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James Mahon, Iv v. Lake Lehman School District

August 29, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: James M. Munley United States District Court

(Judge Munley)


Before the court is the defendants' motion for summary judgment. (Doc. 27). Having been briefed, the motion is ripe for disposition.


This is a civil rights action originally brought by Plaintiff James Mahon, IV ("Mahon, IV") and his father James Mahon, III ("Mahon, III"). Mahon, IV is a former member and president of the Lake Lehman School Board. (Defs.' Statement of Material Facts ("SMF") ¶ 1 (Doc. 29)). Mahon, IV had been on the board from December of 2001 to December of 2005. (Mahon, IV Dep. (Doc. 33-2 at 20)). Mahon, IV served as president from December 2003 through November 2005. (Mahon, IV Decl. ¶ 2 (Doc. 33-5)). Mahon, III is a former assistant girls' basketball coach for Lake Lehman High School. (SMF ¶ 2). Mahon, III had been an assistant coach for four or five years, earning approximately $4,000.00 per season. (Doc. 33-2 at 15; Moderno Rossi Dep. (Doc. 33-10 at 9)).

Defendants Charles Balavage ("Balavage"), Mark Kornoski ("Kornoski"), Harold Grey ("Grey") and John Oliver, III ("Oliver") were members of the Lake Lehman School Board. (Compl. ¶¶ 10-14). They will be referred to collectively as the Board Member Defendants.

As a board member and president, Mahon, IV had been very involved in brokering a contract between Defendant Lake Lehman School District ("the District") and the teachers' union in 2002. (Mahon, IV Dep. (Doc. 33-3 at 3). That agreement expired on August 31, 2006. (Doc. 33-2 at 24-25). In early 2007, Superintendent James McGovern ("McGovern" or "the superintendent") and the teachers' union representatives, Phillip Lipski and Danny Williams, approached Mahon, IV and asked him to speak with the current school board members about the teachers' demands. (Doc. 33-2 at 24, 29). At this point, Mahon, IV was a private citizen and not a member of the board. (Doc. 33-2 at 26).

McGovern had called Mahon, IV and indicated that the parties ought to reach a deal, but that he needed help getting a fifth vote from the nine-member school board. (Doc. 33-2 at 27). Mahon, IV, in turn, called board members Bob Perrone ("Perrone"), Lois Kopcha ("Kopcha"), Harold Cornell ("Cornell"), Jim Welby ("Welby"), and Drew Salko ("Salko"). (Doc. 33-2 at 29). Everyone with whom Mahon, IV spoke supported the agreement but none wanted to be the deciding fifth vote publicly. (Doc. 33-2 at 30). Mahon, IV did not speak to Balavage, Kornoski, Grey, or Oliver. (Doc. 33-2 at 30-31). Mahon, IV considered Balavage and Kornoski as staunch opponents of the teachers' union. (Doc. 33-2 at 25).

Apparently, in 2006, though Mahon, IV was not a board member, he had agreed with Kornoski and Balavage to convince Kopcha to be the fifth vote for football coach Carl Kern and, in return, Mahon, III would be hired as the assistant basketball coach in 2006. (Doc. 33-2 at 32-33).

Sometime around May of 2007, Mahon, IV heard from Kornoski and Rossi that the board was not happy about Mahon, IV's involvement in the negotiations of the teachers' contract. (Doc. 33-3 at 10). Mahon, IV indicates that Rossi communicated an initial message to stay out of school board business, on behalf of Kornoski, Balavage, Oliver, Grey, and later from Cornell also. (Doc. 33-2 at 31-32). Rossi expressly told Mahon, IV that he was delivering a message from board members Cornell, Oliver, Balavage, Kornoski, and Grey. (Doc. 33-2 at 33-34).

Upon hearing this, Mahon, IV called Cornell in May 2007 to make sure that Cornell was not waivering in his support of Mahon, III's assistant coach position. (Doc. 33-3 at 10). Cornell indicated to Mahon, IV over the phone that he would vote for Mahon, III if Mahon, IV kept out of school business. (Doc. 33-3 at 9-10). Cornell denies coming to such an agreement. (Cornell Dep. (Doc. 33-11 at 15)). Cornell was to be the deciding fifth vote in favor of the union contract. (Doc. 33-3 at 8).

According to Mahon, IV, Kornoski-- like Cornell-- told him that if he did not back off on the teachers' union issues then Mahon, III would not be re-hired as assistant basketball coach. (Mahon, IV Dep. (Doc. 33-3 at 6)). Korsnoski's call was also around May of 2007. (Doc. 33-3 at 7).

Rossi denies conveying such a message on behalf of the board. (Rossi Dep. (Doc. 33-10 at 6)). Rossi recalls Mahon, IV telling him that he was afraid Mahon, III would not be hired back to coach. Rossi asked Kornoski, with whom he worked, why Mahon, III was not going to be re-hired. Kornoski told Rossi that there weren't enough girls on the team and Rossi "told [Kornoski] to let [Mahon, III] alone." (Rossi Dep. (Doc. 33-10 at 4-5)).

In June of 2007 the school board and superintendent walked away from a tentative agreement with the union, prompting Mahon, IV to speak with Mark Guydish of the Times Leader newspaper. (Doc. 33-3 at 17). Mahon, IV indicated that a majority of board members favored the agreement, but no board member wanted to be the deciding fifth vote. (Doc. 33-3) Mahon, IV also told Guydish that the contract made financial sense for the District and that the school superintendent was bowing to pressure from the board. (Doc. 33-3).

Sometime before November 2007, Mahon, IV also appeared on the Sue Henry radio show on WILK in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. (Doc. 33-3 at 17-18). Mahon, IV discussed why the contract was a good idea for the District, explaining that the union's demand to pay healthcare co-pays at the point of service made more financial sense than taking the amount from the teachers' paychecks. (Doc. 33-3 at 30-32). Mahon, IV criticized the school board for exposing the students to uncertainty and accused the board of not having the "guts" to do the right thing. (Doc. 33-3 at 30-31). Mahon, IV indicated that Kornoski and Balavage were blocking the agreement. (Id.)

Oliver denies hearing Mahon, IV on the radio. (Oliver Dep. (Doc. 33-12 at 6)). Oliver also denies seeing any online comments by Mahon, IV. (Oliver Dep. (Doc. 33-12 at 8)). Cornell denies knowing that Mahon, IV spoke on the radio or made comments online. (Cornell Dep. (Doc. 33-11 at 16-17)). Grey denies knowing of any comments by Mahon, IV on the radio. (Grey Dep. (Doc. 33-6 at 11)). Rossi denies knowing of any radio, television, or newspaper comments by Mahon, IV. (Rossi Dep. (Doc. 33-10 at 4)). Superintendent McGovern heard about Mahon, IV's public comments second-hand. (McGovern Dep. (Doc. 33-7 at 3)). Salko had also heard about the radio comments second-hand. (Salko Dep. (Doc. 33-8 at 5)).

According to Mahon, IV, immediately after Mahon, IV's appearance on the radio program, Oliver, Kornoski, Balavage, and Cornell tried to have his daughters' all-american athletic photo removed from the wall at the high school, but the superintendent stopped him. (Doc. 33-4 at 8; McGovern Dep. (Doc. 33-7 at 8-9)). Mahon, IV heard about this from Welby, Salko, Kocha, and Superintendent McGovern. (Doc. 33-4 at 8). According to McGovern, Balavage and Kornoski wanted a policy where only photos depicting athletes in Lake Lehman uniforms could be displayed, but McGovern objected because certain athletes did not have any photos in their high school uniforms. ((McGovern Dep. (Doc. 33-7 at 9)). Thus, some athletes-- those who only had collegiate photographs-- would no longer be represented.

According to Mahon, IV, at one point Cornell made Athletic Director Tom Rokita remove Mahon, IV from the bench area at a field hockey game. (Doc. 33-4 at 12-14). Cornell specifically denies this assertion. (Cornell Dep. (Doc. 33-11 at 9, 21)).

On October 12, 2007 Mahon, IV saw a cardiologist for an emergency evaluation due to stress. (Doc. 33-3 at 28; Doc. 33-4 at 1-2). Mahon, IV was having chest pain and his wife, a cardiac nurse, thought he might be having a heart attack. (Doc. 33-4 at 1-3). Mahon, IV attributes his medical complications to the stress of the union negotiations and the threat against his father's job. (Doc. 33-4 at 4-5). Mahon, IV did not tell Mahon, III about the board's threat to the assistant basketball coach position. (Doc. 33-3 at 28).

Mahon, III's assistant basketball coach position was on the school board's agenda for its meeting on or about November 7, 2007. The practice in the School District had been that varsity coaches chose their assistants, and that these choices were approved unless there was a problem with the choice. (Doc. 33-2 at 17). Head Women's Basketball Coach James Spencer had chosen Mahon, III as his assistant. (Doc. 33-2 at 17; Doc. 33-3 at 21-22).

McGovern confirms that head coaches recommend a specific assistant coach to the athletic director, human resources department, and superintendent for administrative approval. (McGovern Dep. (Doc. 33-7 at 4)). The prospective assistant coach is then placed on the school board agenda for a vote. McGovern generally assumes that anyone recommended by a head coach and approved by the athletic director, human resources department, and superintendent and placed on the agenda will be approved. (McGovern Dep. (Doc. 33-7 at 4-5)).

The school board met in executive session the week before the November 7, 2007 vote on the assistant basketball coach position. (Doc. 33-3 at 27). Mahon, IV was told by Welby and Salko that, during executive session, Oliver had said "if Mahon[, IV] won't shut his mouth, let's teach him a lesson and we won't hire his father." (Doc. 33-3 at 26, 27). According to Mahon, IV, Welby indicated that Balavage, Kornoski, Grey, Cornell, and Oliver all agreed on this course of action. (Doc. 33-3 at 26).

Salko remembers other board members being upset that Mahon, IV was commenting on the contract negotiations and that, during the executive session, comments were made that Mahon, III should not be hired, in return. (Salko Dep. (Doc. 33-8 at 4)). According to Salko, during executive session, a board member had said that Mahon, IV had been "running his mouth, commenting . . . and making contract negotiations more difficult" and that "Oliver said . . . this is our chance to either shut him up or get him back or send him a message, something to that effect." (Salko Dep. (Doc. 33-8 at 6)). Salko specifically recalls Oliver suggesting retribution. (Salko Dep. (Doc. 33-8 at 5)).

Welby does not remember the exact language used, but heard Oliver say "something to the effect of 'we'll get rid of the old man and that will really aggravate the heck out of [Mahon, IV].'" (Welby Dep. (Doc. 33-9 at 4, 6)). Welby indicates that Kornoski, Grey, Cornell, Balavage, and Oliver wanted to get back at Mahon, IV for supporting the ...

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