September 12, 2019

Barr Law Obtains Jury Verdict and Punitive Damages Award on Behalf of Teacher in First Amendment Retaliation Claim

Following a three-day trial, a jury has found in favor of a former school teacher on his claim that the superintendent of the district retaliated against him after he called for a vote of “no confidence” against her.  The jury concluded that the superintendent had violated the teacher’s constitutional right, under the First Amendment, to free speech regarding matters of public importance.  The jury awarded compensatory damages, as well as punitive damages to deter future First Amendment violations.  The trial was held in the federal district court in Rutland, Vermont.

The teacher had taught for over 25 years at the school and was an active union member.  In the spring of 2014, he called a meeting of union executives to discuss systemic problems facing the district, including a pattern of the termination or forced retirement of senior educators.  At the meeting, the plaintiff suggested, among other things, a union vote of “no confidence” against the administration, which had in another instance resulted in the replacement of a superintendent in a neighboring district.  Shortly following the union meeting, a series of investigations were initiated into plaintiff’s professional conduct.  The evidence at trial indicated that these investigations were designed to punish the teacher for his speech.  The investigations ultimately culminated into disciplinary actions in the spring, and additional disciplinary actions in the summer of 2014 resulting in plaintiff’s termination.
The evidence of retaliation at trial included, among other things, that (i) plaintiff had been a teacher in good standing for over 25 years with minimal disciplinary history prior to the spring 2014 union meeting; (ii) following the meeting, the defendant initiated multiple disciplinary investigations into the plaintiff based on tenuous accusations of misconduct, and under circumstances indicating an impermissible motivation; (iii) the investigations had multiple substantive and procedural deficiencies; and (iv) conduct by other teachers during the time period did not result in discipline.

The jury unanimously concluded that the investigations were, in fact, initiated in retaliation against the plaintiff’s speech at the union meeting, and therefore violated the plaintiff’s First Amendment right to free speech.  The jury found that the plaintiff had spoken as a citizen on matters of public concern, and that the superintendent’s actions were substantially motivated by the speech.  The jury awarded compensatory damages to the plaintiff, as well as punitive damages to deter and prevent such conduct in the future.
Chandler Matson and Aaron Morris represented the plaintiff.

The case is No. 5:15-cv-00202-GWC (D. Vt) (Crawford, J.).