Hamerski v. Belleville Area Special Servs. Coop.

Decision Date20 March 2018
Docket NumberCase No. 16–cv–796–DRH–DGW
CourtU.S. District Court — Southern District of Illinois

Larry A. Bagsby, Bagsby Law Firm, St. Charles, MO, for Plaintiff.

Shawn M. McLain, Guin, Martin, et al., Collinsville, IL, for Defendant.


HERNDON, District Judge:

I. Introduction

Now before the Court is defendant, Belleville Area Special Services Cooperative's (hereinafter "BASSC"), motion for summary judgment pursuant to FEDERAL RULE OF CIVIL PROCEDURE 56 (Doc. 34). Plaintiff Ruth Hamerski (hereinafter "Hamerski"), opposes the motion (Docs. 36). For the reasons explained below, the Court grants in part and denies in part BASSC's motion for summary judgment (Doc. 34).

II. Background

Plaintiff Hamerski began her employment with BASSC on July 1, 2007, as an administrator for instructional programs (Doc. 37–1). At that time, she had twenty-six years of experience as a teacher and special education department chair at Mt. Vernon High School. (Doc. 35–4, pg. 15–17). BASSC is a federally funded special educational cooperative that implements and enforces the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (hereinafter "IDEA"). (Doc. 15, ¶ 4). It provides special education services to children between elementary and high school levels that have qualified disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (hereinafter "ADA"), and whom are entitled to special education under the IDEA. (Id at ¶ 6). BASSC runs Pathways school, a K–12 school for emotional behavioral students (Doc. 35–3).

In 2008, Hamerski was assigned to be the interim principal of Pathways school following the resignation of the former principal in February of that year. (Doc. 15, ¶ 7). During her time as interim principal, she oversaw all BASSC instructional programs and implemented policies and procedures to ensure compliance with state and federal law (Doc. 35–4, pg. 27). Also, Hamerski alleges that she was forced to suspend a Pathways paraprofessional, Melissa Stines following a confrontation between them (Id. at 186). Ms. Stines was, and continues to be, married to Matt Stines, who at the time was allegedly "being groomed to become a superintendent at Grant Illini" school. (Doc. 15, ¶ 9). Hamerski states that these events were the basis of the 2015 investigation of her (Id. at 189).

In support of summary judgment, defendants offer the deposition testimony of Hamerski, Teresa Castello, Jeff Daugherty, Matthew Stines, Diane Warfield, Brent Whipple, Brian Arterberry, and Stephanie Cox (See Docs. 35–1 through 35–9).

In 2013, Hamerski announced that she intended to retire in 2017 or 2018. (Doc. 15, ¶ 10). Thereafter, on October 16, 2013, Hamerski and BASSC entered into a four year written contract that stated she could only be discharged "for just cause." (Doc. 15, ¶ 11). If dismissal were to occur, Hamerski would be entitled to written notice of the charges, notice of hearing, a full hearing to confront and cross-examine witnesses and evidence, and representation by legal counsel. (Id. ).

Between 2007 and January 2015, Hamerski received " ‘excellent’ in virtually every category" of her annual performance appraisals conducted by executive director Daugherty. (Doc. 15, ¶ 12). In 2015, however, Hamerski alleges that she would have "latent, unresolved issues in the mind of Matt Stines, and his wife, Melissa Stines." (Doc. 15, ¶ 13). The law firm Guin Mundorf, LLC was then hired to investigate Hamerski. (Doc. 15, ¶ 14). Hamerski was subsequently informed on March 13, 2015, by executive director Daugherty that she was to appear at the law office of Barney Mundorf on Monday, March 16, 2015, regarding the aforementioned investigation. (Doc. 15, ¶ 16).

At said meeting, Mr. Mundorf accused Hamerski of the following violations:

(1) "being negligent in her duties regarding training of teachers"; (2) "lying about eight (8) claimed work days in July, 2014"; (3) "her IDEA instructions on restraint and arrest of children from calendar year 2008 at Pathways"; and, (4) "whether she told a subordinate administrator to keep illegal, confiscated drugs in his desk." (Doc. 15, ¶ 17).

On March 18, 2015, Jeff Daugherty and Hamerski were then summoned to a full executive board meeting. (Doc. 15, ¶ 19). At that meeting, the findings of the investigation were presented, and the full board went into a closed session, but took no action regarding Mr. Daugherty or Hamerski's employment. (Doc. 15, ¶ 19). Following the meeting, Mr. Stines and Mr. Mundorf took Mr. Daugherty and Hamerski into a conference room. (Doc. 35–3, pg. 65–66). Hamerski alleges that Mr. Stines indicated that the most serious act of misconduct alleged against her was regarding student arrest (Doc. 35–4, pgs. 119;121). During the conversation Hamerski alleges that she was told that she had two options moving forward: (1) retire or (2) "be demoted with a substantial decrease in pay, and we may look at further action being dismissal". (Doc. 35–4, pg. 119). The following day, March 19, 2015, Hamerski received a written letter signed by Mr. Stines memorializing the two options and giving her four days to make a decision. (Doc. 15, ¶ 22).

Despite her stated intention to retire in 2017 or 2018, on March 19, 2015, Hamerski submitted a signed letter of resignation to the Executive Board and Governing Board members, with the intent to retire as of June 30, 2015 (Doc. 35–8). BASSC accepted her resignation (Doc. 35–9). Thereafter, on October 23, 2015, Hamerski filed a Charge of Discrimination against BASSC with the EEOC, specifically alleging retaliation in violation of Title VII (Doc. 15–3). On April 15, 2016, the EEOC issued a right to sue letter to Hamerski (Doc. 15–4). Subsequently, Hamerski filed the underlying lawsuit on July 14, 2016 (Doc. 1)

III. Motion for Summary Judgment

Summary judgment is proper when the pleadings, discovery, and disclosures establish that there is no genuine issue of material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Winsley v. Cook Cnty., 563 F.3d 598, 602–03 (7th Cir. 2009) ; Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a) ; see Celotex Corp. v. Catrett , 477 U.S. 317, 322–23, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). A genuine issue of material fact exists if "the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Pugh v. City of Attica, Indiana, 259 F.3d 619, 625 (7th Cir. 2001) ; Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc. , 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). The Court must view the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw all reasonable inferences in that party's favor, as well as resolve all factual disputes in favor of the non-moving party. Scott v. Harris , 550 U.S. 372, 127 S.Ct. 1769, 167 L.Ed.2d 686 (2007) ; Fischer v. Avanade, Inc. , 519 F.3d 393, 401 (7th Cir. 2008).

The party seeking summary judgment bears the initial burden of establishing the absence of factual issues and entitlement to judgment as a matter of law. Santaella v. Metro. Life Ins. Co. , 123 F.3d 456, 461 (7th Cir. 1997) (citing Celotex , 477 U.S. at 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548 ). In response, the non-moving party may not rest on bare pleadings alone, but instead must highlight specific material facts to show the existence of a genuine issue to be resolved at trial. Insolia v. Philip Morris Inc. , 216 F.3d 596, 598 (7th Cir. 2000). The Court will enter summary judgment against a party who does not "come forward with evidence that would reasonably permit the finder of fact to find in [its] favor on a material question." McGrath v. Gillis, 44 F.3d 567, 569 (7th Cir. 1995).

IV. Analysis

Hamerski's five count first amended complaint alleges as follows: (1) a violation of plaintiff's property interest in employment by virtue of her written contract under the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution; (2) a violation of plaintiff's due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution for not affording a "name-clearing" hearing; (3) a violation of plaintiff's liberty interest under the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution for accusing her of "illegal acts, incompetence, and unfitness in her profession"; (4) a violation of Titles I and II of the ADA for retaliating against plaintiff after she advocated for the students protected under that statute and the IDEA; and, (5) a breach of plaintiff's employment contract. (Doc. 15, ¶ 25). In BASSC's motion for summary judgment, BASSC seeks judgment as a matter of law on all five counts (Doc. 35). Each count shall be analyzed in turn.

a. Count I: Violation of Fourteenth Amendment Property Rights

Hamerski alleges that she possessed a property interest in her continuing employment with BASSC by virtue of a written contract extending through June 2017, and containing a "for cause" provision relevant to dismissal (Doc. 15, ¶ 26). Hamerski argues that BASSC violated her property interest when she was constructively discharged without due process, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Fourteenth Amendment procedural protection of property is a "safeguard of the security of interests that a person has already acquired in specific benefits. These interests… may take many forms." Board of Regents v. Roth , 408 U.S. 564, 576, 92 S.Ct. 2701, 33 L.Ed.2d 548 (1972). The Supreme Court has held that dismissals during the term of a contract create interests in continued employment that are safeguarded by due process. Id. at 576–77, 92 S.Ct. 2701 (citing Slochower v. Board of Education , 350 U.S. 551, 559, 76 S.Ct. 637, 100 L.Ed. 692 (1956) ; Wieman v. Updegraff , 344 U.S. 183, 73 S.Ct. 215, 97 L.Ed. 216 (1952) ). Individuals claiming these interests must have "a legitimate claim of entitlement to it," rather than an "abstract need or desire for it... [or] a unilateral expectation of it." Id. ; See also Cole v. Milwaukee Area Technical College Dist. , 634 F.3d 901, 904 (...

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