DYER BROOK, Maine — A federal judge has ruled that a former longtime baseball coach and athletic director at Southern Aroostook Community High School can proceed with his lawsuit against the local school district and two of its superintendents for allegedly retaliating against him for being outspoken against school consolidation.
Attorneys for RSU 50 and the superintendents sought summary judgments in U.S. District Court in Bangor against the lawsuits filed by Murray Putnam arguing that his annual contract was not renewed in July 2012 because of hazing incidents on a spring baseball trip that an investigator called “dangerous and severe.”
Putnam, 68, last year sued the district, former Superintendent John A. Doe and current Superintendent Larry Malone, arguing that the hazing investigation and investigator’s report were a pretext for his being ousted from his longtime posts because of his age and because he was such an outspoken opponent of school consolidation.
He has requested a jury trial and is seeking unspecified monetary damages.
Putnam’s attorney, Eric Mehnert of Hawkes & Mehnert of Bangor, said Tuesday that U.S. District Court Judge John Woodcock put the case on the docket for a trial in December.
“The fact that this was not dismissed and instead set for trial was a huge victory for us,” Mehnert said Tuesday.
The 69-page court document outlines the case against Doe, Malone and the school district, which serves the communities of Sherman, Patten, Stacyville, Mount Chase, Moro Plantation, Hersey, Oakfield, Dyer Brook, Island Falls, Smyrna, Merrill and Crystal.
Putnam alleges in the lawsuits that his First Amendment rights to protected and free speech were violated and that he was retaliated against because he spoke out against school consolidation efforts from 2007 through 2011 when school systems in southern Aroostook eventually combined to form RSU 50.
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 career as baseball coach and 39 years at the helm as athletic director.
According to court documents, Doe allegedly received a complaint on or around May 7, 2012, that hazing had taken place on the high school baseball team’s annual preseason spring 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 and hired an attorney to investigate. Eight days later, and still without having seen a copy of the complaint, Putnam said that he was placed on administrative leave.
M. Thomas Trenholm, a lawyer for the Portland law firm of Drummond Woodsum, prepared a report for the school district after interviewing 11 of the 13 players as well as the four adults who chaperoned the trip. He also interviewed school administrators, parents and board members who were former players.
“I find that not only did hazing occur multiple times on this year’s trip, but it has been prevalent on past trips, and that fact is widely known among players and adults alike,” Trenholm reported, according to the court documents.
Documents refer to a former student stating that he had been hazed and that a few ball players had pubic hair shaved with a straight razor as part of a freshman initiation.
In a May 31, 2012, letter to Doe, Trenholm wrote that while Putnam said he was “not aware of these rumors, or hazing on any trips,” he found that Putnam “knew or should have known that hazing occurred.” He also said that the hazing and initiations amounted to more than just “horseplay,” and evidence showed that “first-year players were indeed hurt by this very dangerous and severe annual occurrence.”
Attorneys for the district and the two superintendents denied in court documents that Putnam was fired because he opposed school consolidation. They pointed out that although Putnam began speaking out against school consolidation in 2007 and continued to oppose it right through 2011, his employment contracts were renewed every year through 2012.
They also argued that he was not discriminated against because of his age. According to the court documents, Putnam’s contract was not renewed “because he allowed hazing to occur on the spring 2012 trip when he was responsible for supervising the students, in violation of the district’s anti-hazing policy.”
In the end, Woodcock agreed with the defendants on several points, including that Putnam was provided adequate due process and that his age was not the issue.
“The evidence suggests that the allegations of hazing were pretext for, if anything at all, retaliation against Mr. Putnam for opposing school consolidation, not age discrimination,” the judge concluded.
“It is possible that they took action against Mr. Putnam because of his vocal opposition to school consolidation, but it is also possible that they took action because Mr. Putnam violated RSU 50 policy,” Woodcock wrote. “It is for a jury, not for this court, to resolve these conflicting factual and credibility issues.”
Putnam is seeking a financial settlement against the defendants individually and severally, in concert with back pay and front pay, punitive damages, attorney’s fees, interests, costs and any other relief the court deems proper.
Melissa A. Hewey, attorney for the district, Doe and Malone could not be reached for comment Tuesday.