A former high school assistant principal who alleged she was coerced to quit for disagreeing with the school superintendent about a student discipline issue was not denied protected speech or due process, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled.
The issues began after an adult Manchester Community Schools student was granted permission by to possess cigarettes on school grounds by then-superintendent William Reichhart, which caused disagreement with former high school assistant principal Lisa Ulrey.
Ulrey, who did not agree with the superintendent’s decision because it violated school district policy, called the president of the school board to express her concerns. After the school board president likewise expressed concerns directly to Reichhart, he then rebuked Ulrey for going over his head, threatening to reprimand her formally if she did not apologize.
Ulrey alleged that three months later, Reichhart forced her to resign in retaliation for her actions. She sued, arguing her First Amendment rights were violated and that she was denied due process because her resignation wasn’t voluntary.
In Lisa Ulrey v.William Reichhart, 19-1221, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment in Reichhart’s favor, first finding Ulrey’s speech was unprotected as a matter of law because she spoke to the school board president as an employee, not a private citizen.
“Even if Superintendent Reichhart violated school district policy by making an exception allowing an adult student to possess cigarettes when he attended school, Ulrey’s speech fell within her official duties,” Circuit Judge David Hamilton wrote for the 7th Circuit. “Her written job description included duties to ‘coordinate and administer student attendance and discipline policies’ … Ulrey’s complaint to the school board president fell within the scope of her job and was unprotected employee speech, not protected citizen speech.”
It further disagreed with Ulrey’s claim for denial of due process, noting that because she resigned, procedural protections to safeguard her protected interest in continued employment were no longer available to her. It found Ulrey’s arguments did not support the assertion that her resignation was coerced when she asked if Reichhart was asking for her resignation, he affirmed, and then handed her a prepared letter of resignation to sign.
“Here, Ulrey offered to resign because Reichhart’s ‘vibes’ and ‘physical demeanor’ communicated his desire to fire her. That simply is not enough to treat defendants as if they had denied plaintiff the extensive procedural protections available to her if she had wanted to contest a possible termination,” the panel concluded.