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Reece v. Pocatello/Chubbuck School Dist. No. 25

May 5, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Honorable B. Lynn Winmill Chief U. S. District Judge



The Court has before it a motion for summary judgment filed by Defendant Pocatello/Chubbuck School District's No. 25 (Docket No. 9). The Court heard oral argument on May 3, 2010. For the reasons expressed below, the Court will grant the motion with respect to the third and fourth claims for relief and deny the motion as to the remaining claims.


Plaintiff Ronald Reece began his employment with the School District in 1994. From 1994 to 2007, Reece taught "Keyboarding I" at Hawthorne Middle School. Following the 2006-2007 school year, Reece was reprimanded and involuntarily reassigned from Hawthorne to teach Geography and Study Skills at Franklin Middle School.

Reece alleges he was reassigned to Franklin in retaliation for reporting female student allegations of improper sexually-oriented conduct by Hawthorne Principal Douglas Reader. Reece claims he first learned of the allegations through his colleague, Hawthorne Math teacher, Cindy Lovell. On May 7, 2007, Ms. Lovell approached Reece with 24 written statements from female students complaining of sexual harassment by Mr. Reader. Reece maintains he knew nothing of the statements prior to May 7, 2007, and he played no role in obtaining or gathering the statements.

The same day -- May 7, 2007 -- Reece and Ms. Lovell provided the statements to legal counsel, Norman Reece,*fn1 who then delivered the statements to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. The Department immediately contacted local law enforcement. Reece also hand-delivered the statements to Bob Devine, Director of Secondary Education, at the District's Administrative offices.

His delivery to Mr. Devine included two letters: one Reece drafted dated May 7, 2007, and another letter dated April 26, 2006, signed by a first-year teacher, H. Mercedes Nelson. The letters criticized Reader's management style. The teachers' letters did not relate to the student allegations of sexually harassing conduct by Mr. Reader, with the exception of one comment by Nelson that she had overheard a student say she would not try out for cheerleading because she did not want Reader "checking me out." See Howell Aff., Exhibit C (Docket No. 9-8). Reece's letter contained no similar comment suggesting his knowledge of student sexual harassment claims against Reader. See Howell Aff., Exhibit A (Docket No. 9-7).

Both local law enforcement and the District immediately commenced investigations into the issues raised by the materials Reece had presented. On May 24, 2007, the police investigators submitted a copy of an investigative report to the Pocatello City Prosecutor's office. The Prosecutor's office declined to pursue criminal charges against Reader. See Howell Aff., Exhibit G at 17 (Docket No. 9-8). Counsel for the District, Brian K. Julian,*fn2 and the Director of Human Resources, Douglas Howell, Ed.D, conducted the investigation on behalf of the District. The District's investigation consisted of interviewing most of the students involved and members of the Hawthorne staff. Howell drafted a 20-page report detailing the persons interviewed and his conclusions. See Howell Aff., Exhibit D (Docket No. 9-8).

Reece claims the District's investigation and report were "liability limiting" and "biased" rather than protective of female students. See Plaintiff's Brief at 11-12. Reece criticizes the investigation because (1) Mr. Julian, who also serves as counsel for the District's liability insurer, conducted the investigation, (2) the investigators were "rude" and "demeaning," (3) students who were interviewed were not allowed to call their parents or have them present; (4) parents only received notice that their children were being interviewed by Julian and Howell after the fact; and (5) the investigative report omitted a key provision from the District's Harassment policy regarding "leering." Id. At 11-12. Reece further alleges Howell sent a letter to the students' parents falsely stating that the students "recanted" their statements. See Plaintiff's Brief at 12.

The District's investigation into the allegations against Reader resulted in the issuance of a "Notice of Reprimand and Notice of Reassignment" against Reece, on June 12, 2007. See Howell Aff., Exhibit F (Docket No. 9-8.). Howell, writing on behalf of the District, stated:

During the investigation an alarming pattern of misconduct was discovered involving another teacher and yourself. ...It is clear that you had discussed and conspired with another teacher in order to paint the Principal in a very damaging light....However, it is simply too great of a coincidence that the only to teachers in the entire school that had verbal complaints about the management style of the Principal were the instigators of the solicitation of the student complaints.

In the Reprimand, Mr. Howell also accused Reece of violating federal law, State Board of Education regulations, and local School Board policy by sharing a students disciplinary file with his attorney and by failing to report the suspected abuse of children in compliance with Idaho law. Id. at 1-2. Mr. Howell states in the Reprimand that Reece admitted in his interview that he had shared the file. Id. at 1. With respect to Reece's alleged failure to report suspected child abuse, the District stated: "Your holding back information and allowing the solicitation of other student statements contributed to a climate of accusatory conduct which led to substantial damage to the reputation of various individuals." Id. at 2.

Mr. Howell directed Reece to refrain from (1) gossiping about other school employees; (2) encouraging reports of misconduct for the purpose of inflicting damage on his supervisor or co-employees; (3) using students in any damaging or harmful acts; and (4) retaliating against any of the parties involved in the complaint, Hawthorne colleagues and students, the investigators, the school administrators and the district administrators. Id. at 2-3. Mr. Howell warned Reece would be terminated if he failed to comply with the above directives. Id.

The Reprimand was placed in Reece's personnel file and the information regarding his involvement in reporting the student allegations of sexual harassment was forwarded to the Professional Standards Commission for review. Id. at 2.

Reece denies that he "conspired" with another teacher to collect the student statements. He maintains he first learned of the statements on May 7, 2007, and he immediately turned over the statements to his attorney, who caused it to be reported to the proper authorities. The Reprimand does not cite any direct evidence suggesting Reece knew about the statements prior to May 7, 2007, or that he helped solicit the statements. See See Howell Aff., Exhibit F (Docket No. 9-8.). Reece also denies showing a student's disciplinary file to any person other than the District's attorney, Mr. Julian, and the Reprimand cites no evidence to the contrary. The Professionals Standards Commission did not find any misconduct.

In addition, the Reprimand included a notice of involuntarily transfer from Hawthorne to Franklin Middle School. See Howell Aff., Exhibit F at 2(Docket No. 9-8). The District assigned Reece to teach Geography instead of Keyboarding I and to create a new Study Skills class. Reece had never taught Geography and had no background in this subject; nor had he taught Study Skills. Mr. Howell did not inform him that he would be teaching these classes until the first day he reported to the new school despite repeated requests for the information; he had to scramble to create new lesson plans for the two classes. Initially, Mr. Howell took the position that Reece was not qualified to teach the new classes and he would have to take a course and a test for qualification. According to Reece, the District has only recently abandoned this position.

Reece claims he has tried unsuccessfully to reapply for vacant Keyboarding positions posted on-line, but always being informed the positions are closed even though the on-line posting shows that they are open. He further claims the District has begun to ...

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