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Monday, July 24, 2006

Ind. Decisions - 7th Circuit rules on West Lafayette school superintendent dispute

In Stella Batagiannis v. West Lafayette Community School Corp. (ND Ind., Judge Allen Sharp), an 8-page opinion, Judge Easterbrook writes:

West Lafayette, Indiana, hired Stella Batagiannis in 1999 as Superintendent of the school district. In 2002 the board of education (as we call the governing body) gave Batagiannis a new contract running until June 30, 2007. In May 2003, with more than four years to go on that deal, the board suspended Batagiannis (with pay) after losing confidence in her leadership. She responded with a suit in state court, maintaining that the suspension was a de facto discharge; the state court declined to enjoin the board’s proceedings or undo the suspension. After a hearing in April 2004 the board converted de facto to de jure and fired Batagiannis. This federal suit under 42 U.S.C. §1983 maintains that these steps violated Batagiannis’s rights under the due process clause of the fourteenth amendment; she also contends that the board unlawfully retaliated against her for filing the state-court suit.

The district court granted summary judgment for the defendants (the school board and its trustees) after concluding that the April 2004 hearing provided Batagiannis with all requisite process. Logically the initial question on appeal should be whether any process was due. * * * See Rutan v. Republican Party of Illinois, 497 U.S. 62, 74 (1990). We applied this principle recently to hold that assistant wardens in Illinois prisons may be hired and fired on political grounds. Riley v. Blagojevich, 425 F.3d 357 (7th Cir. 2005). Superintendents of education, who exercise greater discretion than assistant wardens, likewise may be hired and fired on the basis of speech implying support for, or opposition to, the elected officials’ programs. By filing suit against the board, Batagiannis made it clear that she and the elected officials were no longer operating as a team; the board was entitled to take that into consideration. Indeed, judges do the same in employment discrimination cases involving nonpolicymaking personnel. One common reason for denying reinstatement, and awarding front pay instead, is that the litigation has made a harmonious employment relation impossible. See, e.g., McKnight v. General Motors Corp., 973 F.2d 1366, 1370 (7th Cir. 1992). The board’s decision here—noting that the elected officials had lost confidence in Batagiannis in part because she had filed suit rather than working out differences in private—is in the same spirit.

What’s more, this particular claim of retaliation is incoherent on its own terms. Recall the foundation of the state suit: Batagiannis insisted that the suspension was a de facto discharge and demonstrated that the board already had decided to get rid of her. The formal decision in 2004 cannot be “retaliation” for the state suit when it just confirms something that, according to the litigation, preceded the suit’s commencement.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on July 24, 2006 01:31 PM
Posted to Ind. (7th Cir.) Decisions