(The Center Square) – Two school administrators must pay Springfield Public Schools $312,869 in attorney fees after a First Amendment lawsuit against the district was dismissed.
In January, U.S. District Judge Douglas Harpool granted a summary judgment in favor of the school district. In February, Harpool allowed the district to request attorney fees.
In 2021, Brooke Henderson, a compliance coordinator who ensures students with disabilities receive appropriate benefits and services, and Jennifer Lumley, a records secretary, filed a lawsuit through Southeastern Legal Foundation attorney Kimberly Hermann. They claimed a mandatory training demanding they “commit” to equity and become “anti-racist” educators violated their First Amendment rights.
The school district requested the court award attorney’s fees in its motion to dismiss the case. The administrators argued payment of legal fees is appropriate only when claims are frivolous or lacking basis in law or fact.
At the end of a 25-page ruling dismissing the suit, Harpool said the administrators didn’t suffer an injury regarding claims of compelled speech and the “groundlessness” of the suit “trivializes the important work of the federal judiciary.”
“Taxpayer dollars which could have been devoted to enhancing the educational opportunity of the students served by the district have instead been diverted to the defense of this lawsuit,” Harpool wrote. “The students of the district deserve better. So too do the taxpayers whose hard-earned money is taxed by the district for the purposes of educating the children of the district in which they reside.”
The two administrators will appeal the ruling, according to their lawyers.
“In nearly 50 years of bringing lawsuits under … civil rights law, SLF has never faced attorney fees sanctions for challenging unconstitutional government action at any level,” Braden Boucek, the organization’s litigation director, said in a statement. “This unprecedented ruling is sure to close the courthouse doors to teachers and parents.”
Harpool said all public employees with personal disagreements regarding legal training couldn’t sue.
“As this court noted in its summary judgment order, it is not acceptable for public employees to simply disregard a training that is lawful, but may be at odds with the employee’s personal views,” Harpool wrote last week. “To hold the opposite would make the management of a large, urban school district untenable.”
In addition to awarding the legal fees, Harpool said the lawsuit wasted federal judicial resources.
“Finally, the political undertones of plaintiffs’ allegations, when considered alongside the lack of a factual basis for their claims, demonstrate how plaintiffs’ lawsuit has trivialized the important work of the federal judiciary,” Harpool wrote. “Plaintiffs attempted to drag defendants into a political dispute rather than seek remedy for a genuine harm. This court is a forum for litigation of genuine disputes of fact and law alone, rather than frivolous political disagreement.”
SLF, classified as a 501(c)3 nonprofit under Internal Revenue Service regulations, is prohibited from “directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office,” according to the IRS.
“If this ruling stands, teachers and parents will have no check against unlimited government power to violate free speech and equal protection rights — and they will be punished if they attempt to do so through our courts,” SLF’s Hermann said in a statement.
SLF’s latest annual IRS filing showed it had $2.5 million in revenue and $2.1 million in expenses for 2020.