In 2015, David Bain was forced out of teaching after a 26-year career. He believed it was the result of his vocal opposition to the school’s administration, and he approached me to represent him in a case against Lamoille South school district Superintendent Tracy Wrend.
Five years later, the case is over, and Bain has prevailed. The circumstances he overcame raise serious issues regarding our school district, and these issues merit discussion.
In September 2019, a jury heard and considered three days of testimony from Bain, Wrend and witnesses with knowledge of the events. The question for the jury was whether Wrend retaliated against Bain for speaking out against the administration at a February 2014 teachers’ union meeting.
In that meeting, Bain railed against a culture of fear, suppression and retaliation under Wrend’s leadership. Days later, Bain found himself subject to an unrelenting and free-ranging investigation led by Wrend, which contrived a litany of baseless but devastating allegations.
At the close of trial, the jury was asked to answer the retaliation question, along with the question of whether the superintendent’s actions were “malicious” or “in reckless disregard of Bain’s rights.”
The jury sided with Bain on every issue, finding that the superintendent violated his right to free speech by wrongfully and baselessly retaliating against him following the union meeting. What’s more, the jury awarded punitive damages, and in so doing, implicitly found that Wrend’s actions were not only intentional but “malicious” and “reckless.”
After the trial, Wrend requested that the presiding judge set aside the jury verdict on the grounds that, as a government official, she should enjoy immunity from the lawsuit. Her request was rejected, and the superintendent then appealed that decision. However, in August she agreed to drop the appeal pursuant to a settlement, and the case is now closed.
Where does the settlement leave the parties? The answer is simple: the jury’s verdict for Bain is final, the jury’s finding of punitive damages is final, the jury’s rejection of Wrend’s defenses is final, and the trial judge’s rejection of Wrend’s request for immunity is now final.
The outcome is redemption for Bain and a warning to public officials who may be tempted by the power conferred by their positions to suppress critical speech by subordinates.
After the $150,000 verdict, the judge awarded $171,088 in attorneys’ fees and costs. Attorneys’ fees are awarded in free speech claims to incentivize lawyers to take on these important cases, which are as difficult as they are important.
In order to allow Bain to resolve this matter and move on, I waived a large portion of the attorneys’ fees awarded by the judge. I did not need the additional fees to be incentivized. I found what happened to Bain to be intolerable and motivation enough.
It was more important to ensure that the matter ended with Bain’s vindication in challenging the morally corrupt behavior of a public official. Positions of power demand the highest integrity and respect for how that power is wielded.
In light of the jury’s verdict, how can this behavior be tolerated? The jury consisted of qualified, educated and attentive citizens — including former educators — drawn from throughout this state. Each juror agreed that the superintendent acted intentionally and in violation of the law.
If the school board’s initial hesitancy to act was based on the pending appeal, it’s now over. No basis remains to justify or excuse the superintendent’s actions. If the school board can’t change the past, it can at least ensure that no teachers are at risk of experiencing what Bain endured — a fate now referred to within the hall of our schools as “getting Bained.”
The baton has now passed to the citizens and leaders of the Lamoille South Unified Union school district. How can we reconcile our community values with the superintendent’s treatment of Bain and the rippling culture of fear that emanates from his case, along with other cases that have not made their way through the court system?
Bain’s case is hopeful in that it demonstrates the power of the legal system to uphold free speech rights after a violation, but it is an incomplete remedy. No amount of money can eliminate the pain of the experience for Bain, or the disruption and distraction it causes within our schools.
The time has come to ask difficult questions and require complete transparency and honesty in response. This litigation was about addressing wrongful retaliation against David Bain specifically, but it revealed a great deal about the recent experiences of students and faculty in our schools generally.
The opportunity now before us is to evaluate the standards to which we hold school officials, and whether the past conduct of our officials meets the mark. It is incumbent on all citizens in the district, including the school board, to engage on these matters, and it is my hope that we do so genuinely in a fair and intellectually honest way.
Chandler Matson is an attorney in private practice in Stowe.