RICHARD SULLIVAN V RIVER VALLEY SCHL BDAnnotate this Case
STATE OF MICHIGAN
COURT OF APPEALS
November 6, 1998
RIVER VALLEY SCHOOL BOARD, RIVER VALLEY
EDUCATION ASSOCIATION, CHARLES O.
WILLIAMS, Superintendent of River Valley
Schools, PHIL BENDER, President of River Valley
Education Association, JANE TEMPLE, GARY B.
SOMMERS, PAMELA BEHNKE, DENNIS ZEIGER,
RICHARD RIETH, VICKIE PAILING, LYNDA
VACKAR and WESLEY LIND, jointly and severally in
their individual and official capacities,
Berrien Circuit Court
LC No. 93-002066-NZ
Before: Hood, P.J., and Doctoroff and Neff, JJ.
This case is before us for the second time.1 In the original opinion, the panel affirmed the trial
court’s dismissal of plaintiff Richard Sullivan’s action against defendants River Valley Education
Association and its president Phil Bender (RVEA), and River Valley School Board, along with its
superintendent, Charles O. Williams, and board members Jane Temple, Gary Sommers, Pamela
Behnke, Dennis Zeiger, Richard Rieth, Vicki Pailing, Lynda Vackar and Wesley Lind (RVSB).
Sullivan v River Valley School Bd, unpublished opinion per curiam of the Court of Appeals, issued
July 11, 1997 (Docket No. 181913). Plaintiff applied for leave to appeal and our Supreme Court, in
lieu of granting leave, remanded to this Court “for reconsideration of the plaintiff’s claim under 42 USC
1983, in light of the reasoning in Chappel v Montgomery County Fire Protection Dist #1, 131 F3d
564 (CA 6, 1997).”2 Sullivan v River Valley School Bd, 569 Mich 862-863; ___ NW2d ___
(1998). On remand, we affirm the dismissal of plaintiff’s allegations pursuant to §1983.
Plaintiff’s complaint alleged that defendants punished and retaliated against plaintiff f r the
exercise of his First Amendment right to free speech. At the outset, we must determine whether the
alleged speech at issue may be “fairly characterized as constituting speech on a matter of public
concern.” Connick v Myers, 461 US 138, 146; 103 S Ct 1684 75 L Ed 2d 708 (1983). Matters of
public concern are those that may be “fairly characterize[d] . . . as relating to any matter of political,
social, or other concern to the community.” Rahn v Drake Center, Inc, 31 F3d 407, 412 (CA 6,
1994). Whether speech addresses a matter of public concern is a question of law “determined by the
content, form, and context of a given statement, as revealed by the whole record.” Connick, 461 US
at 147-148; 103 S Ct at 1690.
In Chappel, supra, the Sixth Circuit held that an individual’s personal motives for speaking is
not dispositive. Indeed, the distinction at issue is “between matters of public concern and matters of
personal interest, not civic-minded motives and self-serving motives.” Id. at 575. Indeed, ‘“[t]he
motive which underlies an employee’s statements is a relevant, but not necessarily dispositive factor’
when considering whether an employee’s statements may be fairly characterized as relating to any
matter of political, social, or other concern to the community.” Id. at 576, quoting Cliff v Bd of Sch
Comm’rs of Indianapolis, 42 F3d 403, 409 (7 CA, 1994).
After a careful review of plaintiff’s allegations in the present case, and being mindful that it is the
message, rather than the motive, that is of utmost importance, Chappel, supra, we conclude that the
speech at issue was not on a matter of public concern. Though critical of RVEA and RVSB, plaintiff’s
speech was a “mere extension” of plaintiff’s dispute over his unsuccessful bid for a coaching position,
his subsequent withdrawal from the union, and his dispute regarding payment of representation fees.
Connick, supra at 148. The speech at issue reflected nothing more than complaints regarding an
essentially private employment dispute, and “an a
ttempt to turn [plaintiff’s] displeasure into a cause
celébre.” Such speech is not subject to protection by the First Amendment. Consequently, plaintiff’s
§1983 action alleging a denial of his freedom of speech was properly dismissed.3
The Supreme Court’s order on remand does not affect our earlier decision affirming the
dismissal of the remaining counts in plaintiff’s complaint. Accordingly, that holding stands as the law of
/s/ Harold Hood
/s/ Martin M. Doctoroff
/s/ Janet T. Neff
Pursuant to our Court policy, Judge Doctoroff has been substituted for visiting Circuit Judge M.A.
Chrzanowski, who sat as a member of the original panel in this matter by assignment.
We note that Chappel was decided approximately four months after our original decision in this case.
We note that RVSB argues that plaintiff’s §1983 action was properly dismissed because plaintiff
suffered no adverse employment action as a result of his speech, and that RVEA argues that, as a
private, unincorporated association, it is not subject to this cause of action at all. In light of our
determination that the alleged speech at issue was not of public concern, and thus not protected by the
First Amendment, we need not reach these additional grounds for dismissal.