DYER BROOK, Maine — A Cary Plantation man who spent 44 years as the varsity baseball coach at Southern Aroostook Community High School and nearly four decades as its athletic director before his contract was not renewed is suing the school district and two superintendents, alleging that his civil and constitutional rights were violated and he was discriminated against based on his age.
Murray Putnam, 67, filed a four-count lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Bangor on Friday against RSU 50 in Dyer Brook, former Superintendent John A. Doe and current Superintendent Larry Malone. He has requested a jury trial and is seeking monetary damages.
Putnam dealt with both superintendents during his tenure at the school. Most of his interactions were with Doe, according to the lawsuit, as Malone’s date of hiring was July 1, 2012.
RSU 50 serves the communities of Sherman, Patten, Stacyville, Mount Chase, Moro Plantation, Hersey, Oakfield, Dyer Brook, Island Falls, Smyrna, Merrill and Crystal.
Putnam has not worked at the school since May 15, 2012, when he was placed on paid administrative leave by the district, ending a 44-year baseball coaching career and 39 years at the helm as athletic director.
His coaching tenure included nearly 480 victories and five state championships.
According to the lawsuit, Putnam alleges that his First Amendment rights to free speech were violated and he was retaliated against when he spoke out publicly against the school consolidation law passed by the Legislature in 2008. The purpose of the legislation was to reorganize school districts into regional school units of at least 2,500 students. By 2011, however, the school districts and towns in the southern Aroostook region, which would eventually combine to form RSU 50, had yet to agree on a consolidation plan.
Putnam’s lawyer, Eric Mehnert of Bangor, said on Friday that Putnam spoke out repeatedly against consolidation at school board meetings, to school employees and to school board members, and even circulated a petition opposing it.
“He was very vocal in saying that he did not see the benefits of it,” said Mehnert, an attorney for Bangor-based Hawkes and Mehnert LLP. “He did this right up until 2011. He was a public employee, and I am not sure what the school’s policy is on criticizing educational plans, but public employees can speak as public citizens.”
In July 2011, RSU 50 was officially consolidated. Putnam alleges that three months prior, however, a school board member claimed to have received an anonymous letter about him. The wording was inaccurate, but the writer intended to say that Putnam was “old” and obstinate and that he should do himself a “favor and retire” after the 2011 baseball season. The letter was submitted to Terry Comeau, who was then the superintendent of the Southern Aroostook Community School in Island Falls. He is not a part of the lawsuit.
Putnam alleges that at the same time, superintendent Doe refused to make his pay as athletic director at Southern Aroostook equal to the pay of the Katahdin High School athletic director in retaliation for his criticism of school consolidation, and that one month later, he eliminated the assistant baseball coach position at Southern Aroostook High School.
“Mr. Doe said that both schools had to be equal, and since Katahdin did not have an assistant baseball coach, Putnam should not get an assistant coach at Southern Aroostook,” Mehnert explained on Friday. “But we are alleging that cutting the position on Mr. Putnam was an attempt to increase his workload and make it harder for him in retaliation for his criticism of consolidation.”
Putnam goes on to counter that in the winter of 2011, Doe authorized an assistant varsity basketball coach at Katahdin, even though the Southern Aroostook school did not have one. He painted that as a direct conflict to the rationale that Doe had previously explained to Putnam as his reason for cutting the assistant baseball coach position.
The former coach also claims that in March 2012, Doe received an anonymous letter griping about Putnam’s early practices. According to the lawsuit, Doe acted without conferring with Putnam and ended them, which the coach pegged as a move to strip him of authority for criticizing school consolidation.
According to court documents, Doe allegedly received a complaint on or around May 7, 2012, that hazing had taken place on the annual preseason spring baseball trip to Boston. Putnam alleges that as soon as he was advised that there was a complaint he requested a copy of it, but Doe refused to give it to him and instead began looking into the matter on his own. Eight days later, and still without having seen a copy of the complaint, Putnam was placed on administrative leave.
“We believe that the investigation by Doe was conducted for reasons that were untoward and it tarnished Mr. Putnam’s reputation,” said Mehnert. “They didn’t let him see the complaint and so they gave him no chance to challenge it.”
Mehnert said that he was still awaiting discovery materials from the district to determine the exact nature of what the alleged hazing entailed. During a school board meeting in June 2012 which more than 60 people attended, several speakers made references to inappropriate pictures that were posted online after the Boston trip that may have included possible instances of hazing.
At the time, Putnam was not suspected of any involvement but as head coach he had oversight responsibilities for the team. During the meeting, the majority of the attendees showed strong support for the coach.
Putnam alleges that the district violated his First Amendment rights and that they violated his right to due process by not allowing him a hearing before refusing to renew his contract in June 2012.
He also alleges that his First Amendment right to association, right to petition for redress and right to free speech were violated when several school board members met in private to discuss his position in RSU 50, and also when they failed to allow for public participation at meetings, in concert with other allegations.
Putnam, who was 66 when his contract was not renewed, based his age discrimination allegation on statements in the April 2011 anonymous note and those that he claimed were made to him by Malone during a meeting that took place on July 17, 2012, one month after Doe refused to renew his contract. According to court documents, Putnam met with Malone and Jon Porter, the principal of Southern Aroostook Community School, to discuss his reappointment as varsity baseball coach and athletic director on that day.
Putnam alleges that during the meeting, Malone asked him how much longer he wanted to work, which he believed implied that he thought the coach should retire.
Mehnert also said on Friday that the replacement athletic director hired by RSU 50 was 39-years-old and the varsity baseball coach also was younger than Putnam.
Melissa Hewey, attorney for RSU 50, Doe and Malone, denied all of the charges leveled at her clients by Putnam. Hewey works for the Portland-based firm of Drummond Woodsum.
Contacted on Friday afternoon, she said that the defendants had not yet been served with the suit but had prepared a case for review by the Maine Human Rights Commission. Putnam received a right to sue letter from the commission on Jan. 21, authorizing him to initiate litigation for age discrimination.
She said that she was “surprised that Putnam was taking it this far.”
“The only reason that Mr. Putnam’s contract was not renewed was because of the hazing incident,” she said on Friday evening. “I don’t know where these other allegations are coming from. When it came down to the issues with the hazing, they had no choice but to remove him. The district cannot and will not tolerate hazing of any kind.”
Hewey said that “this is the first that we have heard” about age discrimination and “retaliation for speaking out about school consolidation.”
“This hazing incident was thoroughly investigated and there was due process,” she said. “And the results were that it’s alleged that he knew about the hazing or that if he did not, he should have known about it.”
She called Putnam’s claims that he was retaliated against for opposing consolidation “baseless.”
“Half the state spoke out against consolidation,” she said on Friday. “What’s the big deal?”
Putnam is seeking a $300,000 settlement against the defendants individually and severally, in concert with back pay and front pay, punitive damages, attorneys fees, interests, costs and any other relief the court deems proper.