The Seventh Circuit recently upheld the lower court’s summary judgment in favor of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and Schurz High School administrators in a teacher’s action alleging violations of her First and Fourteenth Amendments rights and the Illinois Whistle Blower Act. The case is a reminder that although public sector employees who raise concerns about their employer’s programs and activities receive some protections under the law, they are not insulated from adverse employment actions unrelated to their speech, even if the discipline follows the speech.

In Diadenko v. Folino, a recently hired Schurz High School special education teacher began to voice concerns about the school’s special education practices. Shortly thereafter, the school’s administration suspended the teacher for challenging an administrative directive issued at a department meeting, missing a mandatory meeting, and disclosing confidential student information. 

One month later, the teacher sent a letter to Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) and the Mayor’s office further alleging various special education regulation violations at Schurz. The Mayor’s office forwarded the letter to CPS, and CPS assigned an investigator to look into the complaint. In the meantime, the teacher was again suspended for continuing to violate directives to attend meetings, continued disruption of department meetings, and release of confidential student information. Subsequently, the teacher filed suit alleging that her suspensions were a direct result of her speech criticizing the special education department.

The Seventh Circuit found that the teacher failed to present evidence that the contents of her letter to the Mayor and ISBE played a role in the issuance of her suspensions because: (i) the first suspension occurred prior to date she drafted the letter; and (ii) although the second suspension occurred after she sent the letter, she provided no evidence that it was the motivating factor in the administrator’s actions. The Court noted that while adverse employment actions following “close on the heels” of protected speech give rise to an inference of retaliation, an employee must still show that the person taking the adverse action knew of the protected conduct.