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Dowell v. Board of School Trustees of Madison Consolidated Schools

United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Indianapolis Division

August 29, 2017



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

         This cause is before the Court on the Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment for Failure to Exhaust Administrative Remedies (Dkt. No. 27). The motion is fully briefed, and the Court, being duly advised, GRANTS IN PART AND DENIES IN PART the motion for the reasons and to the extent set forth below.


         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. 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.”). 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).


         Plaintiff Michael S. Dowell was employed as a health and physical education teacher at the Madison Junior High School from the fall of 2003 through early June 2013. He also served as athletic director at the junior high school and, over time, performed various coaching roles at both the junior high and high schools. On May 24, 2013, Dowell received notice from his principal that, due to a “justifiable decrease in the number of teaching positions, ” i.e., a reduction in force, the principal had made a preliminary decision not to renew his contract for the 2013-14 school year. On May 25, 2013, Dowell requested and, some days later, received a conference with the superintendent of Madison Consolidated Schools (“District”) to appeal the principal's preliminary decision. On May 30, 2013, Dowell received the superintendent's letter notifying him that he was upholding the principal's preliminary decision. The letter also notified Dowell that he had the option to appeal the decision to the Board, but Dowell chose not to pursue that appeal. In July 2013, one of the other health and physical education teachers at the junior high school resigned and Dowell applied for the position after the principal notified him of the cancellation of his contract. He decided not to request a meeting with the Board “so that he would not be viewed in a bad light when he applied for the position.” The principal eventually notified Dowell that he was not hired for the open position.


         Dowell pleads four legal claims regarding the cancellation of his contract. First, by “impairing with Mr. Dowell's rights to an indefinite contract on the basis of his tenure” (Dkt. No. 1, ¶ 22), the cancellation violated Article I, § 10 of the United States Constitution (“No State shall . . . pass any Bill of Attainder, ex post facto Law, or Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts . . . .”).[1] Second, for the same reason, it violated Article 1, § 24 of the Indiana Constitution (“No ex post facto law impairing the obligation of contracts, shall ever be passed.”). Third, the cancellation violated the District's reduction-in-force (“RIF”) policy.[2] Fourth, the Defendant did not follow Ind. Code chapter 20-28-7.5 when cancelling his contract.

         At issue before the Court in the instant motion is whether Dowell has forfeited all of his claims because he failed to exhaust his administrative remedies before bringing suit.[3]

         A. Federal claim-Count I

         Non-prisoner claimants generally are not required to exhaust state judicial or administrative remedies before pursuing federal civil-rights claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Haywood v. Drown, 556 U.S. 729, 766 (2009); Patsy v. Board of Regents of the State of Florida, 457 U.S. 496 (1982); Horsley v. Trame, 808 F.3d 1126, 1129 (7th Cir. 2015). The Board cites Gluck v. WNIN Tri-State Public Media, Inc., 879 F.Supp.2d 999, 1004-05 (S.D. Ind. 2012), and the district court's decision in Horsley 61 F.Supp.3d 788, 791 (S.D. Ill. 2014), aff'd, 808 F.3d 1126 (7th Cir. 2015), apparently as authority for its argument that Dowell was required to exhaust his federal constitutional claim. But Gluck ruled only that a claimant suing for violation of a federal regulation must first exhaust the prescribed federal regulatory process for obtaining administrative relief, and Horsley explicitly held that the plaintiff in that case was not required to exhaust her state administrative remedies before pursuing a federal Second Amendment claim. Therefore, Dowell was not required to exhaust state remedies before pursuing his federal claim that the Board's cancellation of his contract violated his rights under Article I, § 10 of the U.S. Constitution.

         B. State claims-Counts I, II, and III

         Indiana generally requires exhaustion of administrative remedies before seeking judicial relief, even when a claimant pleads violations of the state's constitution.

We have repeatedly emphasized the value of completing administrative proceedings before resorting to judicial review. The reasons for this requirement are well established: (1) premature litigation may be avoided; (2) an adequate record for judicial review may be compiled; and (3) agencies retain the opportunity and autonomy to correct their own errors. Even if the ground of the complaint is the unconstitutionality of the statute, which may be beyond the agency's power to resolve, exhaustion of administrative remedies may still be required because administrative action may resolve the case on other grounds without confronting broader legal issues. Ordinarily, an administrative agency must resolve factual issues before the trial court acquires subject matter jurisdiction. But exhaustion of administrative remedies is not required if a statute is void on its face, and it may not be appropriate if an agency's action is challenged as being ultra vires and void. More generally, if an action is brought upon the theory that the agency lacks the jurisdiction to act in a particular area, exhaustion of remedies is not required. To the extent the issue turns on statutory construction, whether an agency possesses jurisdiction over a matter is a question of law for the courts.

Indiana Dept. of Environmental Management v. Twin Eagle, LLC, 798 N.E.2d 839, 844 (Ind. 2003) (citations omitted).

It is hornbook administrative law that potential plaintiffs must first exhaust their administrative remedies before seeking judicial relief. However, there are three recognized exceptions to this rule: direct resort to the courts is justified where (1) compliance with the rule would be futile, (2) the statute is charged to be void on its face, or (3) irreparable injury would result.

LHT Capital, LLC v. Indiana Horse Racing Commission, 895 N.E.2d 124, 127 (Ind.Ct.App. 2008) (citations omitted); see also John C. & Maureen G. Osborne Revocable Family Trust v. Town of Long Beach, 78 N.E.3d 680, (Ind.Ct.App. 2017) (“Under Indiana law, ‘[i]t is well- established that, if an administrative remedy is available, it must be pursued before a claimant is allowed access to the courts, ' as ‘failure to exhaust administrative remedies deprives the trial court of subject matter jurisdiction.'”). Dowell was required to exhaust available administrative remedies before seeking judicial relief for his state-law claims.[4]

         In Indiana, cancellation of teachers' contracts is governed by Ind. Code chapter 20-28-7.5. The version that was in effect during the cancellation of Dowell's contract-late May 2013 through early June 2013-reads, in relevant part, as follows:

Chapter 7.5. Cancellation of Teacher Contracts Sec. 1.
(a) This chapter applies to a teacher in a school corporation (as defined in IC 20-18-2-16(a)).
* * *
(c) Except as provided in subsection (e), a principal may not decline to continue a professional or established teacher's contract unless the teacher is subject to a justifiable decrease in the number of teaching positions.
(d) After June 30, 2012, the cancellation of teacher's [sic] contracts due to a justifiable decrease in the number of teaching positions shall be determined on the basis of performance rather than seniority. In cases where teachers are placed in the same performance category, any of the items in IC 20-28-9-1.5(b) may be considered.
(e) A contract with a teacher may be canceled immediately in the manner set forth in sections 2 through 4 of this chapter for any of the following reasons:
(1) Immorality.
(2) Insubordination, which means a willful refusal to obey the state school laws or reasonable rules adopted for the governance of the school ...

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