Sheehan v. Town of North Smithfield, C.A. 02-1647

Decision Date02 February 2010
Docket NumberC.A. 02-1647
PartiesKEVIN M. SHEEHAN v. TOWN OF NORTH SMITHFIELD, by and through its Finance Director, RICHARD F. ERICKSON, et al.
CourtSuperior Court of Rhode Island

KEVIN M. SHEEHAN
v.

TOWN OF NORTH SMITHFIELD, by and through its Finance Director, RICHARD F. ERICKSON, et al.

C.A. No. 02-1647

Superior Court of Rhode Island

February 2, 2010


DECISION

GIBNEY, J.

Before this Court for decision is a contract dispute between Kevin M. Sheehan ("Sheehan" or "Plaintiff") and the Town of North Smithfield ("Town" or "Defendant"). Plaintiff Sheehan's nine-count civil action is based on a disagreement with the salary and benefit conditions of his former principalship at the North Smithfield Junior-Senior High School. Plaintiff brings claims for Breach of Contract (Counts I and III), Fraud (Count V), Negligent Misrepresentation (Count VI), Conspiracy (Count VII), and Aiding and Abetting (Count VIII).[1]As a remedy, Plaintiff requests compensatory damages, Promissory Estoppel (Count IV), and Punitive Damages (Count IX). This Court has jurisdiction pursuant to G.L. 1956 §§ 8-2-13 and 8-2-14[2] and renders its decision in accordance with Rhode Island Superior Court Rule of Civil Procedure 52.

I

Facts and Travel

Plaintiff began his teaching career in Warwick, Rhode Island in 1974. In 1989, he took his first administrative position as assistant principal of Narragansett Junior-Senior High School. After briefly serving in that capacity, Plaintiff returned to Warwick to serve as an assistant principal at Pilgrim High School. Thereafter, in September 1994, Plaintiff responded to an advertisement appearing in The Providence Journal, seeking applicants for the position of principal at North Smithfield Junior-Senior High School. (Ex. 2.) North Smithfield's advertisement stated that the salary range for the principalship was $60,000 to $68,000 for a 225 day work-year. Id.

A

Plaintiff's Application Process for the North Smithfield Principalship

As part of the application process, several individuals and committees within the North Smithfield School District interviewed Plaintiff. He first met with a search committee, which consisted of school administrators, teachers, students, and parents, and then appeared before the entire North Smithfield School Committee ("School Committee") and Superintendent John Moretti ("Moretti"). Moretti also interviewed Plaintiff privately. For his final meetings, Plaintiff conferenced with the North Smithfield Junior-Senior High School faculty and student leaders, and then met with Moretti again. School Committee member Jonathan Mundy ("Mundy") testified in his deposition that "[t]ypically what would happen at that point[, after a successful series of interviews, is] . . . [the School Committee] would charge the superintendent with contacting the candidate and indicating to the candidate that they were a choice." (Ex. 21 at 24.) Mundy stated that the superintendent does not negotiate a new principal's contract, but "would work with the candidate to see if they would be willing to accept the position based on the perimeters [sic] we[, the School Committee,] set forth." Id. at 25.

True to this procedure, Moretti telephoned Plaintiff in early October 1994 after their final meeting to offer him the North Smithfield principal position. According to Plaintiff's recollection, however, Moretti did not just discuss the parameters of salary and benefits; instead Moretti indicated that he was authorized to offer Plaintiff an annual salary of $65,000, twenty-five vacation days, and an advanced degree stipend of $1944 per year. Plaintiff further testified that Moretti said he would receive the same healthcare benefits as North Smithfield's teachers. At the time of Plaintiff's hiring in 1994, the teachers' healthcare contract did not require teachers to co-pay for their insurance, (Ex. 24), and Moretti did not discuss co-pay contribution with Plaintiff during their telephone conversation. Plaintiff accepted the position on their discussed terms, and Moretti invited Plaintiff to the October 18, 1994 School Committee meeting for his official appointment. After Moretti's alleged telephone offer, Plaintiff testified that he immediately called the superintendent of Warwick's School Department to initiate his transition from Pilgrim High School to North Smithfield Junior-Senior High School.

Ultimately, the School Committee did not approve the terms that Moretti allegedly had offered Plaintiff. School Committee member Robert Lafleur ("Lafleur") testified in his deposition that standard hiring procedures allow a superintendent to recommend an appropriate salary for the new principal to the School Committee, but the final appointment decision is reserved for the School Committee. (Ex. 23 at 24.) Lafleur stated, "at no time in my tenure, whether I was a member or chairman, did we ever give the authorization to the superintendent to negotiate a verbal contract as to what the terms and conditions of any new employment or employee would be." Id. He explained that during the closed session of the October 18, 1994 School Committee meeting, Moretti recommended a $65,000 salary for Plaintiff, but the School Committee settled on $62,000. (Ex. 23 at 34.) Lafleur, who served on the North Smithfield School Committee from 1977–1999, and then again from 2004 through the date of his deposition on May 29, 2007, also testified that during his tenure, the School Committee had not previously rejected a superintendent's salary or fringe benefit recommendation. (Ex. 23 at 11, 29.)

While the School Committee was deliberating in a closed session during the October 18, 1994 meeting, Plaintiff spoke with Moretti outside the conference room. Moretti allegedly informed Plaintiff that his salary would not be $65,000 per year as the pair had discussed initially, and Plaintiff would receive twenty-two vacation days rather than twenty-five days. Moretti also told Plaintiff that he would not collect an advanced degree stipend for the first year and would have a 20% co-pay for his health insurance. Plaintiff claimed that Moretti acknowledged the more lucrative prior offer, but assured Plaintiff that the difference would be made up to him by July 1, 1995. Though Plaintiff testified that he was "perplexed" and "bewildered" by Moretti's "unethical" rescission, Plaintiff nonetheless chose to accept the School Committee's allegedly different terms. Plaintiff claimed that he had already resigned from Pilgrim High School and had to accept the North Smithfield position or face certain unemployment. Lafleur recalled, "I believe Mr. Moretti came back in [the closed session] and said everything is all set, Mr. Sheehan is going to accept the position." (Ex. 23 at 35.) The School Committee voted unanimously to approve Plaintiff's appointment as principal of North Smithfield Junior-Senior High School at an annual salary of $62,000 for 225 workdays and a 20% co-payment for medical coverage. (Ex. 4.) The minutes of the October 18, 1994 meeting note: "Following his appointment, Mr. Sheehan thanked the Committee, and stated he was honored to have the opportunity to lead the high school into the twenty-first century." Id.

The following day, October 19, 1994, Moretti sent a letter to Plaintiff outlining the principalship's $62,000 annual salary and its benefits. (Ex. 5.) On this same day, despite his verbal acceptance of the School Committee's offer, Plaintiff claimed that he was so disappointed with the actual terms of his North Smithfield employment that called the Warwick superintendent to inquire whether he could retain his assistant principal position at Pilgrim High School. Allegedly, Warwick's superintendent was unable to accommodate Plaintiff's request because in the two weeks between Plaintiff's call to initiate his transition plan and the North Smithfield School Committee meeting, Warwick had advertised, interviewed and hired his replacement. As such, on October 20, 1994, Plaintiff submitted his letter of resignation to the Warwick School Department, officially resigning from his position as Assistant Principal at Pilgrim High School. (Ex. 6.) Plaintiff began his tenure as North Smithfield's Junior-Senior High School principal on November 7, 1994.

B

Plaintiff's Grievances with the Principalship's Vacation and Salary Benefits

1

Vacation Benefits Grievances

During his first year as principal, Plaintiff attempted to take vacation days, but reportedly was told by Moretti that administrators were not allowed to use vacation time during their first year. Moretti explained that an administrator's first-year vacation days were put into an accrual and compensated at the per diem rate when the administrator left the school district. Mundy and Lafleur, however, both testified that they were unaware of a School Committee policy prohibiting first-year administrators from taking vacation. (Ex. 23 at 45; Ex. 21 at 31.) Lafleur did recall an unwritten practice where administrators were paid for unused vacation days at the end of their tenure with the school district. (Ex. 23 at 47.) Mundy likewise agreed that although there was no policy regarding payment of unused vacation days at the end of each school year, he did acknowledge that there was a practice to "pay people leaving the school system the full amount of accumulated, unused vacation time." (Ex. 21 at 31.)

In December of 1997, the North Smithfield School Committee promulgated a written vacation policy ("1997 Policy") for administrators after a proposal by a committee of administrators, including Plaintiff. (Ex. 21 at 44.) This 1997 Policy terminated the unwritten practice that allowed administrators to carry over five vacation days from the current year to the next fiscal year. (Ex. 14 ("No administrator/director will be allowed to carry-over any vacation days in the 1998–1999 fiscal year and into subsequent years.")) (emphasis added). Another provision of the 1997 Policy, which took effect in the 1997–1998 school year, entitled Plaintiff (and other administrators) to twenty-five vacation days per year, an increase from...

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