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Adams v. Laramie County School District Number One

United States Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit

August 20, 2013

TED ADAMS, Plaintiff-Appellant/ Cross-Appellee,
v.
LARAMIE COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT NUMBER ONE; BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF LARAMIE COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT NUMBER ONE, Defendants-Appellees/ Cross-Appellants.

(D.C. No. 2:11-CV-00323-ABJ) (D. Wyo.)

Before LUCERO, ANDERSON, and BALDOCK, Circuit Judges.

ORDER AND JUDGMENT [*]

Carlos F. Lucero Circuit Judge

Ted Adams sued his former employer, Laramie County School District No. 1 ("LCSD") and its Board of Trustees, alleging they violated his due process rights and breached his employment contract. A jury found in favor of defendants. Exercising jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291, we affirm and dismiss as moot the defendants' cross-appeal.

I

We view the record in the light most favorable to defendants as the prevailing parties. See Therrien v. Target Corp., 617 F.3d 1242, 1249 (10th Cir. 2010). In 2007, Adams was hired as LCSD's superintendent. By 2009, several trustees were concerned with his performance, particularly his ability to manage, evaluate, and supervise staff; disseminate information on student achievement and attendance; and develop a data warehouse. Throughout the fall of 2009, the board discussed these concerns with Adams. By December of that year, several trustees had completed performance evaluations indicating that Adams was operating below expected competency levels in multiple areas of review. Adams appraised his own performance and arrived at a similar conclusion.

Adams' employment contract permitted termination for cause, and at least two of the trustees thought he "need[ed] to be gone." These trustees expressed their opinions at a closed board meeting on January 4, 2010, during which the board's chairperson presented a compilation of Adams' performance evaluations. The compilation included individual scores from each trustee, the average scores, and the trustees' written comments. Adams' average scores were below competent in twenty of fifty-seven areas. During the meeting, four of the seven trustees indicated they no longer supported him. Given these developments, the board decided to meet with LCSD's attorney, David Evans, at a closed executive session to be held on January 9.

At the January 9 executive session, the trustees discussed their concerns with Evans and decided they should notify Adams that they were considering terminating his contract. The board met with Adams on January 11, and provided him a summary of his performance evaluations and informed him that he had lost the support of the majority of the board. After several trustees explained their concerns, Adams was asked if he had any response. He did not request any further explanation. Evans then offered suggestions as to how Adams might leave his position, including leaving immediately or remaining until June 30, 2010. Adams was given until January 15 to consider his options. He agreed to resign effective June 30, 2010.

Adams subsequently initiated this suit, alleging under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 that defendants terminated him without due process and breached his contract by firing him a year before his contract expired. Defendants moved for summary judgment, but the district court denied the motion. The case proceeded to trial, and a jury returned a verdict in favor of defendants, finding they did not breach the contract because they had cause to seek Adams' resignation. The jury also found that Adams had received due process because he was given notice, an adequate explanation why defendants wanted him to leave, and a fair opportunity to respond.

In appeal No. 12-8057, Adams challenges two jury instructions and an order in limine, which he says contributed to the verdict against him. In appeal No. 12-8058, defendants cross-appeal the district court's denial of summary judgment, though they concede their appeal is moot if we affirm the jury's verdict.

II

"We review a district court's decision to give a particular jury instruction for abuse of discretion, but we review de novo legal objections to the jury instructions." Ryan Dev. Co., L.C. v. Ind. Lumbermens Mut. Ins. Co., 711 F.3d 1165, 1171 (10th Cir. 2013) (quotation omitted).

Adams first contests Instruction No. 28, which delineated the elements of his due process claim. He asserts that the instruction failed to inform the jury that he was entitled to a "full-blown pre-termination hearing." We reject this argument because the district court properly concluded that Adams was not entitled to a such a hearing.

Due process requires "notice and an opportunity to respond." Cleveland Bd. of Educ. v. Loudermill, 470 U.S. 532, 546 (1985). It is well established that a pre-termination hearing "need not be elaborate." Id. at 545. Although "the formality and procedural requisites for the hearing can vary, depending upon the importance of the interests involved and the nature of the subsequent proceedings . . . [i]n general, something less than a full evidentiary hearing is sufficient prior to adverse administrative action." Id. (quotation and alteration omitted). A public employee "is entitled to oral or written notice of the charges ...


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