Employee unable to establish terminating supervisor was aware of First Amendment activity, so summary judgment for employer was proper

Kristi Dearman v. Stone County School District, 15-60506 (5th Cir. August 11,2016)

This is a First Amendment and procedural due process employment case where the U.S. Fifth Circuit affirmed the granting of the employer’s summary judgment motion.

Dearman was an employee of the Stone County School District. During 2011, while serving as a guidance counselor at Stone County Middle School, Dearman openly supported fellow teacher James Nightengale in his candidacy for county superintendent. Nightengale was one of six candidates in the race. He eventually lost to Gwen Miller. After Miller took office Dearman and several other teachers who had supported Nightengale were reassigned to different schools. Dearman was reassigned to Stone County Elementary School, where she assumed the identical position of guidance counselor.  One year later,  Dearman was visited by the Director of Special Education for the District. While in her office, the Director, Rodgers, noticed an individualized education program (“IEP”) for one of Nightengale’s special education students on her desk. Dearman was not authorized to view the confidential student information in the IEP folder.  She was called to a meeting with Miller. Dearman told Miller that she had, at Nightengale’s request, reviewed the IEP folder to ensure that Nightengale had properly completed the evaluation paperwork.  On February 21, 2013, Miller notified Dearman that she was temporarily suspended with pay, and that Miller was recommending she be “terminated” because of violations of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (“FERPA”). Dearman took the matter to the School Board (“Board”) who never took action on it. On May 3, 2013, Dearman was informed by letter that Miller’s recommendation for termination was being withdrawn and that the District would simply not renew her employment contract at the end of its one-year term. Under Mississippi state law, any employee requesting a hearing for a nonrenewal decision is required to provide the school district in question with specific information regarding the employee’s challenge to the nonrenewal.  While Dearman’s attorney asserts the response was sent the Board asserted it never received such a challenge. Dearman sued after her non-renewal. The Board filed a motion for summary judgment which was granted. Dearman appealed.

To prove a First Amendment retaliation claim, Dearman must show that “(1) she suffered an ‘adverse employment decision’; (2) her speech involved ‘a matter of public concern’; (3) her ‘interest in commenting on matters of public concern . . . outweigh[s] the Defendant’s interest in promoting efficiency’; and (4) her speech motivated the adverse employment decision.” Here, the only contested issue is causation. To establish causation, Dearman must show that she engaged in protected conduct and that it was a motivating factor in her discharge. Although Dearman concedes that she has offered no direct evidence that Superintendent Miller knew of Dearman’s support for Nightengale’s campaign, she argues that circumstantial evidence of Miller’s knowledge exists.  However, the reassignments of school locations do not support Miller’s knowledge of Dearman’s support of Nightengale. Plus, they occurred a year prior to the non-renewal. Similarly, Dearman offers no evidence that Miller was behind the transfer of Nightengale supporters.  That Nightengale was also fired at a different time is irrelevant unless Dearman can offer some evidence that Miller actually knew of Dearman’s support for Nightengale’s campaign.  She could not. Dearman herself acknowledged in her deposition that she has no evidence that Miller knew that she supported Nightengale’s campaign for superintendent.  As a result, Dearman’s First Amendment claims were properly dismissed. The court also analyzed the procedural due process under Mississippi law and determined she was properly provided the required constitutional process. The summary judgment order was affirmed.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. The Panel includes Circuit Judge Reavley, Circuit Judge Elrod, Circuit Judge Jolly. Circuit Judge Jolly delivered the opinion of the court. Attorney for the Appellant: Daniel Myers Waide, Hattiesburg.  Attorney for the Appellee: Grace Watts Mitts.