A lawsuit brought by a former superintendent against her school district has been settled. Nancy Sebring, who served as superintendent of Des Moines Public Schools, received a settlement from the district’s insurer before the matter came trial.
Sebring had accepted a new job as superintendent of Omaha schools early in 2012, and was preparing to make the move when the Des Moines Register made an open records request. Officials from the Des Moines school district responded with emails that had been sent from Sebring’s work email account. Among the missives were explicit emails Sebring had sent to her married lover.
The Register publicized the emails, and the resulting scandal caused Sebring to resign from her position in Des Moines months earlier than anticipated. Moreover, the job offer from Omaha disappeared. Sebring was left without a job.
She filed suit against the district. A judge gave the go-ahead for the matter to proceed when the district protested that Sebring’s lawsuit was without grounds. In fact, the district felt that their actions were in line with the state’s open records laws.
Lengthy depositions had already been taken, and the case was well on its way to its October trial date when the district’s insurer decided that settlement made the most sense in this situation. Fearing years of litigation and appeals, the insurer made the decision to pay $350,000 to Sebring and her attorneys.
The fact that this case did not proceed to trial leaves a great number of questions unanswered. Would the court have concluded that Sebring was in the wrong for using a work email for personal matters? Perhaps the court would have decided in Sebring’s favor, arguing that her employer should have known the devastating effect releasing these emails would have had on Sebring’s reputation.
While the probable outcome of this litigation will remain speculative it nonetheless provides a helpful reminder about instituting smart work email account policies. Using a work email for private matters is virtually never a good idea whether in the private sector, and especially when employed in the public sector. Just ask Hillary Clinton!
If you are a California school administrator with a question about school district related employment law, student/teacher safety, special education, accommodations, student rights, free speech or discipline, feel free to call attorney Richard Oppenheim at 818-461-8500. There is never a charge for an initial consultation and we can help you choose the best direction to resolve any school district employment law issue.