In the case of Jerry L. Earnest versus the Board of Education of Jasper County Community Unit School District No. 1 et al, the United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois has ruled in favor of the defendants and the case is dismissed with prejudice. This ruling is a final judgment and prevents Mr. Earnest from bringing an action on the same claim. However, Earnest can still appeal the decision to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals which would result in additional legal fees for the School District in addition to the amounts already spent thus far.
In the memorandum and order the other arguments section states, “The Court has concluded that no reasonable fact-finder could find Earnest was deprived of a constitutionally protected interest, and even if it had, Earnest was provided all the process due in connection with any such deprivation. Thus, there is no need to address the defendants’ other arguments in favor of summary judgment” and in the Motion for Sanction it states, “The Court turns to Earnest’s motion for default judgment as a sanction (Doc. 45). He bases this request on evidence that a witness aligned with the defendants attempted to intimidate and tamper with a witness aligned with Earnest at a restaurant in a local bowling alley. He cites as authority for such a sanction award the inherent power of the Court to manage judicial proceedings.” and “The Court declines to sanction the defendants for the conduct Earnest alleges.
There is no evidence suggesting any defendant had any responsibility or culpability for the witness’s conduct, even if the witness did everything Earnest alleges. No evidence suggests any defendant directed the witness to behave as he did or, indeed, had any control whatsoever over that witness’s conduct. There is simply no evidence tending to indicate any defendant willfully abused the judicial process or acted in bad faith in connection with the witness’s conduct. The Court will, therefore, deny the motion for sanctions (Doc. 45).”
This court case began with a complaint filed on December 22, 2017, by Mr. Earnest seeking full and complete information as needed to discharge his duties and damages citing embarrassment, humiliation, and emotional distress.
In a Freedom of Information Act request submitted by “Jane Doe” on February 6th, 2017, attention was brought to the Board, administration and the legal team the disclosure of information to parties not directly involved in the school system.
To provide an understanding of the situation, two examples are presented here from the FOIA. The first is an email of Superintendent Johnson’s first board log sent originally to only the members of the Board of Education by Unit Secretary Janet Benefiel, in which someone using the account of Mr. Jed Earnest blind carbon copied Mr. Andy Pullen with a statement of “File this away.. Probably be best if it wasn’t known you had this.” This email was sent from Mr. Earnest’s account on July 1, 2016.
Another example was sent from Mr. Earnest’s account on January 11, 2017, and titled “Re. Request for action regarding JCCU1 School Board member misconduct.” This email was blind carbon copied to Mr. Bill Flowers, Mrs. Cheryl Earnest, Mr. Jed Earnest, and Mr. Andy Pullen. This included a letter written by Mr. Earnest to the school attorney Mr. Anthony J. Loizzi. It also included the original email in which Board President Mr. Jon Fulton emailed the complaint filed against Mr. Earnest. Mr. Fulton states, “Jed, This complaint has been filed here is your copy. Jon” on Wednesday, January 11, 2017.
This complaint contained information about a student/minor child and a JCCU1 teacher/coach and included the name of the student and coach along with other personal information including educational and emotional information about the student. To be provided legally to the public, personal information must first be “blacked out” (redacted) to protect privacy. The emails sent above were not redacted.
In response to the information obtained during the FOIA request, Mr. Anthony Loizzi, attorney for Jasper Unit 1, sent a cease and desist communication to Mr. Earnest on February 23, 2017, Via Electronic Mail Federal Express and US. First Class Mail. This letter outlined the issues at hand including the sharing of “indisputable evidence” of Mr. Earnest sharing confidential information with members of the general public.
As a result of the evidence, Mr. Earnest was no longer granted or provided access to confidential District information until the Board determines otherwise. Mr. Earnest was then informed he would receive the information needed to complete his duties at a school board member via hard copy.
Mr. Earnest’s defense of censure included a statement from Mr. Pullen’s internet provider stating he had issues in January with a missing file, an explanation that he, Mr. Flowers, and Mr. Pullen share several programs on their computers and he was building a website for Mr. Flower’s SOAR Basketball program. He states, “When I am working on a site, I will often send emails from my school account to either one to see what happens with something besides Hotmail. The burden of proof lies with the plaintiff. I would like to see proof of anyone in the public that has opened these emails, including Andy and Bill. I hardly ever send anything that is not BCC.”
Mr. Earnest filed suit against the aforementioned defendants claiming Deprivation of Liberty Interest. His claims included not being “afforded any hearing or due process prior to the action of the Defendant School District.” resulting in being denied substantial and important access to financial and other personnel matters which require board action from time to time. He also claims the actions have denied him the ability to make informed decisions on board matters resulting in the citizens who elected him the appropriate representation. He claimed to have been irreparably harmed and denied his right and duty to hold the elective office. He claimed to have suffered “embarrassment, humiliation, and emotional distress as a result of being expected to vote on matters that are crucial to the citizens he represents by being consistently denied crucial information”.
On April 30, 2018, The Court granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss. However, the Court dismissed with prejudice allowing the opportunity for Mr. Earnest to file an amended complaint.
Over the course of 2018 and into 2019, litigation continued with many depositions taken, motions filed and even an accusation of witness tampering when Andrew Pullen filed a police report with the Newton Police Department on November 29, 2018. The Supplemental Narrative by Riley Britton states, “On November 29, 2018 at 8:04 pm, I (Officer Britton) spoke with Andy Pullen in reference to a complaint on Jason Fulton. Pulled said he was eating at Parklanes when Fulton approached him. Pullen said Fulton was making sarcastic comments to him. Pullen said Fulton never got loud but was disrespectful. Pullen said some of the comments were remarks about his pension as well as him being friends with Jed Earnest. Pullen said he then asked Fulton to leave which he did. This concludes my report.”
The affidavits of Andrew and Mary Pullen filed on December 27, created a different picture of the event including phrases such as “Jason said again in a very loud voice and I have never been so scared in my life of receiving a battery. I believe Jason Fulton was threatening and intimidating me. I firmly believe he was trying to discourage me of being a witness for Jed Earnest in a Federal Case”. It also states, “I provided this information to Jed and he believed that we should file an incident report with the Newton City Police.”
Mary states in her affidavit, “Andy and I could not finish our dinner. We immediately left the bowling alley and drive to the Newton Police Department to make a police report regarding this incident.”
Mr. Earnest and his lawyer then filed for sanctions directed to the Defendant based upon the idea of Mr. Fulton engaging in intimidation of Mr. Pullen to discourage testimony.
Mr. Earnest is currently in the final months of his term on the Jasper County School Board and is one of six candidates running for the four positions on the board up for election.