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