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Sulu v. Magana

Supreme Court of Nebraska

April 1, 2016

PATRICIA SULU, APPELLANT,
v.
KIM MAGANA, APPELLEE

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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          Appeal from the District Court for Scotts Bluff County: LEO DOBROVOLNY, Judge.

         Maren Lynn Chaloupka, of Chaloupka, Holyoke, Snyder, Chaloupka, Longoria & Kishiyama, P.C., L.L.O., for appellant.

         John M. Guthery and Joshua J. Schauer, of Perry, Guthery, Haase & Gessford, P.C., L.L.O., for appellee.

         HEAVICAN, C.J., WRIGHT, CONNOLLY, MILLER-LERMAN, CASSEL, and STACY, JJ.

          OPINION

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          [293 Neb. 150] Cassel, J.

         INTRODUCTION

         On the advice of a parent, who was also a school board member, a student authored a letter critical of a public school teacher's curriculum. Instead of changing her curriculum, the teacher quit her job. The teacher then sued the parent/board member on the theory of tortious interference with a business relationship or expectancy. The teacher appeals from a summary judgment dismissing her claim. Because the parent/ board member provided truthful information and honest advice, her actions were not unjustified. We affirm the entry of summary judgment.

         BACKGROUND

         Key Individuals

         At all relevant times, Kim Magana was a parent of a student in the Scottsbluff Public School District (School District) and a member of the School District's school board (Board). She ran for a position on the Board out of a desire to make the school's curriculum more rigorous and became a member in 2000. Magana served

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on the Board's curriculum and technology committee.

         Patricia Sulu was an upper-level Spanish teacher and chair of the world languages department at Scottsbluff Senior High School. She had developed curriculums for her classes and [293 Neb. 151] the world languages department without criticism from the School District over her 25 years of employment, and she had received a number of awards.

         Daniel Luke Keener began teaching at the high school in 2005. He taught Spanish " 1" and " 2" during the 2011-12 school year. He kept documentation focusing on comments made by students concerning Sulu and another Spanish teacher.

         S.J. attended Scottsbluff Senior High School from August 2008 through December 2011 and took a number of Spanish classes, including two semesters of Spanish 2 from Keener and one semester of Spanish " 4" from Sulu. S.J. thought Sulu's classes focused too much on culture and not enough on language. S.J. testified that she had " a couple of confrontations" with Sulu about being taught too much culture. When asked for more details about the confrontations, S.J. explained that students in Sulu's classroom told Sulu they felt they were not being taught Spanish and that S.J. " [j]ust joined in the conversation that we were taught more culture than . . . the language." In 2010, S.J. addressed her concerns about Sulu's classes with the principal at that time, but the principal did not provide any help.

         Meeting and Letter

         In August 2011, Magana approached Keener and said that she was frustrated with the lack of rigor in upper-level Spanish classes. According to Keener, several students had similarly voiced opinions that the curriculum was not as rigorous as it should be. He arranged for Magana to meet with S.J., who was one of those students.

         In August or September 2011, S.J. met briefly with Magana and Keener after school in Keener's classroom to express concerns about the Spanish curriculum. At that time, S.J. did not know Magana was a member of the Board. From Magana's standpoint, the meeting was for her to seek information as a member of the Board and its curriculum committee. Magana [293 Neb. 152] suggested that writing a letter to the Board and the superintendent was an option for S.J.

         In September 2011, S.J. drafted a letter to the Board to address her worries about the Spanish classes taught by Sulu. The letter spoke of concern about the foreign language programs--specifically the upper-level Spanish classes--not being at their " highest potential" and about culture being the main focus of study. The letter suggested that a " 'surprise' observation day (including a standardized test)" would be beneficial. According to S.J., no one helped her with the content of the letter. S.J. asked Keener to proofread the letter, but she did not accept any of Keener's suggested changes. S.J. did not have anyone else review the letter. S.J. circulated the letter to classmates, asking them to sign it if they agreed, and 20 students signed it. S.J. mailed the letter to the superintendent of the School District and the Board. In response to a question later posed on social media as to whether the letter was Keener's or Magana's idea, S.J. answered, " both."

         Sulu testified in a deposition that because Magana told S.J. to write the letter, Sulu assumed Magana told S.J. what to write in the letter. Sulu also testified that during mediation with Keener, he said Magana " had a hand in it" and helped write the letter. When asked, " [D]id he say she had a hand in it or he said she . . . helped

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write the letter?" Sulu answered, " Said . . . Magana and [S.J.] were together and then the letter was written."

         Aftermath of Letter

         According to Sulu, her job changed as a result of the letter. Sulu testified that the superintendent told her to teach no culture, even though three of Nebraska's five teaching standards have to do with culture. She explained that due to the letter, the superintendent told her to change the curriculum in the middle of the year. Sulu believed that her employment could be terminated if she taught culture. She began taking her [293 Neb. 153] students to a computer laboratory because she thought they were going to have to take a standardized test.

         Sulu tendered her resignation to the Board in March 2012. She testified that she felt she had been pressured to quit. Sulu did not think that she had done anything wrong, but testified that " when [the superintendent] said, do you want to turn in your resignation right now, that was a signal to me." She testified that before the letter, she had the support of the administrators for 25 years.

         Lawsuit

         Sulu sued Magana. She alleged that Magana's actions were " committed not in her capacity as a [B]oard member nor on behalf of the [Board], but in her individual capacity as a private citizen." Sulu claimed that Magana actively participated with Keener in drafting the letter. She alleged that Magana's " initiation" of the letter was intentional, unjustified, and outside Magana's capacity as a Board member. Sulu further alleged that she had a valid business expectancy in her career as a Spanish teacher and that Magana's initiation of the letter interfered with Sulu's business relationship with the School District and caused harm to Sulu.

         Summary Judgment

         Magana moved for summary judgment, and the district court granted the motion. The court found that Sulu presented no evidence to permit a reasonable inference that Magana's conduct was unjustified. The court explained:

There is no evidence [Magana] authored the letter in any fashion. There is no evidence the assertions of the letter are untruthful, even though some students may have regretted signing it. Though she expected the letter would be sent, there is no evidence Magana knew the contents of the letter ...

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