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Raap v. Board of Trustees, Wolf Point School District

Supreme Court of Montana

March 27, 2018

KRISTINE RAAP, Petitioner and Appellant,
v.
BOARD OF TRUSTEES, WOLF POINT SCHOOL DISTRICT, Respondent and Appellee.

          Submitted on Briefs: November 1, 2017

          District Court of the Fifteenth Judicial District, In and For the County of Roosevelt, Cause No. DV-16-1 Honorable David Cybulski, Presiding Judge

          For Appellant: Peter Michael Meloy, Attorney at Law, Helena, Montana.

          For Appellee: Mary E. Duncan, Jeffrey A. Weldon, Felt, Martin, Frazier & Weldon, P.C., Billings, Montana.

          OPINION

          Dirk Sandefur Justice.

         ¶1 Kristine Raap (Raap) appeals from the judgment of the Montana Fifteenth Judicial District Court denying her motion for summary judgment and granting summary judgment to the Wolf Point School District Board of Trustees (Board) on her claim that the Board unlawfully terminated her employment in violation of § 2-3-203, MCA (open meeting law) and the Montana Constitution, Article II, Section 9 (right to know). We reverse and remand for further proceedings, restating the issues as:

1. Did the District Court erroneously grant summary judgment that the Board lawfully closed its meeting based on unspecified third-party privacy rights?
2. Did the District Court erroneously grant summary judgment that the Board lawfully excluded Raap and her union representative from its "executive session" under the litigation strategy exception of § 2-3-203(4), MCA?

         BACKGROUND

         ¶2 The Wolf Point School District Board of Trustees hired Raap to work as a new teacher under a one-year employment contract for the 2015-16 school year. Four months into the school year, the school district superintendent recommended that the Board prematurely terminate Raap's contract. The Board set a meeting for December 22, 2015, to consider the matter. Raap had previously filed an administrative complaint with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in November 2015 alleging that the school district had unlawfully discriminated against her in the administration of her employment. Upon EEOC referral of the complaint to the Montana Human Rights Bureau (HRB), HRB issued a written notice on December 11, 2015, advising the Board of the complaint and resulting commencement of an HRB investigation.[1]

         ¶3 On December 22, 2015, Raap and her union president appeared before the Board for hearing on the school district superintendent's recommendation to terminate her employment. In addition to Board members, the only persons present were Raap, her union representative, the superintendent, Raap's supervising school principal, and the Board's lawyer via telephone. No one else appeared or otherwise sought admittance to the meeting at any time. At the outset, the Board chair informed Raap that the meeting would be closed to the public unless she waived her right to privacy. Raap then waived her right to privacy. Despite Raap's waiver, the Board's meeting minutes reflect that the chair closed the meeting to the public "to protect the rights of individual privacy of statements and information for those not in attendance." Raap expressed her intent to electronically record the meeting but the Board chair precluded her from doing so.

         ¶4 After four hours of testimony, the Board chair re-opened the meeting to the public at which time another trustee made a motion, seconded by yet another, for the Board to terminate Raap's employment. Without discussion or deliberation on the motion, and at the request of another trustee, the chair again closed the meeting to allow the Board to privately discuss unspecified litigation strategy at an "executive session" with the Board's lawyer. The Board excluded all from the executive session except for Board members, the school superintendent, and the Board's lawyer. After an 11-minute executive session, the Board allowed Raap and her union representative back into the room. Without deliberation or discussion on the termination motion, the Board promptly voted to terminate Raap's contract. In a subsequent District Court affidavit, the Board's lawyer asserted that the Board did not discuss or deliberate whether to terminate Raap's contract in the executive session, to wit:

The litigation strategy executive session was very short and focused solely on litigation strategy related to defense of the EEOC/HRB claim and my explanation of the claim and the process that would be followed. The bulk of the 11 minutes was taken up with my explanations.

         The affidavit provided no explanation or indication of the Board's need to exclude Raap and her union representative from a discussion purportedly focused solely on an explanation of the substance of her previously received complaint and "the process that would follow."

         ¶5 Following the termination of her employment and an unsuccessful union grievance, Raap filed a complaint in the Montana Fifteenth Judicial District Court alleging that the Board terminated her contract in violation of § 2-3-203, MCA, and Article II, Section 9, of the Montana Constitution. Raap requested that the District Court vacate the Board's ...


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