and flexibility. A follow-up meeting was scheduled for December 2011, but this meeting never occurred. Regardless, at that time, Principal Ondas contacted the District's central office to inform the necessary administrators that she wanted to open up the athletic director position to other candidates at the expiration of Rueth's contract in June of 2012. Principal Ondas was advised to wait until the following spring to inform Rueth of this decision, and this information was not otherwise made available to the public.

         [¶7] In the fall of 2011, and prior to Principal Ondas' decision to open up the athletic director job, Rueth discovered that his high school alma mater, Bishop Noll Institute (BNI)-a private, Catholic high school-was seeking candidates for its full-time athletic director position. He applied. BNI assembled an eight-person hiring committee (Hiring Committee), which included, in part: Colleen McCoy-Cejka (Principal McCoy-Cejka), BNI's principal; Andrew Trost (Trost), a BNI faculty member; Michael Whelan (Whelan), the vice president of BNI's Board of Limited Jurisdiction and an alumnus; Karl Repay (Repay), a BNI alumnus and sports coach; and Nora Kasprzycki (Kasprzycki), a member of the BNI Board of Limited Jurisdiction. When Rueth applied for the position, he requested that BNI not contact anyone at Gavit about his candidacy. Nevertheless, Principal Ondas eventually learned from her brother-in-law, a member of BNI's Board of Limited Jurisdiction, that Rueth had applied for the job at BNI. On one occasion thereafter, Principal Ondas inquired as to whether Rueth had been chosen for the position, but because her brother-in-law was not involved with the hiring process, he had no information to offer.

         [¶8] BNI's Hiring Committee received more than forty resumes, which it whittled down to four potential candidates, including Rueth. The first round of interviews was conducted on March 9, 2012. Although the majority of the Hiring Committee ranked Rueth within their top two choices for the position, others were not impressed by his performance. Ultimately, the Hiring Committee narrowed the field down to Rueth and one other candidate. According to Whelan, Rueth's alumnus status "probably got him the second interview." (Tr. Vol. II, p. 343). The two finalists were instructed to create a presentation for the Hiring Committee "as to what [they] saw the future of [BNI] athletics being, and kind of highlighting the ten[-]year work that we were going to do to bring [BNI] into [its] 100[-]year anniversary." (Tr. Vol. I, p. 71). The presentations were scheduled for April 19, 2012.

         [¶9] In addition to his coaching duties at BNI, Repay was employed as a firefighter for the City of Hammond. Principal Ondas' husband, Chris Ondas (Chris), was also a firefighter. Chris worked and socialized with Repay. At some point during BNI's hiring process, Repay casually asked for Chris' opinion of Rueth. Based on his personal observations of Rueth at various sporting events at Gavit, Chris stated, "Well, I don't think he's a real ball of fire." (Tr. Vol. I, p. 198). On a subsequent occasion, Chris mentioned to Repay that Rueth "was having to reapply for his position at Gavit." (Tr. Vol. II, p. 253). According to Repay, he shared this information with Principal McCoy-Cejka. Principal McCoy-Cejka recalled that Repay informed her "that [Rueth] was being let go from his current position." (Tr. Vol. II, p. 295). Principal McCoy-Cejka indicated that, with the exception of Trost, she did not discuss Rueth's status as Gavit's athletic director with the rest of the Hiring Committee. However, Trost stated that prior to the second interview, the Hiring Committee had discussions about the fact that Rueth was no longer Gavit's athletic director.

         [¶10] On the morning of April 19, 2012, the same day that Rueth was scheduled to make his presentation to the BNI Hiring Committee, Principal Ondas summoned Rueth to her office. Rueth "had a strong inclination as to what was going to happen, " so he used his cell phone to record the meeting. (Tr. Vol. I, p. 81). Principal Ondas informed Rueth that she was "going to open up the athletic director's position" for the following school year because she "want[ed] to take it in a different direction." (Tr. Vol. I, p. 78). However, Principal Ondas told Rueth that he was "more than welcome" to reapply for the job. (Tr. Vol. I, p. 78). Later that evening, Rueth made his presentation to the BNI Hiring Committee, but it did not go "as well as [he] would have liked it to have gone" as he "was still reeling from what had happened earlier that day." (Tr. Vol. I, p. 84). Following his presentation, Rueth asked to speak privately with Principal McCoy-Cejka and Trost, at which time he informed them that he had just learned that he "was being let go from [his] position at Gavit as the athletic director." (Tr. Vol. I, p. 85).

         [¶11] The following day, on April 20, 2012, Principal McCoy-Cejka sent the following email to members of the Hiring Committee:

CONFIDENTIAL INFORMATION!!!!!!! He was put on planned action last summer and was told he did not satisfactorily fulfill the requirements that the administration was asking of him. How did we all find out about it [two] weeks ago, and he just learned about it yesterday? Can't explain that one. It's all fishy.
I'm afraid too many people in the BNI community became involved in advising us on choosing him and helping him to prepare for us. I don't know how a lot of information becomes public, but it does, and it almost always causes damage. I don't know how else to try to get to the truth without causing more damage for him at Gavit.

         (Plaintiff's Exh. 11). Also that day, Whelan emailed the rest of the Hiring Committee as follows:

I am troubled with trying to put a timeline together on the [Rueth] [athletic director] situation at Gavit. Part of me feels that our responsibility was to be confidential and maybe that was blown. Now, maybe [Rueth] blew that himself because he admitted he had people helping him so that could be the situation.
I am confused as to what happened at Gavit and when it actually happened. There definitely is a difference in [Rueth's] story and what we are hearing.
It is important to me to understand what really happened.
[Rueth] told [Principal McCoy-Cejka] and [another member of the Hiring Committee] that he was told that the [athletic director] job at Gavit would be advertised ...

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