On March 3, 2020, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit issued its decision in Mascow v. Board of Educ. of Franklin Park Sch. Dist., No. 19-2563. It concluded that a teacher failed to establish a First Amendment claim but was able to state a valid Fourteenth Amendment Due Process claim.
The essential facts of the case are as follows: Carolyn Mascow, a tenured teacher and co-president of the teachers union in Illinois, was laid off in 2017 after receiving an “unsatisfactory” rating on her last performance evaluation. Mascow did not receive a hearing with the District before she was subject to layoff. Mascow sued the Franklin Park Board of Education (District), citing violations of her First Amendment free speech and Fourteenth Amendment due process rights. The district court dismissed the due process claim and granted summary judgment to the District on the First Amendment claim.
During two meetings held in 2014 and 2015, Mascow accused the District of violating its CBA by requiring teachers to stay late after school events – the District ultimately canceled one event and revised the other consistent with the CBA. Mascow alleged that her speech at these two meetings caused her evaluations to suffer, ultimately leading to her “unsatisfactory” rating that rendered her susceptible to layoff. However, the court reasoned that a reasonable jury could not find that meetings in 2014 and 2015 would have caused a decrease in Mascow’s performance ratings; it was unreasonable to attribute a bad rating in 2017 to meetings that took place two to three years prior. Additionally, the court observed that Mascow’s co-president, who was also present at the 2015 meeting, continued to maintain an “excellent” rating.
As to the due process claim, the court concluded that Mascow’s due process claim had potential merit. Mascow was a tenured teacher under Illinois law and could only have been terminated for cause or as part of a reduction in force. The lower court had concluded that because Illinois did not require formal hearings prior to a lay‑off, Mascow: 1) did not have a right to a hearing under a state law, and 2) did not have a property right, and therefore lacked a constitutional claim. The appellate court, however, stated that while a process may sometimes be informal, someone with a property interest must be afforded the chance to present her position.
The takeaway from the above, dry subject matter is this: where state law has created a property interest, federal law provides for hearing procedures even where the state has not done so – the absence of a state right to a hearing does not automatically negate the right under federal law.
The decision may be accessed here.