Employee Speech, No Constructive Discharge, and No Coerced Resignation
The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit (Court) dismissed a former assistant principal’s claims that she was forced to resign in retaliation for speech about a student discipline matter, which she alleged violated her First Amendment free speech rights and Fourteenth Amendment due process rights.
In August 2014, Plaintiff Lisa Ulrey (Ulrey) was employed by Manchester Community Schools (the District) as an assistant principal where her written job description included duties to “coordinate and administer student attendance and discipline policies.” Ulrey learned that the District’s superintendent had granted an adult student permission to possess cigarettes (but not smoke them) on school grounds even though this was prohibited by District policy. Ulrey disagreed with this decision and contacted the School Board president. The School Board president then contacted the superintendent, who rebuked Ulrey for going over his head and threatened to reprimand her if she did not apologize. Ulrey apologized. Three months later, in November 2014, Ulrey was called to a meeting with the superintendent regarding errors with Ulrey’s administrative license. The superintendent requested that Ulrey resign and she did, using a letter of resignation the superintendent had prepared for her. Ulrey’s resignation was promptly approved the School Board.
Reviewing these facts, the Court found that Ulrey spoke to the School Board president as an employee pursuant to her official duties, not as a private citizen. As a result, Ulrey’s First Amendment claim failed because her speech was considered constitutionally unprotected as a matter of law. Regarding Ulrey’s Fourteenth Amendment due process claim, the Court noted the general rule that “an employee who resigns – voluntarily relinquishing her interest in continued employment – may not complaint of a lack of due process” unless one of two narrow exceptions exists: 1) constructive discharge, which is akin to a hostile environment work claim, or 2) coerced resignation, which “is characterized by the presence of a Hobson’s choice in which the employee must resign or suffer severe consequences, such as facing criminal charges.” The Court found that neither of these exceptions existed, even if Ulrey thought the superintendent’s “vibes” and “physical demeanor” indicated he wanted to fire her.