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Schwoebel v. Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh

December 6, 2007


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Terrence F. McVerry United States District Court Judge


Pending before the Court is Defendants' MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (Document No. 24). The parties have thoroughly briefed the issues (Document Nos. 25, 31, 34) and set forth their positions regarding the statement of material facts (Document Nos. 26, 30, 33). The motion is ripe for disposition.


This litigation involves the decision by St. Mary of the Assumption School ("St. Mary's"), a parochial school, to terminate the contract of Plaintiff James Schwoebel, who began teaching at St. Mary's in 1989. Schwoebel's employment was governed by an annual written contract which identified St. Mary of the Assumption as the "sole and exclusive Employer."*fn1

The teacher Handbook states that teachers will be notified in writing by April 1 if their contract is not being renewed. After tenure is acquired, a teacher's contract must be renewed unless a teacher is terminated for misconduct. Ultimate decision-making authority for hiring and terminating teachers rests with the pastor of the parish, in this case, Father John McCloskey.

During Plaintiff's employment, St. Mary's received numerous complaint letters from parents regarding various aspects of Schwoebel's performance, including calling students names, poor organization, unfair punishment, and confusing homework assignment practices. (Compiled in Exhibit D). Several parents informed St. Mary's that they were withdrawing, or considering withdrawing, their children from the school because Plaintiff would be their teacher. Seven complaint letters were received in 1996. Three complaint letters were received in 2002. At the end of the 2001-2002 school year, Schwoebel was informed that his contract was not going to be renewed for the 2002-2003 school year. However, in August, the school called him back.

In the April 2004 meeting of the St. Mary's School Advisory Council, as related in a letter dated August 18, 2004 from Darlene Scopel (the former principal) to Sister Mary Jo Mutschler, Department of Catholic Schools, "the parents were adamant about firing Mr. Schwoebel." However, Scopel held follow-up conferences with most of the families and Schwoebel was retained and put on a performance improvement plan.

More complaints were received during the 2004-2005 school year. On December 10, 2004, a parent complained that Schwoebel was making fun of and embarrassing their son in science class. In February 2005, another family met with Schwoebel and Principal Adrienne Ofcharsky to discuss an issue in which the child was punished by not being permitted to use the bathroom and to complain that Schwoebel was not signing the child's homework book daily, as agreed.*fn2 The 2004-2005 Performance Appraisal rated Schwoebel as "Needs Improvement" in all of the following categories: Reflects Gospel values in speech and actions; Supports Diocesan and School policies; Is punctual in attendance and meeting professional obligations; Uses professional judgment in relationships with students, parents and other personnel; and Respects the dignity of every student through the use of proper language and voice control. There are handwritten comments on the evaluation citing specific objectionable conduct in these categories. The attached Teacher Documentation Form also cited Neglect of Duty, based on the issues described in the April 11, 2005 complaint letter.

On March 31, 2005, Ofcharsky and Father McCloskey sent Schwoebel written Notice that St. Mary's would not renew his contract for the 2005-2006 school year, pursuant to section 3.7 of the Handbook. The Notice stated that documentation for the decision would be provided at a future time. Schwoebel acknowledged receipt of this Notice on April 1, 2005.

On April 3, 2005, another parent wrote to explain why her sons transferred from St. Mary's to public school. The primary reasons did not involve Schwoebel but the parent explained, as an underlying reason, that Schwoebel had sexually fondled her thirty-five years earlier, when she was twelve years old.*fn3 Between April 6, 2005 and April 11, 2005, the school staff submitted five letters to document several incidents in which Schwoebel complained about his lack of health insurance coverage in a disrespectful or inappropriate manner. (Compiled in Exhibit E).

On April 25, 2005, Father McCloskey sent Schwoebel a follow-up letter, informing him that he was being placed on "ADMINISTRATIVE LEAVE WITH PAY, effective immediately." His status was deemed "termination pending" and his pay for the remainder of the 2004-2005 school year consisted of salary only. McCloskey stated that the reason for these actions was "a sustained and persistent pattern of misconduct by you as a teacher."

The next day, April 26, 2005, McCloskey sent a letter to parents. Because Plaintiff contends that the letter is defamatory, it is quoted in full:

Dear St. Mary's School Parent:

You may be aware that there have been some rumors concerning the continued employment of one of our teachers, Mr. James Schwoebel. I am writing to tell you that Mr. Schwoebel is no longer a teacher at St. Mary's, effective April 25th. Arrangements have been made to cover his classes so that the children's education will continue as usual.

One of the most difficult things about being a pastor and priest is that there are times when I cannot speak about a matter because of the need for confidentiality. Regretfully, this is one of those occasions. I am sure that others may be tempted to say all sorts of things, either things they believe they know, or things they speculate about. ...

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