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

October 14, 2010

RONALD REECE, PLAINTIFF,
v.
POCATELLO/CHUBBUCK SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 25, DEFENDANT.



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

MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

INTRODUCTION

The Court has before it motions in limine filed by Defendant Pocatello/Chubbuck School District No. 25. (Dkts. 28, 29, 30). The motions are fully briefed and at issue. The Court explains its ruling on each motion below.

1. Reporting Students' Testimony

The District seeks to exclude, under Rules 402 and 403, the testimony of students who accused Principal Reader of sexual harassment. Reece intends to introduce the students' testimony to show that the District did not honestly believe their stated reasons for reprimanding and reassigning Reece.

The District's investigation into the allegations against Principal Reader, which included interviewing the students to determine the "veracity" of their statements, resulted in the issuance of a "Notice of Reprimand and Notice of Reassignment" against Reece. Mr. 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 two 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.

Notice of Reprimand and Notice of Reassignment at 1, Dkt 11-5.

In the Reprimand, Mr. Howell also included the following statements: (1) "it was the conclusion of the investigators that no allegation could be substantiated to show any type of improper touching or sexual harassment"; (2) "The fact that you waited until another educator had collected more statements is a clear violation of state law. Had you contacted the School Resource Office, you would have learned that the primary complainant in this matter had made the identical complaint on two other occasions and had recanted her testimony on both occasions"; (3) "Your holding back information and allowing the solicitation of other student statements contributed to a climate of accusatory conduct..."; (4) "You are to refrain from the utilization of students in any damaging or harmful acts." Id. at 1-2. For each of these reasons, the Superintendent recommended that Reece be transferred from Hawthorne to Franklin Middle School. Id. at 2.

The District has alleged that it performed a "thorough and objective investigation," which led to above conclusions. Howell Aff. ¶ 17. Reece questions whether the investigation was as objective as the District professes, and he submits the students will be able to testify to this issue.

The thoroughness and objectivity of the investigation bears directly on the question of whether the District honestly believed the stated reasons for Reece's reprimand and reassignment.See, e.g., Eakerns v. Kingman Regional Medical Center, CV06-3009-PHX, 2009 WL 735148, *10 (D.Ariz. March 19, 2009) (citing Villiarimo v. Aloha Island Air, Inc., 281 F.3d 1054, 1063 (9th Cir. 2002). Thus, to the extent the studentsmay offer evidence on this point, their testimony is relevant.

In addition, the students' testimony may be relevant to the District's position that Reece involved himself in a conspiracy to discredit Principal Reader's reputation. Mr. Howell testified that in his opinion, "Mr. Reece was aware of the allegations of sexual misconduct against Principal Reader at least two weeks prior to the submission of his letter dated May 7, 2007..." Howell Aff. ¶ 11. The students will be asked whether the District even inquired as to Reece's awareness of any allegations prior to his submission of their written reports. Reece will argue that a negative response to this questioning will render the District's belief that Reece engaged in a conspiracy less credible.

The District argues that such use of the students' testimony is unfair. It argues that "allowing the students to testify about Principal Reader's alleged harassment, and the "rudeness" of the investigators (including Defendant's trial counsel) is clearly an emotional ploy intended to stir feelings of resentment and prejudice against Defendant and its counsel." Def.'s Br. at 7.

The District must show that the probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice under Rule 403. The students' testimony have a probative value as described in the examples discussed above -- in those examples, the District's alleged lack of thoroughness and objectivity in conducting its investigation ...


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