(Photo by Dean Curtis)

In January, a federal judge ruled that two Springfield Public Schools employees were unable to show the district punished them for exercising their right to free speech during 2020 employee equity training. Last week, the judge ruled that the district is owed almost $313,000 in attorney fees related to the case. 

The lawsuit, filed in August of 2021, alleged that two plaintiffs, who are district employees, were forced to participate in mandatory equity training that compelled them to align with the district’s views on politicized issues like white privilege, anti-racism and equity.

In January, U.S. District Court Judge M. Douglas Harpool ordered in favor of the district, writing that the plaintiffs were unable to show the district punished the two employees for exercising their right to free speech during the training, curtailed their ability to speak freely or produced any “injury-of-fact.” In the recent order, he echoed his earlier remarks and granted attorney fees to the defendants, whose lead representative was Ransom Ellis III of Ellis Ellis Hammons and Johnson.

“We are pleased by the court’s order granting our motion for attorney’s fees in full — $312,869.50,” Stephen Hall, SPS spokesman, said in a statement. “As noted in the decision, the court found that the plaintiff’s claims were ‘frivolous’. The ruling acknowledged the ‘significant time and tax dollars’ spent defending against the claims. We agree with the court’s opinion that this investment would have been better spent on students. The district’s response to this legal action, including the pursuit of appropriate reimbursement, represents a broader commitment to defending itself against baseless attacks.”

Attorneys for the two plaintiffs — Brooke Henderson and Jennifer Lumley, who are both still employed at SPS — are appealing Harpool’s summary judgment ruling in favor of the defendants. The parties include SPS, the district’s board and three named administrators: SPS Superintendent Grenita Lathan, Yvania Garcia-Pusateri, SPS chief equity and diversity officer, and Lawrence “LA” Anderson, SPS coordinator of equity and diversity. 

The plaintiffs’ attorneys, from the Southeastern Legal Foundation, have until mid-April to present a record of appeal for the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals to consider. And they have until April 17 to contest the bill for the legal work the defendants’ attorneys say was required to contest and mediate the lawsuit, which was filed in 2021. 

According to Harpool’s March 31 order, the defendants are owed $312,869.50 in attorney fees for 1,538.6 hours of work connected to the lawsuit. 

The judgments regarding the case and the attorney fees associated with it were ruled on in separate orders, but Harpool addressed the matter of money in his decision regarding the lawsuit. 

Judge says students and taxpayers ‘deserve better’ than seeing money spent on lawsuit

“The students of the district deserve better,” Harpool wrote in a Jan. 12 order. “So too do taxpayers whose hard-earned money is taxed by the district for the purpose of educating the children of the district in which they reside.”

In a March 31 order granting attorney fees to the district, he wrote that the court found the plaintiffs’ claims to be frivolous.

“As articulated in its summary judgment order, Plaintiffs’ claims showed no injury-of-fact whatsoever,” he wrote. “Plaintiffs did not allege and no evidence suggested that Defendants enacted any policy or guideline that required Plaintiffs to adhere to a certain viewpoint or articulate a particular message. Crucially, Plaintiffs made clear during the training that they did not agree with principles of equity and anti-racism. Plaintiffs’ own allegations show they openly voiced their opposition to the principles taught and discussed.” 

Asked in January why the district should not be reimbursed for its defense of the lawsuit, attorneys for the plaintiffs offered a statement to the Springfield Daily Citizen. 

“There is no dispute that SPS mandated training where teachers were told ‘white silence’ and colorblindness were forms of white supremacy, directed to discuss such hot button topics as the George Floyd shooting and whether America was founded in racism, before then calling on them to ‘commit’ to anti-racism and to proactively advocate for political, social and economic change,” the statement read.

Harpool ruled otherwise.

“Plaintiffs attempted to drag Defendants into a political dispute rather than seek remedy for a genuine harm,” Harpool wrote in the March 31 order. “This Court is a forum for litigation of genuine disputes of fact and law alone, rather (than) frivolous political disagreement. Defendants have invested significant time and tax dollars into defending this lawsuit. These resources would have been better spent ensuring educational opportunities for students.” 

Cory Matteson

Cory Matteson moved to Springfield in 2022 to join the team of Daily Citizen journalists and staff eager to launch a local news nonprofit. He returned to the Show-Me State nearly two decades after graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Prior to arriving in Springfield, he worked as a reporter at the Lincoln Journal Star and Casper Star-Tribune. More by Cory Matteson