37 F.3d 731 (1st Cir. 1994), 94-1375, Gibson v. City of Cranston

Docket Nº:94-1375.
Citation:37 F.3d 731
Party Name:Diane GIBSON, Plaintiff, Appellant, v. CITY OF CRANSTON, et al., Defendants, Appellees.
Case Date:October 03, 1994
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the First Circuit
 
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37 F.3d 731 (1st Cir. 1994)

Diane GIBSON, Plaintiff, Appellant,

v.

CITY OF CRANSTON, et al., Defendants, Appellees.

No. 94-1375.

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

October 3, 1994

Heard Sept. 7, 1994.

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Lauren E. Jones, with whom Jones Associates, Providence, RI, Daniel V. McKinnon, and McKinnon & Harwood, Pawtucket, RI, were on brief, for appellant.

William F. Holt, Asst. City Sol., Cranston, RI, for appellees.

Before SELYA, Circuit Judge, ALDRICH, Senior Circuit Judge, and BOUDIN, Circuit Judge.

SELYA, Circuit Judge.

This appeal arises out of Dr. Diane Gibson's short and stormy stay as superintendent of schools in Cranston, Rhode Island. It stands as a vivid illustration that some of life's most instructive lessons are learned in the classroom of adversity. After educating ourselves about the facts of the case, the applicable law, and the proceedings below, we conclude that the district court correctly refused to give the plaintiff's case a passing grade.

I. BACKGROUND

Because the trial court took this case from the jury and terminated it by means of an instructed verdict, we summarize the facts adduced below in the light most congenial to appellant's claims.

In early 1989, while serving as Assistant Superintendent of Schools in Waterloo, Iowa, plaintiff-appellant Diane Gibson applied for a job as school superintendent in Cranston. The school committee (the Committee) interviewed her twice (once publicly and once privately) and eventually offered her the post. On August 21, 1989, she met in Rhode Island with members of the Committee concerning her employment contract (the Contract). The parties signed it the next day.

The Contract contained 11 sections, counting the preamble, spread over eight pages. It specified a term that ran from October 1, 1989 to June 30, 1992. The Contract contained various clauses related to professional growth, compensation, contract renewal, salary adjustments, termination for cause, and resignation. It also provided for such miscellaneous items as certification, annual medical examinations, and disability protection. Article III described the superintendent's duties, stating that she

shall be the chief administrator and agent of the Cranston schools and have charge of the administration of the schools under the direction of the Committee. In this capacity she shall implement, among other things, all policies approved by the Committee, provide for efficient administration of the system and provide for the performance evaluation of all administrators, teachers, and quality of the education provided.

The same article stated that the parties' "respective rights and responsibilities ... shall be as specified in Chapter 2 of Title 16 of the [Rhode Island General Laws]."

Article VI of the Contract has particular pertinence in this litigation. By its terms, the article obligated the Committee to assess in writing the Superintendent's overall performance at least annually. The format and procedure for the evaluation were to be decided upon by the parties no later than 60 days after the Contract's effective date. Once an evaluation emerged, the Committee and the Superintendent were to meet for discussion of it; specifically, the Contract indicated that a meeting dedicated to this purpose would be held between February 15 and March 15 of each contract year. The evaluation was to be used in determining "if the Superintendents's Contract is renewed/not renewed." To this end, Article VI also contained a non-exclusive list of factors to be considered in the evaluation process and required that the end product describe in reasonable detail "specific instances of strengths and commendations as well as specific

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instances of any unsatisfactory performance."

At the end of the first 60 days of her reign, Dr. Gibson had not heard from the Committee regarding the evaluation process. She brought the matter to the attention of Stephen Dambruch, the Committee's chairman. Dambruch suggested that appellant develop and disseminate a proposed evaluation form. On December 4, 1989, appellant complied. On March 1, 1990, Dambruch notified the Committee that an evaluation was due between February 15 and March 15 of each year. Five of the nine Committee members responded on the form appellant had prepared. Two other members wrote letters commenting upon appellant's performance. Two Committee members kept their own counsel. In any event, the Committee never composed a unified performance evaluation.

This lollygagging took place during a period of considerable turmoil. In January 1990 the Committee voted to restructure the public schools, only to reverse itself two months later. 1 Spurred in part by this dramatic about-face, appellant requested that the Committee provide her with a written statement of its goals. Although a meeting was held to discuss this request, the Committee never complied with it.

In March 1990 appellant became aware that the school system had improperly paid health benefits on behalf of former employees. She brought this matter to the Committee's attention. Dambruch and his colleagues commissioned an ad hoc committee (the AHC) to mull the problem. The AHC sought to exclude appellant from its deliberations. To compound this contretemps, an assistant city solicitor wrote to Dambruch on June 8, 1990 suggesting that the AHC might be illegally infringing on the Superintendent's administrative prerogatives and might lack the legal authority necessary to arrange for an audit of the school system's records. Eventually, the Committee retained a certified public accountant. Although the accountant completed a study of the situation, the Committee never provided appellant either with the accountant's report or with any feedback regarding the accountant's recommendations.

Cranston held a municipal election in November of 1990. The electoral results significantly affected the Committee's composition. A member suggested that appellant's evaluation be completed before the newly elected members took office. The Committee scheduled a special meeting for this purpose, but appellant resigned before the meeting could be held. In her letter of resignation, dated December 28, 1990, appellant accused the Committee of violating the Contract by not providing a proper evaluation and statement of goals, and by infringing on the scope of her autonomy as superintendent.

All was serene for well over a year. On June 10, 1992, however, appellant, then a citizen and resident of North Carolina, sued for breach of contract in a Rhode Island state court. She claimed that the City of Cranston, acting through the Committee, disregarded duties owed under the contract, and she sought damages including the balance of her salary and benefits for the period from January 1, 1991 through June 30, 1992. 2 Noting the existence of diversity jurisdiction, 28 U.S.C. Sec. 1332 (1988), Cranston removed the case to federal district court, see 28 U.S.C. Sec. 1441 (1988).

In due course, Chief Judge Lagueux empaneled a jury and trial commenced. At the close of the appellant's case, Cranston moved for a judgment as a matter of law. 3 The district judge assumed arguendo that Cranston had not fulfilled its contractual commitments,

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but ruled that, even so, the evidence did not permit a rational jury to find a breach of sufficient materiality as to allow appellant to cease performance and recover damages for the balance of the unexpired term. This appeal followed. 4

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

When confronted with a motion for judgment as a matter of law, whether at the end of a plaintiff's case or at the close of all the evidence, a trial court must scrutinize the proof and the inferences reasonably to be drawn therefrom in the light most amiable to the nonmovant. See Rolon-Alvarado v. Municipality of San Juan, 1 F.3d 74, 76 (1st Cir.1993); Wagenmann v. Adams, 829 F.2d 196, 200 (1st Cir.1987). In the process, the court may not consider the credibility of witnesses, resolve conflicts in testimony, or evaluate the weight of evidence. See Wagenmann, 829 F.2d at 200. A judgment as a matter of law may be granted only if the evidence, viewed from the perspective most favorable to the nonmovant, is so one-sided that the movant is plainly entitled to judgment, for reasonable minds could not differ as to the outcome. See Rolon-Alvarado, 1 F.3d at 77.

Because granting a judgment as a matter of law depends upon the legal sufficiency of the evidence, appellate review is plenary. See Jordan-Milton Mach., Inc. v. F/V Teresa Marie, II, 978 F.2d 32, 34 (1st Cir.1992). It is incumbent upon the court of appeals to apply precisely the same criteria that constrain the trial court. See Rolon-Alvarado, 1 F.3d at 77. Moreover, the standard of review affords no place for any deference to the district court's view anent state-law questions. See Salve Regina Coll. v. Russell, 499 U.S. 225, 238, 111 S.Ct. 1217, 1224-25, 113 L.Ed.2d 190 (1991).

III. ANALYSIS

The substantive law of Rhode Island governs in this diversity case. Under Rhode Island law, a contracting party may cease performance and seek damages if the other contracting party commits a breach that is "material," see, e.g., Philip Carey Mfg. Co. v. General Prods. Co., 89 R.I. 136, 151 A.2d 487, 493 (1959), or that "goes to the essence of the contract," Aiello Constr., Inc. v. Nationwide Tractor Trailer Training & Placement Corp., 122 R.I. 861, 413 A.2d 85, 87 (1980). Some courts and commentators have cast the standard in terms of a "total" breach as opposed to a "partial" breach, with only the former justifying termination of a contract. See, e.g., Lovink v. Guilford Mills, Inc., 878 F.2d 584, 586-87 (2d...

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