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POTEAT v. HARRISBURG SCHOOL DIST.

January 21, 1999

DR. H. MAJOR POTEAT, PLAINTIFF,
v.
HARRISBURG SCHOOL DISTRICT; MARION GRAY, BARTON FIELDS, FRANCIS B. HAAS, CALOBE JACKSON, KEN LESTER, JOSEPH C. BROWN, AS MEMBERS OF THE BOARD OF SCHOOL DIRECTORS OF THE HARRISBURG SCHOOL DISTRICT, IN THEIR INDIVIDUAL AND OFFICIAL CAPACITIES; DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Caldwell, District Judge.

  MEMORANDUM

I. Introduction.

We are considering the Defendants' motion for summary judgment. The Plaintiff, Dr. H. Major Poteat, was the superintendent of the Harrisburg School District, employed under a written agreement. The Defendants are the school district; Marion Gray, the president of the Board of School Directors; and Barton Fields, Francis B. Haas, Calobe Jackson, Ken Lester, and Joseph C. Brown, members of the Board. The individual Defendants have been sued in their individual and official capacities. Nathan Waters, Jr., the solicitor for the School District and the Board, was also a Defendant, but as noted below, he has been dismissed from the action.

II. Procedural History.

In his complaint, the Plaintiff made the following federal and state claims. In count I, he averred that the Defendants violated his first amendment rights and his rights to substantive and procedural due process when they interfered with his employment agreement and the performance of his duties as superintendent. In count II, he alleged a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3). In count III, he alleged a claim for breach of contract, asserting among other things, that the Defendants had disguised an adverse job action controlled by paragraph 12 of the employment agreement as a dissolution of the agreement under paragraph 13. In count IV, he averred that Defendant Waters, the board solicitor, had intentionally interfered with Plaintiff's contractual relationship with the Board. In count V, the Plaintiff asserted a defamation claim for allegedly false and defamatory statements made about him in the months leading up to his discharge. In Count VII (there is no count VI), the Plaintiff made an "invasion of privacy/false light" claim, alleging that the statements placed him in a false light in the public eye. Finally, in count VIII, the Plaintiff alleged that the Defendants breached fiduciary responsibilities to him.

The Defendants filed a motion to dismiss some of the claims. By memorandum and order, dated May 26, 1998, we granted most of the motion. Count II, the section 1985(3) claim, count III, the contract claim, count IV, the claim against Defendant Waters for intentional interference with contract, and count VIII, the claim for breach of fiduciary duty, were dismissed in their entirety. In count I, the claim for punitive damages as against the School District and the individual Defendants in their official capacities was dismissed. Count V, the defamation claim, and count VII, the "invasion of privacy/false light" claim, were dismissed against the Defendant School Board and Defendant Waters.

As a result, the only claims left in the case were: (1) the claims in count I against the School District and the school board members for violations of the Plaintiff's first amendment rights and his rights to procedural and substantive due process; (2) the claim for defamation in count V; and (3) the claim for "invasion of privacy/false light" in count VII. The latter two claims were retained only against the school board members, thus leaving Defendant Waters out of the case entirely.

The Defendants' motion for summary judgment is directed at these remaining claims. We will evaluate the motion under the well established standard. See Davis v. Portline Transportes Maritime Internacional, 16 F.3d 532, 536 n. 3 (3d Cir. 1994). That standard allows summary judgment if the "pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). Issues of fact are "`genuine' only if a reasonable jury, considering the evidence presented, could find for the non-moving party." Childers v. Joseph, 842 F.2d 689, 693-94 (3d Cir. 1988) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986)).

With this standard in mind, we set forth the summary-judgment background to this litigation, construed in the light most favorable to the Plaintiff.

III. Background.

Poteat began his employment with the School District on July 1, 1984, as principal of John Harris High School, a position he held through 1990. In 1988, he also became director of secondary education. From 1991 through 1995, he was assistant superintendent of the School District.

In June 1995, the Board promoted him to superintendent. On June 30, 1995, Poteat and the Board executed a written employment agreement (Defendant's exhibit A), to begin on July 1, 1995, and to run for five years. Under paragraph 21, the agreement is to be construed under Pennsylvania law.

The agreement contains the following provisions pertinent to this action. Paragraph 3 sets forth the superintendent's duties. Basically, he carries out Board policy and runs the daily operation of the School District subject to the oversight of the Board.

Paragraph 11, under the caption "Evaluation," requires the Board to evaluate Poteat once a year and submit a written report to him, including a specific description of any unsatisfactory performance. Poteat would then have a year to correct any deficiency, and if no "employment action" had been taken against Poteat, the evaluation and response would be removed from his personnel file, if placed there.

Paragraph 12, captioned "Suspension or Termination of Employment," provides, in pertinent part:

    (a) Subject to the terms herein, any suspension, or
  termination or job action against DR. POTEAT shall be
  with pay and benefits until the final appellate court
  of competent jurisdiction shall have made a final
  decision, i.e., until all appeals have been exhausted
  or waived. Notwithstanding the preceding sentence,
  all pay and benefits shall only continue twenty-four
  months from the date of such suspension, termination
  or job action, but not to exceed the expiration of
  this employment agreement. The SCHOOL DISTRICT shall
  issue a written decision on the suspension,
  termination or job action within one hundred twenty
  days of the date of the job action.
    (b) Subject to Paragraph 11 hereinabove, DR.
  POTEAT's employment may only be suspended, terminated
  or other job action may be taken by the BOARD for
  breach of the duties set forth in Paragraph 3
  hereinabove, upon sixty (60) days notice in writing.
  In any job action, DR. POTEAT is entitled to any and
  all rights available under the Local Agency Law,

  The Public School Code of 1949, as amended; and has
  the right to appeal said job action to a court of
  competent jurisdiction and to the appellate courts,
  if necessary.

Paragraph 13, captioned "Settlement of Agreement," states as follows, in pertinent part:

  If at any time THE BOARD wishes to amicably dissolve
  this agreement, it may do so by compensating DR.
  POTEAT the lesser of (a) four times his annual salary
  in effect at the time the agreement is dissolved, or
  (b) the difference between five years and the number
  of years actually served by DR. POTEAT pursuant to
  this agreement to the date of such dissolution,
  multiplied by DR. POTEAT's annual salary in effect at
  the time the agreement is dissolved. Notwithstanding
  the preceding sentence, in the last year of this
  employment agreement, DR. POTEAT shall be entitled to
  two times his annual salary in effect at the time the
  employment agreement is dissolved. In either event,
  DR. POTEAT shall have a right to receive a lump sum
  payment which shall be due and payable the last day
  of actual work performed under this agreement or
  pursuant to a payment schedule in any other manner
  mutually agreed upon by THE BOARD and DR. POTEAT.

(Defendants' Exhibit A).

In December 1995, Defendants Gray, Haas, and Fields, recently elected, were new members of the Board. Together with Defendants Jackson and Lester, they formed at times a five-person majority on the nine-member Board. According to the Plaintiff the new members of the Board were hostile to him.

Beginning in 1996, disagreements arose between Poteat and the Defendant board members. In both 1996 and 1997, Poteat disagreed with the budget committee, consisting of Defendants Gray, Haas, and Fields, about certain cuts the latter wanted to make in the school district budget for the fiscal years 1996-97 and 1997-98. The cuts would have allowed the furloughing of teachers and administrative staff. The cuts in 1997-98 were about $800,000. Poteat had also objected to cuts in the K-4, K-5 and the Arts Magnet School.

The Plaintiff believed that the cuts violated the School Code because, in his view, they were being implemented to save money rather than because they were directed at ineffectual educational programs. He thought that educational programs should not be jeopardized and that teacher contracts should not be broken solely for economic reasons. He expressed his views orally and in writing. Citing 24 P.S. § 11-1124, Waters, the board solicitor, responded that the School Code allowed employees to be suspended for certain reasons and that teachers who felt aggrieved had the right to challenge their suspensions.

Defendant Fields testified that the cuts had been made because Poteat had initially indicated that the affected programs were not effective educationally, although the Plaintiff later backtracked from this position. Fields was upset by this midstream change.

Poteat yielded to the pressure to make the cuts. As a result, the teachers' union filed a grievance for the fiscal year 1996-97. The Board settled the grievance for $100,000 when Poteat told the Board attorney shortly before a hearing that he would have to testify that the cuts were made solely for an improper economic motive. In April 1997, when Poteat made his objection to the cuts for the fiscal year 1997-98, the discussion became "heated" but Plaintiff "stood his ground."

Defendants Haas, Fields and Gray never met with the Plaintiff to discuss any goals or objectives to be achieved by him. Plaintiff attributed this to hostility toward him. Defendant Haas attributed this to an inability of the Board itself to agree on goals, although he admitted that he had concerns about Poteat's ability to perform as superintendent. Haas believed he could not do the job entirely by himself. In fact, Haas and other board members suggested to Poteat that he hire an assistant. Defendant Gray even recommended that Poteat hire her sister. Haas was aware of a Cooper & Lybrand report rejecting the idea of an assistant, but nonetheless made the recommendation.

Although individual board members recognized that the Plaintiff was contractually entitled to an annual written evaluation, they never evaluated the Plaintiff and did not advise him of deficiencies in his performance.

In June 1997, rumors surfaced about a grade-changing scandal in the District. Supposedly, grades were being changed so that students who did not qualify for graduation could graduate from high school, and that the Plaintiff either knew about it or ordered it. The Plaintiff conducted his own one-week investigation and concluded that less than 10 students had been allowed to graduate without meeting grade requirements. He recounted this at a regular meeting of the School Board held on June 19, 1997. He also reported that he had not been involved in changing grades.

At the same meeting, with the Defendant board members making up the majority, the Board decided to conduct its own investigation. Defendant Gray, the board president, made comments from a prepared statement. In pertinent part, the third paragraph of the statement said that Poteat should be on leave while the investigation was going on and that "[n]o decisions or determinations have been made by the School Board whether the allegations have merit, or whether Dr. Poteat has engaged in any improper conduct and no one should interpret my recommendation as an indication that any decisions about the allegations have been made." (Defendants' exhibit D) (brackets added). The Board did not vote to suspend Poteat.

Dr. Poteat also read from a prepared statement, publicly addressing why students in the District were consistently below national averages and were performing poorly in the classroom. His solution to these problems was that the students' parents and the community must get more involved and hold everyone accountable, specifically mentioning administrators and teachers. He made no mention of the Board, any member of the Board, or any board policy. (Attachment to Defendants' exhibit E).

The Board hired Michael Levin, an attorney experienced in school law, to conduct the investigation. On June 27, 1997, Levin wrote a letter to the Board indicating he understood his assignment to be an investigation of the grade-changing matter but that he would report on any other improper conduct he noted in the course of that investigation. (Defendants' exhibit K). Levin interviewed the Plaintiff, members of the School Board, teachers and administrators in the District, and members of the public. In August 1997, Poteat's attorney was notified that Levin was representing the Board in negotiations over the potential termination of Poteat's employment agreement.

On September 24, 1997, some three months after he had been retained, Levin submitted a 12-page report to the Board, which the Board made public. In pertinent part, the report contained the following statements. In the introduction, ...


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