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Crime & Courts

Judge dismisses District 303 computer program lawsuit

An ex-school technology worker has lost her bid to secure a six-figure payment from St. Charles School District 303 after a federal judge tossed her lawsuit asserting the district had essentially stolen a computer program she had created to help the district track student attendance, among other tasks, violating her rights under federal copyright law.

On Oct. 26, U.S. District Judge Robert W. Gettleman, presiding in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois in Chicago, said he believed the ownership claims of plaintiff Audrey Shanton and her husband, Kenneth, over the computer program that failed to load, because the school district, as Audrey Shanton’s employer, actually owned the more recent versions of the program.

“Audrey, an employee of the district for nearly 12 years, was not compensated in any way for the development of the program,” the judge wrote in his decision. “Additionally, Audrey was benefiting from a retirement plan and union representation while rewriting the program and updating it. Most importantly the district could assign additional duties to Audrey, including rewriting and updating the program in 2008. 

“The court finds, based on these facts, that an agency relationship existed, and the 2008 derivative program was a work for hire owned, at least partially, by the district.”

The Shantons had filed suit earlier this year, accusing District 303 of wrongly asserting ownership claims to the program, and then pressuring Audrey Shanton to quit after she stood up for her alleged ownership rights. They asked the court to order District 303 to pay them at least $100,000.

According to court documents, Audrey Shanton worked for the district for a dozen years as a computer lab assistant, at some point around 2005 developing a computer program initially used to track barcodes used by the schools. A few years later, however, apparently at the district’s request, she modified the program to monitor and track student attendance and other metrics.

Audrey Shanton continued to use the program for that and other purposes until 2015, when she said school principals and other District 303 officials pressured her to further modify the program for other goals.

At that point, Audrey Shanton said she balked. But District 303 then “reverse engineered” the program over her objections. Her objections grew more strenuous until she claimed she was ultimately “constructively discharged,” according to the district’s motion to dismiss – by “constructively discharged,” Audrey Shanton said she was harassed and intimidated into quitting.

In response to her suit, District 303 asked the judge to dismiss the complaint, asserting the district should be considered the owner of the copyright, because Audrey Shanton created it while working for the district, solely for use within the district’s schools.

Further, District 303 asserted Audrey Shanton has no right under Illinois law to sue for constructive discharge because she quit and was not actually fired, thus nullifying her claims for illegal retaliation.

Gettleman sided with the district, saying he believed the district should be considered at least a co-owner of the computer program, as versions of the program since 2008, at least, should be considered “derivative” works of the original 2005 version, created at the request of the district, by a district employee, for use within the district.

“A copyright’s title vests initially with the author(s), however, with works made for hire, the employer or person for whom the work was prepared is considered the author for purposes of title unless otherwise expressly agreed to in a written instrument signed by the parties,” the judge wrote.

And, under the law, this means the district did not need to seek Audrey Shanton’s permission before licensing or altering the work.

The judge also declined to hear any further arguments on Audrey Shanton’s state law claim over her termination, effectively ending the case.

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