A recent case from California nicely illustrates how courts analyze parental allegations of illegal retaliation.  The parent alleged that the district retaliated against him by cutting off his communication with staff members, and seeking to impose a restraining order on him.  The parent alleged that this was done to punish him for his advocacy for his child.

The school district asserted that it was merely trying to protect its staff from feeling harassed and threatened by a parent who had filed numerous complaints at all levels, alleging falsification of records and other illegal and unethical conduct.

The parent asserted that the school’s stated reason was baloney, or in legal parlance “a pretext” designed to hide the real reason.

The court held that the filing of a suit to seek a restraining order could be viewed as an “adverse action.”  Thus the court proceeded to assess whether the school district’s stated reason was the real deal, or, as the parent alleged, a “pretext” to hide its dark heart and retaliatory motive.

This gets courts into the difficult position of trying to figure out: “what was the REAL reason?”  The court acknowledged how difficult this is: “Courts have recognized that true motivations are particularly difficult to ascertain.”  Despite the difficulty, courts do this all the time.  Court cases frequently turn on “true motivations.” This is so in criminal law, where the prosecution must prove a certain mens rea, or state of mind, to make its case. It is also true in cases alleging discrimination in employment.  Was the employee fired because he performed poorly?   Or was it because he is a Muslim?

However, courts usually make these tough decisions only after hearing all of the evidence that both sides offer.  In other words, they do so after a full blown trial of the case.  Here, the school district was seeking a “summary judgment”--trying to persuade the court to dismiss the case in its early stages, prior to a full trial. The court refused, and noted that factual determinations about “true motivation” are “generally unsuitable for disposition at the summary judgment stage.”

There are practical implications here, which help explain why retaliation claims against school districts are on the rise.  Retaliation claims almost always turn, in part, on “true motivation.” The court here notes that “true motivation” will not usually be determined at the preliminary stage, but rather, only after a full blown trial. Summary judgment rarely works.  This extends the life of the lawsuit, making its defense more costly and risky. Thus the price of a potential out of court settlement goes up.  When the price of litigation and settlement goes up, retaliation claims become more attractive to plaintiffs.  Thus, retaliation claims continue to be on the rise.

The case is Lee v. Natomas USD, decided by the federal court for the Eastern District of California on February 25, 2015.  We found it at 65 IDELR 41.