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Ulrey v. Reichart

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division

December 7, 2018

LISA ULREY, Plaintiff,
v.
WILLIAM REICHART, et al., Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          JON E. DEGUILIO JUDGE

         Lisa Ulrey was an assistant principal in the Manchester Community Schools. She resigned at the superintendent's suggestion after a discrepancy came to light as to the validity of her teaching license. After the school board accepted her resignation, she had second thoughts, but the school did not allow her to rescind her resignation. This suit followed. Ms. Ulrey claims that the superintendent encouraged her to resign not because of the discrepancy in her teaching license, but because of a complaint she had made some months earlier to the school board about the superintendent's decision to allow a student to bring cigarettes to school. Ms. Ulrey claims that she was retaliated against for exercising her First Amendment rights, and that she was denied due process.

         The defendants-the school district and the superintendent-moved for summary judgment. The Court grants the motion. Ms. Ulrey cannot maintain a First Amendment retaliation claim since her speech came as part of her employment and thus was not protected by the First Amendment. Nor was she denied due process, as she resigned instead of invoking the process that was available to her.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Before recounting the relevant facts, the Court notes that the defendants have filed two motions to strike. In the first motion, the defendants seek to strike certain evidence Ms. Ulrey submitted in response to the motion for summary judgment. They focus primarily on statements in an affidavit Ms. Ulrey submitted, and argue that the materials are inadmissible for various reasons. However, none of the evidence subject to the motion to strike would affect the outcome of the issues upon which the Court resolves the motion for summary judgment, so the Court need not reach the admissibility of those materials. Second, the defendants moved to strike a surreply that Ms. Ulrey filed without having sought or received leave to do so. Ms. Ulrey's failure to seek leave for that filing is unacceptable, and there are no grounds for a surreply in the first place. Again, however, that filing has no effect on the outcome of the motion for summary judgment, so the Court need not strike that filing either. With that understanding, the Court proceeds to the facts.

         Ms. Ulrey began teaching in the Manchester Community Schools in 2011. In the fall of 2013, the assistant principal at Manchester Jr./Sr. High School resigned, and Ms. Ulrey was offered and accepted that position. She served in an interim capacity for the rest of that school year, and officially assumed the position at the beginning of the 2014-15 school year. The principal at that school-Ms. Ulrey's direct supervisor-was Nancy Alspaugh, and the school district's superintendent was William Reichhart. As assistant principal, Ms. Ulrey's responsibilities included student discipline, which entailed enforcing the rules in the student handbook. [DE 47-6 p. 30, 150-51, 167; DE 50-10].

         In the 2014-15 school year, Manchester Community Schools began a new program referred to as Squire Academy, which was an alternative education program aimed at assisting at-risk students to receive their high school diplomas. The program was housed in a separate space of a building that also housed the district's administrative offices and its seventh-grade classrooms, so it fell within Ms. Ulrey's area of responsibility. [DE 49 p. 8 n.1]. In August 2014, Squire Academy's director, Dorey Mobley, contacted Dr. Reichhart about a student who had brought cigarettes to school in violation of the district's policy against possessing tobacco on school grounds. She asked Dr. Reichhart if he would approve an exception for that student, such that if the student brought cigarettes to school, he could turn them over to Ms. Mobley upon arriving and retrieve them when he leaves. Dr. Reichhart later explained in a letter to the school board that because the student was an at-risk student who was already old enough to legally possess tobacco, he believed that allowing this limited exception would be preferable to enforcing a policy that might discourage the student from attending school at all. Accordingly, he approved of the arrangement under which the student would not be punished for bringing cigarettes to school as long as he turned them over to Ms. Mobley while he was there.

         Shortly thereafter, that same student was arrested for unrelated reasons at Heartland Career Center, a vocational school he attended in the afternoons, and he was found in possession of cigarettes. When confronted about the cigarettes, the student said that his teacher had given him permission to possess them. Heartland's principal thus called Ms. Alspaugh, who in turn called Ms. Mobley. Ms. Mobley reported to Ms. Alspaugh that Dr. Reichhart had given permission for the student to bring tobacco products to school so long as he turned them in when he arrived, and that she could return the cigarettes when the student left. Ms. Alspaugh relayed that news to Ms. Ulrey because Ms. Ulrey was responsible for student discipline and enforcing the student handbook, which included a prohibition on tobacco. [DE 47-6 p. 150-51].

         Ms. Ulrey and Ms. Alspaugh were each surprised at and disapproved of that decision by Dr. Reichhart. Ms. Alspaugh thus placed a call to Dr. Reichhart on speakerphone while Ms. Ulrey was in her office. Ms. Alspaugh asked Dr. Reichhart if he had given this permission, and Dr. Reichhart confirmed that he had. Upon hearing that, Ms. Ulrey became angry, and without awaiting any explanation from Dr. Reichhart and without telling him about her disagreement, Ms. Ulrey took Ms. Alspaugh's phone off of her desk, left the room, looked up the number for the president of the school board, Sally Krouse, and called her.

         Ms. Ulrey reported to Ms. Krouse the decision that Dr. Reichhart had made. She indicated that she thought the decision was wrong and that it was against the student handbook. Ms. Krouse agreed to follow up with Dr. Reichhart. She sent him an email the next day indicating that she had learned that a student had been caught with cigarettes and claimed that he had been given permission to have them. Ms. Krouse indicated that she would be very concerned if anyone in authority had given such permission. Dr. Reichhart responded to Ms. Krouse and the rest of the school board and explained the situation. By that time he had also learned that Ms. Ulrey was the one who reported the information to Ms. Krouse, and he expressed his displeasure that Ms. Ulrey had taken the matter straight to Ms. Krouse without first expressing her concerns to him and attempting to resolve them within the administration. Ms. Krouse and another board member each responded to Dr. Reichhart's email by indicating their own disapproval that Ms. Ulrey had come to Ms. Krouse without first working through the chain of command.

         The next day, Dr. Reichhart called Ms. Ulrey into his office and chastised her for going to Ms. Krouse without notifying him of her concerns. Dr. Reichhart had drafted a letter of reprimand for Ms. Ulrey prior to the meeting, but he did not issue the reprimand. Instead, Ms. Ulrey apologized to him and agreed that she would not go to the board in the future without first discussing it with him. After that, the incident was not discussed again.

         Some months later, in late October 2014, Ms. Ulrey learned that there was a problem with her administrator's license. She had renewed her license two years earlier with the help of a friend who was also the licensing advisor at Manchester University, where she had completed some coursework. While it would have been possible for Ms. Ulrey to properly renew her license at that time, the license that she actually applied for and received was one for which she was not eligible, meaning her license was invalid. Two other teachers who had been assisted by that licensing advisor (who was by then under suspicion for misconduct) discovered around the same time that their licenses were invalid, which prompted Ms. Ulrey to review her own license and discover the error. Ms. Ulrey promptly informed Dr. Reichhart of the problem, and began working with state officials to correct her license. Dr. Reichhart met with Ms. Ulrey on multiple occasions to discuss the problem and learn how it had occurred. As assistant principal, Ms. Ulrey's duties included evaluating other teachers and participating in disciplinary proceedings, both of which required a valid administrator's license. That prevented her from acting as assistant principal until her license was corrected, and Dr. Reichhart was also concerned that it could have called into question the validity of any matters she had worked on while her license was invalid. Dr. Reichhart also expressed disbelief at how Ms. Ulrey, an administrator whose responsibilities included evaluating other teachers, could have failed to ensure that her own license was valid.

         On November 4, 2014, Dr. Reichhart met again with Ms. Ulrey to discuss her license. Dr. Reichhart indicated the he did not believe her explanation of how she came to get her license renewed and that he could not trust her. Sensing that Dr. Reichhart wanted to get rid of her, Ms. Ulrey asked if he was asking her to resign. Dr. Reichhart said yes. Ms. Ulrey said that she would type up a letter of resignation, at which point Dr. Reichhart produced a letter that he had drafted for Ms. Ulrey in preparation for the meeting. Ms. Ulrey signed the letter and left. At the next school board meeting, the board accepted her resignation.

         Ms. Ulrey later retained an attorney and asked to rescind her resignation, but the school did not agree to do so. Accordingly, she filed this suit against Dr. Reichhart and the School Board of Manchester Community Schools. Discovery has now ...


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