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DEHOFF v. LITTLESTOWN AREA SCHOOL DISTRICT

November 8, 2005.

ELEANOR DEHOFF, Plaintiff
v.
LITTLESTOWN AREA SCHOOL DISTRICT and DR. ROBERT McCONAGHY, Defendants.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: YVETTE KANE, District Judge

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

This matter was tried to the Court on October 18, 2005. Following the conclusion of Plaintiff's presentation of her case, Defendants orally moved the Court for judgment as a matter of law. For the reasons explained below, the Court finds that Plaintiff has failed to establish that the Littlestown Area School District maintained or continues to maintain an unconstitutional "chain-of-command" policy. Accordingly, Defendants' motion for judgment as a matter of law will be granted.

I. INTRODUCTION

  Plaintiff Eleanor Dehoff commenced this action on October 24, 2003, alleging that the Littlestown Area School District ("LASD") enacted or enforced an unconstitutional "chain-of-command" policy that violated her free speech and due process rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. Plaintiff alleged that as an individual member of the Littlestown Area School District ("LASD") board of directors she was prohibited by this policy from interviewing LASD employees about school-related business without first obtaining the permission of either the school board or the LASD superintendent.

  On October 28, 2003, the Court denied Plaintiff's motion for a temporary restraining order for failure of Plaintiff to establish likelihood of success on the merits. The Court held an evidentiary hearing on Plaintiff's motion for a preliminary injunction on November 26, 2003. Based on the testimony and documentary evidence presented at the hearing, and upon consideration of the briefs filed by Plaintiff and Defendants, the Court found that Plaintiff had failed to demonstrate that she was likely to succeed on her claims, and denied Plaintiff's request for preliminary injunctive relief. Notably, while Plaintiff's motion for a preliminary injunction was pending, Plaintiff's term on the LASD school board expired and Plaintiff was not reelected. As a result, Plaintiff amended her original complaint to assert that the LASD's alleged chain-of-command policy violated her rights as a taxpayer living within the LASD. Immediately before trial, Plaintiff abandoned her claim that her rights as a school board member were violated by the alleged policy and filed a stipulation to that effect. (Doc. No. 93.)

  On October 18, 2005, the Court held a nonjury trial. During trial, Plaintiff offered testimony from four witnesses: (1) Dr. Robert McConaghy, Superintendent of the LASD; (2) Plaintiff; (3) Brian Shirk, a former employee with the LASD; and (4) Eileen Bentzen, an LASD employee in charge of food services. Additionally, Plaintiff offered into evidence correspondence between Plaintiff and various members of the LASD school board which was exchanged during Plaintiff's tenure as a board member. Plaintiff also offered two sets of correspondence between herself and Mr. Shirk and Ms. Bentzen, both of which were exchanged while Plaintiff was a member of the school board. Additionally, Plaintiff offered into evidence a very brief excerpt of the testimony of Dr. Robert McConaghy at the hearing on Plaintiff's motion for a preliminary injunction. At the conclusion of the evidence, Defendants' moved for judgment as a matter of law, arguing that the evidence of record was legally insufficient to allow Plaintiff to prevail on her claims. In denying Plaintiff's motion for a preliminary injunction, the Court found that Plaintiff could prevail on her First Amendment claim only by demonstrating that an official LASD policy had the effect of chilling the speech of LASD employees who were willing speak with Plaintiff regarding matters of public concern.*fn1 Defendants argue that judgment as a matter of law is proper because the evidence presented at trial fails even to establish the existence of an unwritten chain-of-command policy employed by the LASD. The Court took the matter under advisement. For the following reasons, Defendants' motion for judgment as a matter of law will be granted.

  II. DISCUSSION

  Although Defendants moved orally for a "directed verdict," the Court finds that because this matter was tried to the Court without a jury, Defendants' motion is more properly considered as being brought pursuant to Rule 52(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.*fn2 Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52(c) provides as follows:
If during a trial without a jury a party has been fully heard on an issue and the court finds against the party on that issue, the court may enter judgment as a matter of law against that party with respect to a claim or defense that cannot under the controlling law be maintained or defeated without a favorable finding on that issue, or the court may decline to render any judgment until the close of all the evidence.
Fed.R.Civ.P. 52(c). In this case, Plaintiff presented all of the evidence she elected to introduce in support of her claims and rested her case. Plaintiff's claims are entirely predicated on her threshold allegation that the LASD employs an unwritten, unconstitutional "chain-of-command" policy that restricts the right of employees and members of the public to speak about matters of public concern unless first obtaining clearance from Dr. McConaghy. Accordingly, pursuant to Rule 52(c), to the extent Plaintiff has failed to establish that the LASD actually employed or continues to employ an unconstitutional chain-of-command policy, the Court must enter judgment as a matter of law against Plaintiff with respect to all of her claims, because they are necessarily dependent on this Court finding that the LASD employed an unconstitutional chain-of-command policy in the first instance. Because the Court finds Plaintiff failed to present sufficient evidence to prove that the LASD employed or employs such a policy relating to taxpayers and other members of the public, Plaintiff cannot prevail on her claims and Defendants are entitled to judgment in their favor.*fn3 In reaching this conclusion, the Court has carefully considered all of the evidence Plaintiff presented at trial, a summary of which is set forth below.
  Dr. McConaghy testified that he has been superintendent of the LASD since August 1996. (R. 16.) As superintendent, Dr. McConaghy does not set LASD policy, but rather interprets, implements, and administers such policy. (Id. at 16-17.) Plaintiff questioned Dr. McConaghy about LASD "Policy 801," which according to Dr. McConaghy establishes the procedure for obtaining written documents from the school district. (Id. at 17.) Dr. McConaghy acknowledged his testimony given on November 26, 2003, when he testified that it was his interpretation at that time that Policy 801 also applied to requests for interviews made to LASD employees. (Id. at 18.) Dr. McConaghy also testified that at one time he instructed LASD office staff that they could refer requests for interviews to him if the employee was uncomfortable with the request. (Id. at 19-20.) This instruction was communicated only to district office staff, and was not directed to any teachers or administrative staff other than those who worked within the administrative building. (Id. at 32.) Dr. McConaghy also acknowledged his conflicting testimony from November 26, 2003 where he indicated both that "it would be [the employee's] decision" whether to inform him if they were asked for an interview or meeting, and also that "they would need to, if it was a request for information or interview." (Id. at 21-22.) Dr. McConaghy indicated that his prior testimony was somewhat limited and should have been elaborated. (Id. at 23.) Dr. McConaghy testified that his incorrect interpretation of Policy 801 as applying to requests for interviews or meetings with LASD employees was, in part, informed by the atmosphere existing in the LASD at the time, particularly with respect to Plaintiff and her frequent demands for documents and other information that were disruptive of school business:
This is when Ms. Dehoff was harassing district employees and disrupting the organization and the activities. Those people in the office were very upset with the harassment and the constant barrage of requests and I was trying to give them an option for managing the time, the place, and the manner in which Ms. Dehoff could meet. There were literally hundreds of meetings going on throughout the district at the same time, none of which came to me for approval, nor would I want them to. Teachers were meeting with teachers, parents were meeting with teachers, parents were meeting with administrators. None of those meetings required approval from the superintendent.
(Id. at 25-26.) Dr. McConaghy also testified that although he erroneously interpreted Policy 801 as applying to requests for interviews or meetings to discuss official LASD business, he did not actually apply the policy to require pre-clearance of LASD employee meetings or speech. (Id. at 30.)

  Dr. McConaghy further testified that he issued an official memorandum to all LASD employees advising them that the LASD school board had officially censured Plaintiff for her persistent and repeated violations of the board's policy that individual board members refrain from contacting district staff with requests for official LASD information without first contacting Dr. McConaghy or obtaining the consent of the board itself. (Id. at 32-33.) In that memorandum Dr. McConaghy set forth a list of guidelines to advise LASD employees as to those topics that should be considered confidential and not disseminated without authorization, such as health and personnel records. (Id. at 32-33.) The memorandum issued to all LASD employees did not contain specific instructions or guidelines as to how LASD employees should act upon requests for interviews or oral information. (Id. at 33.)

  On cross-examination, Dr. McConaghy testified that he has never instructed any LASD teacher, employee, or member of the administrative staff to refrain from speaking with a member of the public or a school board member if such employee were willing to speak regarding school district business. (Id. at 34-35.) Dr. McConaghy testified further that he has never implemented a rule that required LASD employees to first clear with him a conversation they wanted to have with a member of the public or a school board member before having such conversation. (Id. at 35.)

  Plaintiff followed Dr. McConaghy as the second witness at trial. Plaintiff testified to her involvement within the Littlestown community, and her efforts to be involved in local politics and government. (Id. at 41-44.) Plaintiff served as a member of the LASD school board from November 1999 until December 2003, when she lost her bid for reelection. (Id. at 44-45.) Plaintiff testified that during her tenure on the school board, she would speak with LASD employees about various matters having to do with school business. (Id. at 46.) When asked to provide examples, Plaintiff indicated that in 1999 or 2000, when her son was a freshman at Littlestown High School, she learned that the school was not conducting fire drills. (Id. at 48.) After learning of this, Plaintiff approached the high school principal to inquire as to why the school was not conducting fire drills. (Id.) Shortly after this incident, Plaintiff testified that members of the LASD school board expressed concern that she was approaching LASD employees regarding school district business without first contacting Dr. McConaghy. (Id. at 50.) As another example, Plaintiff testified that she contacted a member of the school police after learning that he had attended a high school dance while carrying a gun. (Id. at 51-52.) Plaintiff testified that following her communications with this LASD employee, she received an email from John Warehime, President of the LASD school board, in which he admonished her as follows:
It has come to my attention, you are constantly failing to follow the direction set down by the board regarding contacting district staff for information. As you know, the board has stated on several occasions, board members should not directly contact district staff with requests for information, but funnel their request[s] through the superintendent. The board has stated direct contact with district staff is counter productive, sends mixed messages, blurs the lines of communication and is generally harmful to the efficient operation of the district.
(Id. at 53; Ex. P-26.) Plaintiff next introduced an email from Joe Bucher, another member of the LASD board, in which he criticized Plaintiff's continued efforts to solicit information from LASD staff without the consent of the board or without first approaching Dr. McConaghy. (Id. at 57; Ex. P-30.) In this message, Mr. Bucher advised Plaintiff that "Your position [as a board member] does not give you the authority to disrupt normal district employee's activities in order to meet your personal requirements for information. The request and directive is simple: All requests for info. should go thru the Superintendent's office." (Ex. P-30.)

  Although the foregoing evidence relates exclusively to Plaintiff's status as a board member, Plaintiff suggested that the testimony should in fact be interpreted as a restraint against her as both a school board member and a member of the public. In support of this theory, Plaintiff testified that John Warehime told her "many times" that "as a board member, [she] was no different than any member of the public." (R. 58.) Additionally, Plaintiff testified that Mr. Bucher's email to her did not explicitly articulate that the "directive" he identified applied only to school board members. (Id. at 59.) Apparently, this lack of specificity in Mr. Bucher's email confirmed Plaintiff's belief that her role as an elected member of the school board should not cause her to be subject to any special rules or protocol distinct from those applicable to the general public. (Id.)

  Although she lost her campaign for reelection to the school board in 2003, Plaintiff testified that she continues to ask for information, attend board meetings, request documents, and endeavors "to keep an understanding of what is happening in [the LASD]." (Id. at 61.) In fact, Plaintiff offered almost no evidence to support this claim, and the evidence that was offered was not probative of her claims regarding the existence or administration of an unconstitutional chain-of-command policy. Plaintiff testified that immediately prior to trial in this action, she placed two telephone calls to Joni Rudy, the LASD business manager, and to Eileen Bentzen, the LASD director of food services. (Id. at 61-62.) Plaintiff testified that she contacted these employees because she wished to convey information "that perhaps would benefit the district." (Id.) Ms. Rudy returned Plaintiff's call, but the parties have not yet met. (Id.) Plaintiff testified that she was able to reach Eileen Bentzen, who expressed discomfort speaking with her because of the impending trial in this case at which Ms. Bentzen was to testify pursuant to ...


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