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DiCentes v. Michaud
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MAINE SUPREME JUDICIAL COURT				Reporter of Decisions
Decision:	1998 ME 227
Docket:	Pen-96-49	
Argued:	May 5, 1998
Decided:	October 7, 1998


Panel:WATHEN, C.J., and CLIFFORD, RUDMAN, DANA, and SAUFLEY, JJ., and ROBERTS,
A.R.J.{*}


GERALDINE DiCENTES v. DANNY R. P. MICHAUD et al.


SAUFLEY, J.

	[¶1]  Geraldine DiCentes taught science at Schenck High School under
a probationary contract during the 1990-91 school year.  When her contract
was not renewed for the following year, she filed suit against several
members of the school system.  DiCentes now appeals from the resulting
judgment of the Superior Court (Penobscot County, Kravchuk, J.) finding,
inter alia, that the Superintendent of Schools and the East Millinocket
School Committee did not violate the Whistleblowers' Protection Act, 26
M.R.S.A. §§ 831-840 (1988).  Schenck High School's principal cross-
appeals from the portion of the court's judgment finding him responsible for
a violation of section 833(1)(B) of the Act.  We modify the judgment and
affirm.
I. Background
	[¶2]  DiCentes was hired by the East Millinocket School Committee to
work at Schenck High School during the 1989-90 school year, both as a
teaching assistant for a single student and as a teacher for a geometry class. 
She then accepted a one-year probationary contract to work as a science
teacher at the high school for the 1990-91 school year.  During both of those
school years, Ralph Ryder was the Superintendent of the School
Department, and Danny R. P. Michaud was the principal of Schenck High
School.
	[¶3]  There had been friction between DiCentes and Michaud during
the 1989-90 school year, and more friction arose between the two during
the first half of the 1990-91 school year.  Among the sources of friction was
DiCentes's concern about the adequacy of the ventilation in the chemistry
lab and the adjacent chemical storage room.  She voiced those concerns to
both Ryder and Michaud, and, contrary to Michaud's instructions, to officials
with the Departments of Education and Labor.  
	[¶4]  In December 1990, Ryder separately concluded, due to
budgetary concerns, that a reduction-in-force was necessary for the entire
East Millinocket School Department.  The School Department's principals,
including Michaud, were asked to prepare reduction-in-force proposals for
their respective schools.  After considering the proposals, Ryder
recommended to the School Committee that three positions be eliminated
at the high school:  one in industrial arts, one in music, and one in the
science department.  Pursuant to the School Department's "last-in, first-
out" policy, Ryder determined that this proposal would result in the
elimination of the science position held by DiCentes.  The School Committee
ultimately voted to approve the reduction-in-force, thereby eliminating the
teaching position DiCentes had held.{1}
	[¶5]  DiCentes filed a complaint with the Maine Human Rights
Commission,{2} and later exercised her right to sue in Superior Court, filing a
twenty-eight count complaint related to her not having been hired as a
teacher by the East Millinocket School Committee for the 1991-92 school
year.{3}  Although the trial court concluded that DiCentes was not entitled to a
jury trial on her Whistleblowers' Protection Act (WPA) claims, it empaneled
a jury to hear DiCentes's legal claims and to sit in an advisory capacity on her
WPA claims.  After eight days of trial, the case was submitted to the jury with
special interrogatories concerning the WPA claims.  When the jury
deadlocked on whether Michaud and Ryder were liable pursuant to the WPA,
the court dismissed the jury and ruled on those claims, finding that Ryder
and the East Millinocket School Committee had not violated the Act, and
that Michaud had violated the Act.  The court imposed a $1500 civil penalty
upon Michaud personally pursuant to 5 M.R.S.A. § 4613(2)(B)(7) (Supp.
1997).{4}  This appeal followed.  
	[¶6]  On appeal, DiCentes argues that the court erred in concluding
that she was not entitled to a jury trial on her WPA claims; erred in finding
that Ryder was not liable for a violation of section 833(1)(B) of that Act,
either as a result of his recommendation not to renew her contract or as a
result of his refusal to provide her with a letter of recommendation for
prospective employers; erred in concluding that the East Millinocket School
Committee was not liable in respondeat superior for Michaud's violation of
section 833(1)(B); and erred in finding that she was not entitled to damages
representing her lost wages.  Michaud cross-appeals, arguing that the court
erred in finding that he was liable for a violation of section 833(1)(B).  
II. Right to Jury Trial
	[¶7]  The right to jury trial in civil matters is found in article 1,
section 20 of the Maine Constitution, which provides in pertinent part that
"[i]n all civil suits, . . . the parties shall have a right to a trial by jury, except
in cases where it has heretofore been otherwise practiced."  Pursuant to
M.R. Civ. P. 38, this right "shall be preserved to the parties inviolate."  We
have construed article 1, section 20 to provide "'a broad constitutional
guarantee of a right to a jury in all civil cases' except where 'by the common
law and Massachusetts statutory law that existed prior to the adoption of the
Maine Constitution in 1820 such cases were decided without a jury.'" 
Kennebec Fed. Sav. & Loan Ass'n v. Kueter, 1997 ME 123, ¶ 3, 695 A.2d
1201, 1202 (quoting City of Portland v. DePaolo, 531 A.2d 669, 670 (Me.
1987)).  Because matters in equity were never triable of right to a jury, the
right to a jury trial does not exist for claims sounding in equity.  See
DesMarais v. Desjardins, 664 A.2d 840, 844 (Me. 1995).  
	[¶8]  Whether a claim is legal or equitable depends upon the basic
nature of the claim, including the remedy sought, as evidenced by the
source of the claim or the nature of the pleadings.  See id.  We have
previously addressed this issue with respect to claims under the Maine
Human Rights Act, 5 M.R.S.A. §§ 4551-4651 (1989 & Supp. 1997) (MHRA),
and have concluded that such claims are, by law, equitable in nature and
thus do not give rise to a right to a jury trial.  See Rozanski v. A-P-A
Transport, Inc., 512 A.2d 335, 342 n.1 (Me. 1986); Maine Human Rights
Comm'n v. City of Auburn, 408 A.2d 1253, 1261 (Me. 1979).  
	[¶9]  DiCentes, however, asks us to reexamine our holding in light of
Abbott v. Bragdon, 882 F. Supp. 181 (D. Me. 1995), in which the United
States District Court for the District of Maine held that MHRA claims do give
rise to a right to jury trial, at least to the extent that a litigant seeks relief in
the form of a civil penalty.  See id. at 182.{5}   We are not convinced that our
prior decisions should be set aside.{6} 	
	[¶10]  An employee who suffers an adverse employment action as a
result of unlawful discrimination, who may otherwise be without a cause of
action against her employer at common law or in contract, may receive
meaningful redress through the provisions of the MHRA.  See generally
Maine Human Rights Comm'n v. Local 1361, United Paperworker's Int'l
Union, 383 A.2d 369, 373-75 (Me. 1978) (discussing Legislature's intention
that the MHRA should have broad coverage in the area of fair employment
practices).  The MHRA, like its federal counterpart, was intended to
accomplish "the removal of artificial, arbitrary, and unnecessary barriers to
employment when the barriers operate invidiously to discriminate on the
basis of . . . impermissible classification[s]." Griggs v. Duke Power Co., 401
U.S. 424, 431 (1971).  Toward that end, the Legislature provided the court
with broad powers in equity to fashion appropriate remedies.  Although the
Act authorizes both legal and equitable relief, see 5 M.R.S.A. § 4613(2)(B), it
explicitly provides the court with broad equitable authority to hear claims,
determine liability, and award relief. See Maine Human Rights Comm'n, 408
A.2d at 1261 n.11.  Accordingly, here, where the cause of action itself
sounds in equity, the nature of the relief sought is not dispositive on the
question of availability of jury trial.  The court committed no error in
concluding that DiCentes was not entitled to a jury trial on her WPA claims.


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