School district seeks to dismiss Cunningham suit |

School district seeks to dismiss Cunningham suit

by Sharon Carter

Saying Kirk Cunningham “received all the due process he was due,” attorneys for the Douglas County School District recently filed a motion in federal court in Reno requesting that a lawsuit brought against the district by the “special assignment principal” be dismissed. Failing that, the motion asks for a summary judgment in the case.

If either request is granted by U.S. District Judges David W. Hagen and Robert A. McQuaid Jr., the case would bypass the jury trial Cunningham has requested.

Tuesday, Cunningham’s attorneys, William Patterson Cashill of Reno and George Keele of Minden, filed a motion opposing the request.

“The district’s motion smacked of old time frontier justice – the ‘first we gave ‘im a fair trial and then we hung him’ rationalization,” Cashill said Thursday. “You bet, we opposed it.”

On March 5, Cunningham, the former principal at Jacks Valley Elementary School, filed lawsuit in U.S. District Court accusing the school district, its superintendent and board of trustees of violating his civil rights.

Allegedly because of his poor health, Cunningham, who has 22 years with the district – 15 of them at Jacks Valley – was removed from his position at the North County school by the school board July 7, 1998, after a closed personnel session.

Cunningham, 48, currently shares duties with Gardnerville Elementary School Principal Richard Brownfield.

Cunningham’s lawsuit claims the school district breached its contract with him and deprived him of his job. It also invokes the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, saying the district did not make reasonable accommodations for his illness.

n Discrimination alleged. The reason given for the board’s decision, which Cunningham claims amounted to a demotion, was that he had used 70 days of accrued sick leave the year before and that he suffered from a disability which prevented him from functioning as a full-time principal.

The lawsuit points out that Cunningham’s contract with the district guarantees him 90 days of sick leave per year. It also maintains the district and Superintendent Pendery Clark had prior written assurances from Cunningham’s physician, Dr. William O’Shaughnessy, that Cunningham could do his job. It also alleges that Cunningham’s replacement at Jack’s Valley, Pam Gilmartin, was hired before Cunningham was dismissed and that the district hired her knowing she would require maternity leave during the school year.

n Civil rights claim. The lawsuit states the defendants, Pendery Clark, the district superintendent, and school board members David Brady, Cheri Johnson, Michele Lewis, George Echan, Randy Wallstrum, Don Forrester and Diane McCoy, denied Cunningham of his property (job) without the due process guaranteed by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution. The lawsuit accused the district officials of holding a pretextural hearing which had a predetermined outcome and stated they did not inform Cunningham of the reason for his dismissal. He also contended that they did not allow him an opportunity to refute reasons for the dismissal.

It also argues school board members, by ratifying and approving the “acts and defalcations” (breaches of trust) of Clark, overstepped their authority, misused their power and ignored their legal obligations.

Saying the Cunningham’s reassignment by the district was a demotion that damaged his chances of professional advancement, the lawsuit asked that Cunningham be awarded $75,000 in compensatory damages and $75,000 in punitive damages as well as his attorneys’ fees and court costs.

n School district response. John Soderman, the district personnel officer, said Friday the district’s position in the matter remains unchanged.

“Being a school principal is a tough job that requires full-time attention,” Soderman said. “It’s unfortunate for both Mr. Cunningham and the district, but we need (consistent) site leadership so there’s continuity and parents know who to come to.”

Soderman said the district reorganization was and is still seen as the proper venue to address the district’s needs.

“It was a necessary move done right,” Soderman said. “The school board meeting was the proper venue. (Cunningham’s) attendance prompted the reorganization and attendance is still an issue so the reorganization is still in place. He’s missed more school this year than last year.”

Soderman said the reorganization which placed Cunningham at GES involved no loss of salary or benefits and was not a demotion.

“It was done appropriately with appropriate due process. The issue is if you’re the principal, you have to be there,” he said.

Cunningham, who is being treated for blood clots in his legs, high blood pressure and herniated disks in his back, said Thursday he had been cautioned by his attorneys not to comment publicly on the case.

In an earlier interview, Cunningham said the frustration and anguish the district put him through since his reassignment had worsened his health problems.