The judge presiding over a case involving former Peoples Academy teacher David Bain and the school superintendent who fired him in 2014, Tracy Wrend, has denied Wrend’s argument that she was immune to being sued.
U.S. District Court Judge Geoffrey Crawford’s ruling comes six months after a jury returned a verdict agreeing with Bain’s argument that Wrend had retaliated against him for exercising his First Amendment rights, by suspending him and opening an investigation against him based on allegations of improper conduct with a female student. Those allegations were later dropped, but Bain was fired anyway, after allegedly violating a probationary “last chance agreement” he had signed.
The jury last September awarded Bain $150,000 in compensatory and punitive damages.
The jury verdict was limited to his retaliation claim — he argued that Wrend caught wind that he had called an informal meeting of the teachers union and proposed a no-confidence vote against her. That, Bain argued, led to his last chance agreement.
Crawford emphasized Bain “did not pursue a wrongful termination claim.”
Wrend’s lawyer, Pietro Lynn, said shortly after that verdict that Wrend would appeal the decision to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York. But before that, he filed a motion for judgment “notwithstanding the verdict,” on the basis of qualified immunity.
According to Cornell Law School, qualified immunity “protects a government official from lawsuits alleging that the official violated a plaintiff's rights, only allowing suits where officials violated a ‘clearly established’ statutory or constitutional right.”
In his 21-page ruling, Crawford was scathing in his rebuke of Wrend’s argument, writing, “A reasonable person in (Wrend’s) position would not believe that her actions were lawful.”
“A reasonable person would understand that retaliating against protected speech by initiating multiple lines of investigation against (Bain) leading to a ‘last chance agreement’ violated his right to speak out at the union gathering,” Crawford wrote. “These determinations are supported by the evidence at trial which described a flurry of investigations, launched simultaneously by (Wrend) immediately followed by the imposition of probationary status. The two sides disagreed sharply over the question of retaliatory motive, but there was little doubt that the investigations followed one upon the next in short order and led to plaintiff’s discipline after 25 years of service with few prior complaints.”
The lawyers representing Bain and Wrend have differing ideas of what kind of message Judge Crawford’s decision ought to signal.
Bain’s side thinks it’s time for this to be over and allow him to get on with his life.
“We are once again thankful for the thoughtful decision from Judge Crawford. The matter was unanimously decided in Mr. Bain's favor by a jury picked by both parties, and it was decided in Mr. Bain’s favor according to law to which both sides agreed,” Bain’s lawyer, Chandler Matson, said Tuesday. “I would think that it is finally time to take stock of what happened, take responsibility, and to make things right for Mr. Bain and his family, who have endured incredible hardship throughout.”
Wrend’s side: It’s time for a new set of eyes. Pietro Lynn, the lawyer representing Wrend, noted Tuesday that the same judge who presided over the case before and at trial was the one who penned Friday’s decision on Wrend’s motion.
“We now can appeal the matter. I will immediately file an appeal so that the case can be decided by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals,” Lynn said in an email Tuesday. “We are confident the verdict will be reversed. There should be no legal liability for an investigation that results in discipline that even Mr. Bain and his lawyers agreed was proper and lawful.”