Court sides with school in Hansen case
ROCHESTER--The United States District Court for Western New York filed court papers Monday, July 15 in the case between Kristina Hansen (plaintiff) and the Watkins Glen Central School District including former Superintendent Tom Phillips (defendants).
The defendants asked for a summary judgment in the case and it was granted by the court. Summary judgments are issued in cases where the court feels relevant factual issues have already been tried and a decision can be made without a trial. Chief Judge Frank P. Geraci Jr. presided.
This case was brought after several interactions and subsequent arrests of Hansen after visits at Watkins Glen school facilities.
In March of 2016, Hansen attended a board of education meeting and heard there would be a budget presentation during a Superintendents' Day on Friday, March 11. Students were not in the building that day, however, the staff was present. To gain access to the school March 11, Hansen waited by the entrance until board members passed through the locked doors and "closely" followed them, according to court papers. Phillips denied Hansen access to the meeting because of confidential staffing issues being discussed and told Hansen to leave. She did not, and Watkins Glen police officers escorted her off the property. The superintendent later sent a letter to Hansen requiring her to get his permission before coming to the school.
By email, she objected, and Phillips responded by reinforcing the terms by which she could visit the school.
Hansen was allowed to attend a parent/teacher conference March 17 after seeking permission, but sent an email March 21 saying she intended to come to the scheduled board meeting without seeking prior permission. When she arrived Phillips told her to leave based on not asking for permission. She refused and was arrested and charged with criminal trespass. Hansen again came to the school May 4 for a tennis match without superintendent approval and was asked to leave, refused, and was arrested again.
The Watkins Glen court found the order against Hansen to be "unlawful" and dismissed charges from both the March 21 and May 4 arrests. The court said the banishment order was an "overreaction to a relatively benign infraction of school rules by a citizen who reasonably believed she had a right to attend the open session of a meeting attended by a quorum of the Board of Education..." The court also said the March 11 meeting should have been open to the public based on the state open meetings law.
Hansen sued the school district and Phillips for a First Amendment violation, 14th Amendment violation, a First Amendment retaliation and a Monell claim which relates to a policy or custom causing a deprivation of rights.
On each issue, the United States court found in favor of the school district or Phillips.
On the first cause of action, they found "reasonable superintendents could disagree about whether Phillips's restriction violated Hansen's First Amendment right" and "a reasonable superintendent would not have understood that the permission requirement violated Hansen's due process rights."
Concerning the second cause of action about retaliation, the court pointed to "imprecise" language by Phillips in his two written communications to Hansen and cited precedent saying public officials are "entitled to qualified immunity [when] their decision was reasonable, even if mistaken."
The court rejected the third cause of action because it found "the practice or custom she asserts [the superintendent enforcing the visitor policy] did not directly cause the constitutional violation she alleges. The practice relates only to who may enforce the Visitors' Policy, not how that policy is enforced nor the terms of the policy itself."
Attorney Jacob McNamara of Schlather, Stumbar, Parks & Salk, LLP the law firm who represented Hansen, issued an emailed statement to the REVIEW&EXPRESS about the decision.
"We are looking closely at the court's decision and Ms. Hansen is likely to appeal it. The court never recognized the issue of whether Ms. Hansen's First Amendment rights were violated. The focus of this case was not only the original restriction that Superintendent Phillips issued to Ms. Hansen--it was that the Superintendent issued a second, broader, more threatening restriction to Ms. Hansen when she complained about his actions to the board of education. This second restriction constitutes retaliation and reflected an issue that needed a jury's assessment. But rather than sending this case to a jury, the court took a material dispute between Ms. Hansen and Superintendent Phillips and, as a matter of law, sided with the superintendent's version of the facts. The court's decision to side with the superintendent's account about a material dispute is, most notably, why the court is in error and why this error should be redressed on appeal."
McNamara said by phone an appeal could take 18 months to be heard.
Phillips sent an email stating, "I am pleased that the federal court granted summary judgment dismissal on all accusations.
"Thank you to the school attorneys, the insurance company and their attorney and the school board for ensuring the integrity of the district and the financial interests of our community."