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Dobos v. Howland Local Schools Board of Education

United States District Court, N.D. Ohio, Eastern Division

January 23, 2018

SCOTT G. DOBOS, Plaintiff,
v.
HOWLAND LOCAL SCHOOLS BOARD OF EDUCATION, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER

          KATHLEEN B. BURKE, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Scott Dobos was a maintenance worker employed by Defendant Howland Local Schools Board of Education (“Board”). He alleges that, after a series of disciplinary meetings and hearings, he was forced to resign by Defendant Superintendent Kevin Spicher (“Spicher”). He has brought a procedural due process claim pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the Board and Spicher (collectively “Defendants”), asserting that the pre-termination process he received was constitutionally defective. Defendants assert that Dobos resigned voluntarily and that he received due process.

         Defendants have filed a motion for summary judgment, Dobos filed an opposition brief, and Defendants replied. For the reasons explained below, while there is a question of fact as to whether Dobos resigned voluntarily, there is no genuine issue of material fact regarding Dobos's due process claim because Dobos cannot show he was denied adequate pre-termination process. Therefore, Defendants are entitled to summary judgment.

         I. Background facts

         Dobos started working at Howland Schools full time as a maintenance worker in January 2000, after spending two years at Howland as a substitute maintenance worker. Doc. 26-2, p. 15 (Dobos deposition). During his time at Howland he reported to Jeff McVicker, but he was not actively supervised. Id., p. 26; Doc. 26-3, p. 13 (Keith Spicher's deposition).

         In November 2015, the Board hired Superintendent Spicher's brother, Keith Spicher (hereinafter “Keith”), to be Operations Supervisor.[1] Doc. 26-3, p. 7; Doc. 16-2, pp. 36-37. As Operations Supervisor, Keith became the supervisor of all maintenance staff. Doc. 26-3, p. 7. The maintenance workers, including Dobos, were unhappy with the change because they had never been closely supervised before. Doc. 26-3, p. 13. Dobos was also unhappy because he had applied for the supervisor job but the Board hired Keith instead. Doc. 26-2, p. 32.

         After Keith was hired, Dobos applied for the job “Maintenance II” worker and was hired for that position, effective on or about December 14, 2015. Id., p. 30. Dobos wanted the Maintenance II position because he believed this position would not require long hours, nor would it require him to be on call as he previously had been. Id. pp. 24, 30-32.

         A. The missing sink parts[2]

         On December 21, 2015, Keith was asked to sign an “OK to PAY” invoice for a computer board that Dobos had ordered. Doc. 26-2, p. 184. Keith contacted Dobos to confirm that the part had been received. Id. Dobos initially did not remember if it had been received; he then remembered that it had been. Id. Keith asked him where it was and pointed out that Dobos had ordered five of the same parts on three separate occasions between March and December 2015. Id.; Doc. 26-2, pp. 83, 92; see also Doc. 26-2, pp. 186-188 (invoices). The total cost of these parts was roughly $2, 900. Id. Dobos explained that the parts were for the sinks in the high school. Doc. 26-2, p. 184. He told Keith that he did not know where any of the parts were but that he would get back to him. Id. When Keith asked him why he kept ordering the parts when they had never been installed, Dobos had no answer and could not remember if they had been installed or not. Id.

         Dobos admits that, between December 21, 2015, and February 5, 2016, he did not attempt to provide any information to Keith about the location of the five missing sink parts. Doc. 26-2, p. 92.

         B. January 5, 2016, disciplinary meeting

         On December 21 and/or December 22, 2015, Keith met with maintenance workers and explained that they would be installing projectors in classrooms during the school holiday break. Doc. 26-3, pp. 18-19. Keith asked the workers if they had any other projects planned over the break and “nobody said anything.” Doc. 26-3, p. 19. Dobos recalls that he told Keith that he had some other projects to do and that he would “get to” the projectors. Doc. 26-2, p. 38. Dobos started working on the projectors two days after the meeting. Id. He did not understand Keith to say that the workers should start installing the projectors immediately. Id.

         On December 30, 2015, Keith sent Dobos a letter informing him that a disciplinary meeting would take place in Keith's office on January 5, 2016, to discuss “events that took place on December 21 and December 22, 2015, whereby you were assigned to install projectors.” Doc. 26-2, p. 172. Discussion items were listed as the failure to carry out directives as assigned and the failure to communicate rationale for deviating from the assigned directives. Id. Dobos was instructed to have a union representative accompany him. Id.[3] According to Keith, at the meeting, Dobos indicated that he did not understand the assignment and Keith gave him a verbal warning. Doc. 26-3, p. 21; Doc. 26-2, p. 173. According to Dobos, he was “shocked” that Keith alleged he failed to follow directives and that Keith was mistaken about whether Dobos failed to communicate his rationale for deviating from the directives “because [Keith] knew what I was doing.” Doc. 26-2, pp. 39-40. Dobos did not believe Keith had issued him a verbal warning; rather, he believed that the verbal warning portion of the disciplinary process was dismissed because everyone understood it was a misunderstanding. Doc. 26-2, p. 41.

         During the meeting, Dobos and his union representative, Tammy Heslop, made it clear to Keith that Dobos no longer wanted to have anything to do with the boilers now that he was a Maintenance II employee. Doc. 26-2, pp. 46, 174. Additionally, Keith told Dobos to complete his work orders and report to his supervisor after completing each order. Doc. 25-2, p. 1, ¶2.

         C. The boiler incident

         A wrestling tournament was held at Howland over the January 16, 2016, weekend. Doc. 27, p. 19. On the morning of Saturday the 16th, Keith got a call informing him that there was no heat in the school. Id.; Doc. 26-3, p. 26. He called an HVAC company to come to the school to investigate. Doc. 26-3, p. 26. The HVAC workers told Keith that the boilers had been shut down. Id. Keith informed the Superintendent and told an IT worker to review camera footage of the boiler room. Id., p. 27. The camera footage showed Dobos entering the boiler room and coming out a few moments later. Id. The camera evidence was turned over to the Superintendent.

         D. February 1, 2016, fact finding meeting

         Based on the above evidence regarding the boiler incident, Defendants scheduled a fact-finding meeting for February 1, 2016. Doc. 25-1, p. 1, ¶3. Dobos understood that the meeting “probably” had something to do with the boilers being shut down based on a paper he received prior to the meeting “that probably said something about the boilers.” Doc. 26-2, pp. 62-63. He also had a conversation with union representatives before the meeting. Doc. 26-2, p. 62. At the meeting, Dobos was present with union representatives Heslop, Ruth Rule and Bill Padisak. Doc. 26-2, pp. 39, 59, 177 (minutes of meeting). When asked whether he shut the boilers down prior to the tournament weekend or knew anything about the boilers being shut down, Dobos denied any knowledge. Doc. 26-2, p. 59, 177. Superintendent Spicher concluded the meeting by informing Dobos that the district would continue to investigate and would review camera footage. Id.

         Five to fifteen minutes after the meeting ended, Dobos returned to the meeting site and told the Superintendent, “I did it.” Doc. 26-2, pp. 67 (Dobos deposition), 178 (minutes of meeting, Exhibit F to Dobos Deposition).

         E. February 5, 2016, pre-disciplinary hearing

         By letter dated February 3, 2016, Superintendent Spicher informed Dobos that he was required to attend a pre-disciplinary hearing on February 5. Doc. 26-2, p. 179 (letter). The letter informed Dobos that there were allegations being made against him following the conclusion of the February 1st hearing. Id. The letter set forth the allegations to be discussed at the meeting and informed Dobos that he would have an opportunity to respond to the allegations at the pre-disciplinary meeting and share his side of the story. Id. The letter informed him that, depending on how the meeting went, disciplinary action might be taken, including reprimand, unpaid suspension or termination. Id. The allegations set for discussion included insubordination (for failing to follow directives to no longer work on or be near the boilers and failing to notify supervisor of a deviation from an assigned work order); failing to notify appropriate school personnel that he shut down the boilers; intentional subversion; and complicity to cover-up/mislead investigators during the first meeting. Id.

         Prior to the pre-disciplinary hearing, Dobos “assumed” that he would be asked questions about the boilers being shut down but “never thought” that disciplinary action would be an outcome of the meeting, although he did understand it was a pre-disciplinary hearing and stated that he did read the letter listing possible disciplinary outcomes. Doc. 26-2, p. 69.

         Dobos appeared at the hearing with union representatives Heslop and Padisak. Doc. 26-2, p. 71, 180 (minutes of 2/5 hearing).[4] According to the minutes, Dobos stated that he had shut down the boilers and had forgotten to turn them back on. Doc. 26-2, p. 180. He explained that he had been following up on a classroom leak that he had worked on several weeks earlier. Id. When asked, he admitted that there was no work order for this leak. Id. He did not recall whether he had shut down the boilers when he worked on the leak the first time and admitted that the problem both times was the same. Id. When asked if he could have turned off a valve to work on the leak instead of shutting down the boilers, Dobos stated that he did not know but that he did not think so. Id. When asked whether he was permitted to work on the boilers, Dobos responded, “I do what is in the best interest of the district.” Id.[5] Superintendent Spicher commented that insubordination could apply if Dobos was not supposed to be working on boilers and yet chose to do so and Dobos stated, “If that is what you would call it-I don't know-I was just trying to do a good job.” Id. He did not think it would be a big deal to shut the boilers down for a short time and did not notify any school official that he had shut them down. Id. Dobos also admitted that, a few days prior, he may have put water in the boilers if he thought that they needed water even though he had been directed to no longer work on the boilers; “I do whatever I need to do to keep the schools up and running.” Id, p. 181.

         Dobos recalls that Superintendent Spicher then asked him about some computer boards that Dobos had purchased on behalf of the school district on three occasions. Doc. 26-2, p. 72, 181. According to Spicher, Dobos stated that he had installed the sink parts somewhere at the school but could not remember where. Doc. 25-1, p. 2, ¶5. The minutes reflect that the Superintendent stated that there were no work orders for the computer boards and asked Dobos to bring all the computer boards to the office before Dobos left for the day so that they could be inventoried. Doc. 26-2, p. 181. Dobos does not recall that the Superintendent told him to bring them to the office “that day.” Id., p. 73. He did not bring them to the Superintendent's office that day because he “didn't see a major rush on it. Plus, I got called away.” Id. The next day Dobos called off work. Id., p. 75. A few days later he brought boxes containing parts to the office after “Keith called me and said he needed them right away.” Id., p. 75.

         Thereafter, Dobos was placed on administrative leave. Id., 182 (letter notice). The notice stated,

This action is being taken as a result of allegations against you which have initiated an active investigation into allegations stated in the pre-disciplinary hearing letter given to you dated February 03, 2016 (copy attached) and any other inappropriate and /or inconsistencies as related to the performance of your job.

Doc. 26-2, p. 182. Dobos understood that he was placed on leave for the boiler issue. Id., p. 78. He did not understand the language cited above with respect to “any other inappropriate and/or inconsistencies as related to the performance of your job” and did not ask anyone what it meant. Id., pp. 78-79.

         F. February 24, 2016, pre-disciplinary hearing

         On February 18, 2016, Superintendent Spicher wrote Dobos a letter informing him that a pre-disciplinary hearing would take place on February 24, 2016. Doc. 26-2, p. 183. The letter stated,

This meeting is being conducted as a result of investigative findings as related to allegations stated in the pre-disciplinary hearing letter dated February 03, 2016 and any other findings as related to the performance of your job.
You will have the opportunity to respond to any findings at the above aforementioned meeting to share your side of events. You will remain on paid administrative leave until further notice and/or pending meeting outcomes.
* * *

         Depending on hearing results, outcomes may ...


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