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Putnam v. Regional School Unit 50

United States District Court, D. Maine

September 15, 2015

MURRAY W. PUTNAM, Plaintiff,
v.
REGIONAL SCHOOL UNIT 50, et al., Defendants.

ORDER ON MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

JOHN A. WOODCOCK, Jr., District Judge.

Murray Putnam is suing a school district and two of its superintendents, alleging that they decided not to renew his contracts in retaliation to his opposition to school consolidation, that the school board held secret meetings regarding his employment, that the school board violated its own policies on open meetings and public comment, and he was wrongfully terminated because of his age. The Court denies the motion for summary judgment as to Mr. Putnam's 42 U.S.C. § 1983 count based on retaliation for exercising his right of protected speech, but the Court grants the motion as to the remaining counts, specifically his 42 U.S.C. § 1983 count based on alleged violations of his associational rights, his right to petition for redress, and his free speech rights, his due process count, and his age discrimination count.

I. PROCEDURAL POSTURE

On April 11, 2014, Mr. Putnam filed a complaint against the Defendants Regional School Unit 50, John Doe, individually and in his capacity as Superintendent of Regional School Unit 50, and Larry Malone, individually and in his capacity as Superintendent of Regional School Unit 50. Compl. at 1-2 (ECF No. 1) ( Compl. ). The Complaint contains four counts: (1) Count One, filed under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleges that all three Defendants retaliated against him for protected speech; (2) Count Two, also filed under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleges that all three Defendants violated his associational rights, his right to petition for redress, and his free speech rights; (3) Count Three, the statutory basis of which is not specified, alleges that all three Defendants violated his due process rights; and, (4) Count Four, filed under the Maine Human Rights Act, 5 M.R.S. §§ 4551 et seq., alleges that all three Defendants discriminated against him because of his age. Compl. at 1-11. The Defendants answered the Complaint on May 21, 2014. Answer (ECF No. 4).

On December 19, 2014, the Defendants filed a notice of intent to file a motion for summary judgment and requested a pre-filing conference. Notice of Intent to File Mot. for Summ. J. (ECF No. 10). In anticipation of a Local Rule 56(h) Conference, the Defendants filed a pre-conference memorandum on December 30, 2014. Defs.' Local Rule 56(h) Mem. (ECF No. 13). On February 4, 2015, the Court held a Local Rule 56(h) conference with counsel. Local Rule 56(h) Pre-Filing Conference (ECF No. 15).

On February 11, 2015, the Defendants moved for summary judgment with a supporting statement of material facts. Defs.' Mot. for Summ. J. (ECF No. 16) ( Defs.' Mot. ); Defs.' Statement of Material Facts Not in Dispute in Supp. of Mot. for Summ. J. (ECF No. 17) (DSMF). On March 13, 2015, Mr. Putnam opposed the Defendants' motion. Pl.'s Resp. to Defs.' Mot. for Summ. J. (ECF No. 19) ( Pl.'s Opp'n ). He filed a reply to the Defendants' statement of material facts that same day, Resp. to Defs.' Statement of Material Facts and Pl.'s Statement of Additional Material Facts, at 1-5 (ECF No. 20) (PRDSMF), and filed his own statement of additional material facts, id. at 5-15 (PSAMF). On March 17, 2015, the Defendants filed a reply to Mr. Putnam's opposition and to his statement of material facts. Defs.' Reply in Support of Mot. for Summ. J. (ECF No. 21) ( Defs.' Reply ); Defs.' Reply to Pl.'s Statement of Additional Material Facts (ECF No. 22) (DRPSAMF).

II. SUMMARY JUDGMENT FACTS

A. Creation of Regional School Unit 50

In 1973, several school districts consolidated to create the Southern Aroostook Community School District (Southern Aroostook). PSAMF ¶ 61; DRPSAMF ¶ 61. In 2008, the Maine Legislature enacted a law requiring local schools to consolidate into regional school units. PSAMF ¶ 73; DRPSAMF ¶ 73. By January of 2011, there was a proposal to consolidate Southern Aroostook with the Katahdin School District (Katahdin). PSAMF ¶ 74; DRPSAMF ¶ 74.

School consolidation has been a controversial issue across the state of Maine and the consolidation of Katahdin and Southern Aroostook was and remains a matter of serious controversy in the district.[1] DSMF ¶ 2; PRDSMF ¶ 2; PSAMF ¶ 75; DRPSAMF ¶ 75. In the communities that would ultimately comprise Regional School Unit 50 (RSU 50), some citizens were in favor of consolidating their community schools with neighboring schools, while others were opposed to it. DSMF ¶ 3; PRDSMF ¶ 3.

Two of the most influential voices speaking out against consolidation were Terry Comeau, then the superintendent of Southern Aroostook, and Murray Putnam. PSAMF ¶ 76; DRPSAMF ¶ 76. Mr. Putnam began speaking out against consolidation in 2007, and was a vocal opponent of consolidation through 2011. DSMF ¶¶ 4, 5; PRDSMF ¶¶ 4, 5. Mr. Comeau and Mr. Putnam made it clear they were speaking as private citizens in voicing their opposition to consolidation. PSAMF ¶ 77; DRPSAMF ¶ 77. Jonathan Porter, the current principal of Southern Aroostook, was also opposed to consolidation. DSMF ¶¶ 7, 8; PRDSMF ¶¶ 7, 8. Mr. Putnam heard that other RSU 50 employees had expressed reservations about school consolidation, and to the best of his knowledge, these individuals are still employed by RSU 50 with the exception of Mr. Comeau.[2] DSMF ¶ 6; PRDSMF ¶ 6.

In the spring of 2011, the towns comprising the Katahdin and Southern Aroostook districts voted on whether to consolidate. PSAMF ¶ 78; DRPSAMF ¶ 78. The vote was sharply divided but in the end the decision was made to consolidate the districts. PSAMF ¶ 79; DRPSAMF ¶ 79. In July 2011, RSU 50 was formed, comprised of Southern Aroostook and Katahdin. DSMF ¶ 1; PRDSMF ¶ 1.

B. Murray Putnam

RSU 50 and several of its predecessors hired Murray Putnam in 1968 and continued to employ him. DSMF ¶ 14; PRDSMF ¶ 14. Mr. Putnam held a number of teaching and administrative positions over the years, but he was always the boys' varsity baseball coach. DSMF ¶ 15; PRDSMF ¶ 15. During the 2011-2012 school year, Mr. Putnam had contracts to serve as the boys' varsity baseball coach and the Southern Aroostook athletic administrator. DSMF ¶ 16; PRDSMF ¶ 16. These contracts expired on June 30, 2012. Id.

Mr. Putnam graduated from Ricker College in 1968 with a degree in history. PSAMF ¶ 58; DRPSAMF ¶ 58. Upon his graduation, he "locked his gazes upon the communities he served and stayed stead foot for forty-four years." PSAMF ¶ 59; DRPSAMF ¶ 59. From 1968 to 1973, Mr. Putnam taught a variety of subjects and served as the varsity baseball coach for what was Oakfield High School. PSAMF ¶ 60; DRPSAMF ¶ 60. Mr. Putnam taught social studies and served as the varsity baseball coach and athletic director for Southern Aroostook until the school district refused to extend his contract in June 2012. PSAMF ¶ 62; DRPSAMF ¶ 62. Six different times in the course of Mr. Putnam's employment at Southern Aroostook, he was called upon to serve, and did serve, as the interim principal of the school. PSAMF ¶ 63; DRPSAMF ¶ 63.

During the forty-four years Mr. Putnam served the school, he was the type of coach that changed young men's lives. PSAMF ¶ 64; DRPSAMF ¶ 64. He believed that athletics was not only about winning but was also about teaching young men the value of handwork, discipline, compassion, and teamwork. Id. Players credited him decades later for shaping their lives. PSAMF ¶ 65; DRPSAMF ¶ 65. It was not widely known, but when players could not afford a team jacket or to go on a trip, Mr. Putnam would pay for it out of his own pocket. PSAMF ¶ 66; DRPSAMF ¶ 66. When Mr. Putnam saw a kid having problems fitting in at school, he would find a place for them on the baseball team. PSAMF ¶ 67; DRPSAMF ¶ 67. At Southern Aroostook, being on the baseball team meant something. PSAMF ¶ 68; DRPSAMF ¶ 68.

The life lessons Mr. Putnam taught the team paid off, and on five different occasions the team brought home a state championship in baseball. Id. In rural Maine, a state championship means a great deal to the community. PSAMF ¶ 69; DRPSAMF ¶ 69. It created a pride of place and a pride in belonging. Id.

Mr. Putnam's commitment to the community is recognized by the public. PSAMF ¶ 70; DRPSAMF ¶ 70. He is considered a man of integrity. Id. He is just and fair. PSAMF ¶ 71; DRPSAMF ¶ 71. He was considered an influential voice in matters affecting the school because of his reputation for fairness, his integrity, his tenure at the school system, and his commitment to the students of Southern Aroostook. PSAMF ¶ 72; DRPSAMF ¶ 72.

C. Anonymous Letter Demands Mr. Putnam's Retirement

In April 2011, a month after the consolidation, Scot Walker, a former member of the RSU school board (Board) and a member of the incoming Board, received an anonymous letter demanding "Murray, For the Love of God, would you please retire?", and accusing Mr. Putnam of being "old... and obstinence [sic]."[3] DSMF ¶ 54; PRDSMF ¶ 54; PSAMF ¶ 80; DRPSAMF ¶ 80. The letter concluded by saying "Murray, I'm telling you to do yourself a favor, retire after this year." Id.

Mr. Walker turned the letter over to John Doe.[4] DSMF ¶ 55; PRDSMF ¶ 55. Mr. Walker also delivered a copy of the letter to then-superintendent Mr. Comeau. PSAMF ¶ 82; DRPSAMF ¶ 82. Mr. Comeau forwarded the letter to Bruce Smith, Esquire, of Drummond Woodsum, who agreed with Mr. Comeau that no action should be taken because the letter was anonymous. Id.

Mr. Comeau gave a copy of the letter to Mr. Putnam so that he would know what was going on and because Mr. Comeau was leaving in June.[5] Comeau Decl. ¶ 11. Mr. Putnam perceived the letter as an implied threat that if he did not retire, he would be forced out.[6] PSAMF ¶ 81; DRPSAMF ¶ 81.

D. RSU 50 Board Formation, Leadership, and Policies

Katahdin's superintendent, a consolidation supporter, retired, and so it fell upon Mr. Comeau, then the Southern Aroostook superintendent, to seat the newlyconsolidated Board. PSAMF ¶ 83; DRPSAMF ¶ 83. In July 2011, the Board held a meeting to appoint a superintendent of the newly-consolidated RSU 50. PSAMF ¶ 84; DRPSAMF ¶ 84. The Board offered Mr. Comeau the superintendent's position for five months, which would terminate in December 2011. Id. Mr. Comeau told the Board that given the nature of the superintendent's duties, a five-month term ending in December did not make sense. PSAMF ¶ 85 DRPSAMF ¶ 85. The Board insisted that Mr. Comeau accept the five-month term. Id. When Mr. Comeau said he could not do a five-month term, the Board hired John Doe for a one-year term as interim superintendent of RSU 50. DSMF ¶ 9; PRDSMF ¶ 9; PSAMF ¶ 86; DRPSAMF ¶ 86. Mr. Doe stated he has no recollection of whether Mr. Putnam was in favor of or opposed to school consolidation.[7] DSMF ¶ 10; PRDSMF ¶ 10.

In RSU 50, the Board, not the Superintendent, was responsible for appointing one-year, co-curricular positions.[8] DSMF ¶ 43; PRDSMF ¶ 43. Mr. Doe did not take any action on any co-curricular positions that were one-year appointments for the 2012-2013 year as interim superintendent. DSMF ¶ 44; PRDSMF ¶ 44.

Board members receive training from Maine School Management concerning appropriate board policies and procedures including that agenda items should not be discussed outside the convened board meeting. DSMF ¶ 57; PRDSMF ¶ 57.

In the fall of 2011, Jeff Hardy was serving as the vice chair of the Board, and Leanne White and Nichole Cullinan were members of the Board. PSAMF ¶ 87; DRPSAMF ¶ 87. Ms. White and Ms. Cullinan recall a reading of new RSU 50 policies that would have shifted the responsibility for the appointment of coaches and cocurricular positions from the school board to the superintendent. PSAMF ¶ 88; DRPSAMF ¶ 88. However, both Ms. White and Ms. Cullinan confirm that the new policy was neither voted on nor enacted by the Board. PSAMF ¶ 89; DRPSAMF ¶ 89.

E. Annual Spring Baseball Trip

Every year for several decades, Mr. Putnam had taken the baseball team on a trip out of state during April school vacation. DSMF ¶ 17; PRDSMF ¶ 17. Over the years, players on Mr. Putnam's team were hazed.[9] DSMF ¶ 18; PRDSMF ¶ 18. People who were either hazed themselves or witnessed others being hazed include: (1) the current high school principal, Jonathan Porter; (2) Stephen Walker, a current Board member; and (3) Scot Walker, a former member of the Board.[10] DSMF ¶ 19; PRDSMF ¶ 19.

In December 2011, Mr. Putnam asked Mr. Porter whether hazing happened on the April trip that Mr. Porter attended, and Mr. Porter told Mr. Putnam that he had been hazed and that a few ball players had their pubic hair shaved by a straight razor as part of a freshman initiation; however, Mr. Porter never reported the hazing to Mr. Putnam while he was on the team.[11] DSMF ¶ 21; PRDSMF ¶ 21. Mr. Porter told Mr. Putnam that he should not do the April trip.[12] DSMF ¶ 20; PRDSMF ¶ 20. Mr. Putnam told Mr. Porter that he had done the trip for many years and the Board was not going to tell him he could not.[13] DSMF ¶ 22; PRDSMF ¶ 22. Mr. Putnam told Mr. Porter that once he was done, the trip would happen no longer. DSMF ¶ 23; PRDSMF ¶ 23.

That same month, the Board met to discuss the annual spring varsity baseball trip. PSAMF ¶ 91; DRPSAMF ¶ 91. The trip was initially disapproved by the Board due to cost concerns. Id.; DSMF ¶ 24; PRDSMF ¶ 24. No one on the Board voiced any concerns to Mr. Putnam about any alleged hazing. PSAMF ¶ 92; DRPSAMF ¶ 92.

In January 2012, the Board met again and discussed the baseball trip. DSMF ¶ 25; PRDSMF ¶ 25; PSAMF ¶ 93; DRPSAMF ¶ 93. Mr. Putnam clarified that only a minimal expense (for the school bus driver and the gas) was borne by the school. PSAMF ¶ 94; DRPSAMF ¶ 94. The Board then approved the annual spring varsity baseball trip. Id. Again, no one on the Board voiced concerns to Mr. Putnam warning him to be wary of any potential hazing. PSAMF ¶ 95 DRPSAMF ¶ 95.

In April 2012, the boys' varsity baseball team went on their annual spring trip to Massachusetts. PSAMF ¶ 112; DRPSAMF ¶ 112. Parents with students on the team were in constant contact with their children. PSAMF ¶ 113; DRPSAMF ¶ 113. They did not get the sense that there was any hazing or anything else going on which would "raise their hackles.'" PSAMF ¶ 114; DRPSAMF ¶ 114. The parents were confident that Mr. Putnam would take care of their kids and any disciplinary issues; he always had. PSAMF ¶ 115; DRPSAMF ¶ 115.

F. Jonathan Porter

In 2005, Mr. Porter became the principal of Southern Aroostook, and was Mr. Putnam's supervisor from 2005 to 2012. PSAMF ¶¶ 96, 101, 107; DRPSAMF ¶¶ 96, 101, 107. He had been a student at Southern Aroostook and had played baseball for Mr. Putnam before graduating in 1991. PSAMF ¶ 97 DRPSAMF ¶ 97. He never reported any hazing to Mr. Putnam. PSAMF ¶ 98; DRPSAMF ¶ 98. Mr. Porter graduated from the University of Maine at Presque Isle with a degree in physical education in 1995. PSAMF ¶ 99; DRPSAMF ¶ 99. After he graduated, Mr. Porter took a post at Southern Aroostook as a physical education and health teacher. PSAMF ¶ 100; DRPSAMF ¶ 100.

At least one Board member thought that Mr. Porter was intimidated by Mr. Putnam. PSAMF ¶ 102; DRPSAMF ¶ 102. The Board member believed that Mr. Putnam had a lot of "community support" and a "solid reputation" in the community and had been "popped up on a little bit of a pedestal." PSAMF ¶ 103; DRPSAMF ¶ 103.

In 2009, Mr. Porter advised the Board that when Mr. Putnam retired, he could do the work Mr. Putnam was doing as vice principal.[14] PSAMF ¶ 104; DRPSAMF ¶ 104. In 2012, when Mr. Putnam was separated from the school, Mr. Porter, who was thirty-nine years old, took Mr. Putnam's position as athletic director at Southern Aroostook.[15] PSAMF ¶ 105; DRPSAMF ¶ 105. Mr. Porter received an additional stipend for taking Mr. Putnam's position. PSAMF ¶ 106; DRPSAMF ¶ 106.

Ultimately, it was Mr. Porter's duty to stop any "hazing" that occurred. PSAMF ¶ 108; DRPSAMF ¶ 108. Mr. Porter claims that sometime in 2011, he had a conversation with Mr. Putnam about "hazing" incidents that occurred when he was on the team from 1987 to 1991. PSAMF ¶ 109; DRPSAMF ¶ 109. Mr. Porter is "not sure" why he waited until 2011 to tell Mr. Putnam that he had concerns about hazing, even though he became Mr. Putnam's boss in 2005. PSAMF ¶ 110; DRPSAMF ¶ 110. At no time prior to the 2012 varsity spring baseball trip can Mr. Porter recall ever telling Mr. Putnam "[w]e have concerns about hazing, you really want to be careful." PSAMF ¶ 111; DRPSAMF ¶ 111.

G. Hazing Complaint Letter

On May 7, 2012, John Walker, Scot and Stephen Walker's father, and Paige and Kenneth Colville, Stephen Walker's mother and father-in-law, sent a letter to

Even viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Mr. Putnam, the Court concludes that the record citation supports the Defendants' qualification. The Court modified the statement to accurately reflect the record. Superintendent Doe complaining of alleged hazing of freshmen on the April 2012 varsity baseball trip.[16] DSMF ¶ 26; PRDSMF ¶ 26; PSAMF ¶ 116; DRPSAMF ¶ 116. Mr. Doe did not call Mr. Putnam and advise him that there was a complaint against him.[17] PSAMF ¶ 125; DRPSAMF ¶ 125.

Neither John Walker nor Kenneth or Paige Colville had children on the 2012 varsity baseball team. PSAMF ¶ 117; DRPSAMF ¶ 117. John Walker was employed with Mr. Putnam at Southern Aroostook and previously sought to have Mr. Putnam separated from his positions. PSAMF ¶ 118; DRPSAMF ¶ 118. Mr. Colville was the superintendent of Southern Aroostook for four years and two months. PSAMF ¶ 119; DRPSAMF ¶ 119. Previously, he was a special education teacher and a special education director. Id. Mr. Colville was hired in 1987 or 1988. Id. Not once during his tenure as superintendent did Mr. Colville express concerns to Mr. Putnam that hazing was occurring on the baseball team. Id.

H. Hazing Investigation and Findings

Based upon the complaint letter, Superintendent Doe requested that an attorney from Drummond Woodsum conduct an investigation. DSMF ¶ 27; PRDSMF ¶ 27; PSAMF ¶ 120; DRPSAMF ¶ 120. Board members do not recall authorizing the investigation. PSAMF ¶ 121; DRPSAMF ¶ 121. M. Thomas Trenholm, Esquire, and Principal Porter conducted the investigation into the alleged hazing incidents.[18] PSAMF ¶ 122; DRPSAMF ¶ 122. Mr. Putnam was interviewed as part of the investigation and informed of the allegations. DSMF ¶ 33; PRDSMF ¶ 33. Mr. Trenholm also interviewed eleven of the thirteen players as well as all four adults who chaperoned the trip.[19] DSMF ¶ 34; PRDSMF ¶ 34. During those meetings, members of the baseball team were coerced by being told they were an "embarrassment" and lying when they denied hazing occurred. PSAMF ¶ 123; DRPSAMF ¶ 123.

On or about May 15, 2012, in response to the complaint letter and following an oral report on the investigation, Mr. Doe placed Mr. Putnam on administrative leave.[20] DSMF ¶ 28; PRDSMF ¶ 28.

On May 29, 2012, Mr. Trenholm issued a report in which he concluded that hazing had occurred on the 2012 trip and on prior trips. DSMF ¶ 34; PRDSMF ¶ 34. Mr. Trenholm subsequently wrote that "furthermore Coach Putnam was aware that [] [Superintendent Doe] and the board had concerns about hazing before this year's trip." PSAMF ¶ 124; DRPSAMF ¶ 124. However, Board members never expressed concerns to Mr. Putnam about hazing on the annual spring baseball trip. PSAMF ¶ 126; DRPSAMF ¶ 126.

Mr. Trenholm also wrote Superintendent Doe a letter dated May 31, 2012 in which he concluded:[21]

Although Coach Putnam said he was not aware of these rumors, or hazing on any trips, I found that Coach Putnam knew or should have known that hazing occurred on these trips. Notwithstanding this, Coach Putnam did nothing to stop the hazing or protect the first-year players from the annual initiations on these trips. Not only did the hazing and these initiations amount to more than mere "horseplay, " the overwhelming evidence shows that first-year players were indeed hurt by this very dangerous and severe annual occurrence. Nonetheless, Coach Putnam chose to ignore all the warning signs for years and did not sufficiently act to prevent or prohibit this hazing.[22]

DSMF ¶ 35; PRDSMF ¶ 35.

Mr. Putnam knew that the district had an anti-hazing policy. DSMF ¶ 36; PRDSMF ¶ 36. Mr. Putnam knew that the Board and Mr. Doe had concerns about hazing before the 2012 trip.[23] DSMF ¶ 37; PRDSMF ¶ 37. Mr. Putnam agreed that if hazing occurred on the trip, it occurred while he was responsible for supervising the students.[24] DSMF ¶ 38; PRDSMF ¶ 38. Mr. Putnam agreed that if hazing had become part of the culture of the baseball team that it would be a problem for the school district.[25] DSMF ¶ 39; PRDSMF ¶ 39.

Mr. Doe's stated reason for putting Mr. Putnam on administrative leave was that Mr. Putnam failed to properly supervise students on the baseball trip during which hazing occurred.[26] DSMF ¶ 29; PRDSMF ¶ 29. Mr. Putnam was put on administrative leave in part because Mr. Doe believed that Mr. Putnam failed to communicate to his players the school district's anti-hazing policies.[27] DSMF ¶ 30; PRDSMF ¶ 30.[28], [29]

Mr. Putnam believes his contracts were not renewed because the Walker family has a personal vendetta against him, because of his age, and because he was a vocal opponent of school consolidation.[30] DSMF ¶ 52; PRDSMF ¶ 52. Mr. Putnam also believes the Walker vendetta dates back to the early 1970s. DSMF ¶ 53; PRDSMF ¶ 53. Mr. Putnam acknowledges that the Trenholm Report played a role in the non-renewal of his contract. DSMF ¶ 40; PRDSMF ¶ 40.

I. RSU 50 School Board Holds Public Meeting to Discuss Concerns About Mr. Putnam's Separation

When members of the public became aware that Mr. Putnam had been separated from his position, they submitted petitions to Superintendent Doe seeking his reinstatement. PSAMF ¶ 127; DRPSAMF ¶ 127. When that failed, community members requested a public meeting to discuss their concerns. PSAMF ¶ 128; DRPSAMF ¶ 128.

On June 18, 2012, the Board held a special meeting and invited Mr. Putnam to be heard on the subject of the investigation.[31] DSMF ¶ 41; PRDSMF ¶ 41; PSAMF ¶ 131; DRPSAMF ¶ 131. Mr. Putnam did not intend to attend the meeting unless he had a copy of the complaint; he requested a copy of the complaint and Mr. Doe did not give ...


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