Recently, the Northern District of Illinois issued its opinion in Wong v. Board of Education of Community Consolidated School District 15. Although the court’s decision does not address novel arguments or depart from prior precedent, the case is a reminder of the First Amendment and Title VII standards that apply to employment claims in the school environment.
The plaintiff, Elizabeth Wong, was hired by the District as an assistant principal at a junior high school. While in that position, Wong reported that she was sexually harassed by the Principal and that the Principal had a “drinking problem.” The next school year, she was transferred to an elementary school, purportedly to “bolster her credentials” for a future Principal position. After a serious infraction by Wong, the District suspended her with pay for the remainder of the school year and subsequently decided not to renew her contract for an additional year.
Wong filed a lawsuit against the District, alleging, among other things, a First Amendment retaliation claim, a Title VII claim of discrimination based on sex, and a due process claim based on allegedly stigmatizing comments about Wong.
Addressing the First Amendment retaliation claim, the court found (1) that Wong’s reports of the Principal’s drinking problem constituted constitutionally protected speech because it was undoubtedly a matter of public concern and (2) that her suspension was an adverse employment action. The court found, however, that Wong did not present sufficient evidence for a jury to conclude that her speech was a motivating factor in the District’s decision to suspend Wong and not renew her contract. The court noted that the time between the reports of the Principal’s drinking problem and the suspension was 10 months; too long to be considered a motivating factor. Thus, Wong’s First Amendment claim failed.
Wong’s Title VII claim also failed because she could not make out a prima facie case of discrimination. Wong was unable to provide evidence suggesting that a similarly situated male employee was treated more favorably.
Finally, Wong’s due process claim failed because there was no evidence that any stigmatizing comments about her were published. Her suspension was noted only in her personnel file and to those necessary parties within the chain of command. As such, a reasonable jury could not conclude that Wong suffered tangible loss of other employment opportunities, which is required to sustain such a claim.