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Papagolos v. Lafayette County Sch. Dist.

United States District Court, N.D. Mississippi, Oxford Division

September 16, 2013

CATHERINE PAPAGOLOS, PLAINTIFF
v.
LAFAYETTE COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT; MICHAEL McPHAIL, Board Member in His Official and Individual Capacities; and JEFF NELSON, Athletic Director, in His Official and Individual Capacities, DEFENDANTS

Filed Date: November 13, 2013

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For Catherine Papagolos, Plaintiff: Joseph Robert Murray, II, LEAD ATTORNEY, MURRAY LAW FIRM, PLLC, Ripley, MS.

For Lafayette County School District, Jeff Nelson, Athletic Director, in his official and individual capacity, Michael McPhail, Board Member, in his official and individual capacities, Defendants: Richard Jarrad Garner, LEAD ATTORNEY, ADAMS AND REESE LLP, Ridgeland, MS; Benjamin B. Morgan, ADAMS AND REESE LLP - Ridgeland, Ridgeland, MS.

OPINION

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MEMORANDUM OPINION GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART ALL DEFENDANTS' MOTION TO DISMISS AND DENYING AS MOOT DEFENDANTS' MCPHAIL AND NELSON'S MOTION FOR QUALIFIED IMMUNITY

Glen H. Davidson, SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

Presently before the Court is a motion to dismiss [9] pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure filed by Defendants Lafayette County School District, Michael McPhail, and Jeff Nelson, as well as a motion for qualified immunity [13] filed by Defendants Michael McPhail and Jeff Nelson. Upon due consideration and for the reasons stated below, the Court finds that the motion to dismiss [9] filed by Defendants Lafayette County School District, Michael McPhail, and Jeff Nelson should be granted in part and denied in part, and that the motion for qualified immunity [13] filed by Defendants Michael McPhail and Jeff Nelson should be denied as moot.[1]

A. Factual and Procedural Background

On December 13, 2011, Plaintiff Catherine Papagolos (" Plaintiff" ), former head coach for the Lafayette County School District's girls' softball team and advanced fitness teacher, filed this action against Defendants Lafayette County School District (" LCSD" ); Michael McPhail, a member of the LCSD school board (" Defendant McPhail" ), in his individual and official capacities; and Jeff Nelson, athletic director of LCSD (" Defendant Nelson" ), in his individual and official capacities. Plaintiff asserts causes of action for discrimination under Title IX; retaliation under Title IX; gender discrimination under Title VII; Equal Pay Act violations; age discrimination under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (the " ADEA" ); First Amendment free speech retaliation under 42 U.S.C. § 1983; First Amendment free speech violation under 42 U.S.C. § 1983; Fourteenth Amendment procedural and substantive due process violations under 42 U.S.C. § 1983; conspiracy under 42 U.S.C. § 1985; malicious interference with employment under state law; and wrongful termination under state law.

In lieu of answering the complaint, Defendants LCSD, McPhail, and Nelson have filed a motion to dismiss [9] under Rule 12(b)(6) challenging the viability of all claims asserted against LCSD except the Title IX claims and the Title VII claims, as well as the viability of all claims asserted against Defendants McPhail and Nelson in their individual and official capacities.

Additionally, Defendants McPhail and Nelson have filed a motion for qualified immunity [13] on the First Amendment free speech violation, First Amendment free speech retaliation, and Fourteenth Amendment due process violation claims under Section 1983, as well as the Section 1985 conspiracy claims of First Amendment free speech violation and equal protection violation. Because the Court finds that the Section 1983 and Section 1985 claims must be dismissed for failure to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6), the Court need not address the separate arguments for dismissal on qualified immunity grounds.

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B. Rule 12(b)(6) Standard

Motions to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) " are viewed with disfavor and are rarely granted." Kocurek v. Cuna Mut. Ins. Soc'y, 459 F.Appx. 371, 373 (5th Cir. 2012) (citing Gregson v. Zurich Am. Ins. Co., 322 F.3d 883, 885 (5th Cir. 2003)). " The ultimate question in a Rule 12(b)(6) motion is whether the complaint states a valid claim when all well-pleaded facts are assumed true and are viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff." Lone Star Fund V (U.S.), L.P. v. Barclays Bank PLC, 594 F.3d 383, 387 (5th Cir. 2010) (citing In re Katrina Canal Breaches Litig., 495 F.3d 191, 205 (5th Cir. 2007)).

The complaint must allege " enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell A. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007). A claim is facially plausible when the pleaded factual content " allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556, 127 S.Ct. 1955). " Under the Rule 12(b)(6) standard, all well-pleaded facts are viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, but plaintiffs must allege facts that support the elements of the cause of action in order to make out a valid claim." Webb v. Morella, No. 12-30617, 522 Fed.Appx. 238, 2013 WL 1490654, at *2 (5th Cir. Apr. 12, 2013) (per curiam) (quoting City of Clinton, Ark. v. Pilgrim's Pride Corp., 632 F.3d 148, 152-53 (5th Cir. 2010)). " [C]onclusory allegations or legal conclusions masquerading as factual conclusions will not suffice to prevent a motion to dismiss." Id. (quoting Fernandez-Montes v. Allied Pilots Ass'n, 987 F.2d 278, 284 (5th Cir. 1993)). " Threadbare recitals of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937. In a Rule 12(b)(6) determination, the court must not evaluate the likelihood of the claim's success, but instead ascertain whether the plaintiff has stated a legally cognizable claim that is plausible. Lone Star Fund, 594 F.3d at 387 (citing Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868).

C. Analysis and Discussion

1. Title IX Claims Against Defendants McPhail and Nelson

Defendants first challenge the viability of the Title IX claims asserted against Defendants McPhail and Nelson. Plaintiff concedes that she is not asserting her Title IX claims against Defendants McPhail and Nelson. See Pl.'s Mem. Br. Supp. Resp. Opp'n to Defs.' Mot. Dismiss [16] at 8. The Court thus finds that the Title IX claims against Defendants McPhail and Nelson shall be dismissed. In their Rule 12(b)(6) motion, Defendants do not challenge the Title IX claims brought against the LCSD. Thus, the Title IX claims against Defendants McPhail and Nelson shall be dismissed, but the Title IX claims against LCSD shall remain viable.

2. Title VII Claims Against Defendants McPhail and Nelson

Defendants next challenge the viability of the Title VII claims asserted against Defendants McPhail and Nelson. Plaintiff alleges under Title VII unlawful discharge based on gender discrimination and retaliation suffered for reporting discriminatory activity. Defendants contend that Title VII claims can only be made against an employer, and that because fellow employees are not subject to suit on Title VII, such claims must be dismissed against Defendants McPhail and Nelson. Plaintiff recognizes that this is a correct statement of the law as it pertains to gender and retaliation claims brought under Title VII, but argues that controlling Fifth Circuit precedent is erroneous. See id.

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The Court is bound by Fifth Circuit precedent and thus finds that Defendants' argument that the Title VII claims for gender discrimination and retaliation against Defendants McPhail and Nelson is well taken and such claims shall be dismissed. See, e.g., Grant v. Lone Star Co., 21 F.3d 649, 652 (5th Cir. 1994) (" The definition of the term 'employer' in [42 U.S.C.] § 2000e(b) does not include individuals who do not otherwise qualify as employers under the statute." ). Defendants do not challenge the Title VII claims brought against the LCSD. Thus, although the Title VII claims for gender discrimination and retaliation against Defendants McPhail and Nelson shall be dismissed, the Title VII claims for gender discrimination and retaliation against LCSD shall remain viable.

3. Equal Pay Act Violation Claim Against Defendants McPhail and Nelson

Defendants next challenge the viability of the Equal Pay Act violation claim asserted against Defendants McPhail and Nelson. Defendants contend that such claim must be dismissed against Defendants McPhail and Nelson, as Defendants McPhail and Nelson are not employers for purposes of the Equal Pay Act, which imposes liability only on employers for gender-based salary discrepancies. For the reasons stated below, the Court finds this argument is well taken.

The United States Supreme Court has stated

Title VII and the Equal Pay Act primarily govern relations between employees and their employer, not between employees and third parties. We do not suggest, of course, that an employer can avoid his responsibilities by delegating discriminatory programs to corporate shells. . . . [T]he Equal Pay Act applies to " any person acting directly or indirectly in the interest of an employer in relation to an employee." 29 U.S.C. § 203(d).

City of Los Angeles, Dep't of Water & Power v. Manhart, 435 U.S. 702, 718 n.33, 98 S.Ct. 1370, 55 L.Ed.2d 657 (1978). To determine whether an employer/employee relationship exists, the Fifth Circuit utilizes the " economic reality" test. Gray v. Powers, 673 F.3d 352, 354-55 (5th Cir. 2012); see Williams v. Henagan, 595 F.3d 610, 620 (5th Cir. 2010); Watson v. Graves, 909 F.2d 1549, 1553 (5th Cir. 1990); see also Goldberg v. Whitaker House Co-op., 366 U.S. 28, 33, 81 S.Ct. 933, 6 L.Ed.2d 100 (1961).

In the economic reality test, the Court must consider whether the alleged employer " (1) possessed the power to hire and fire the employees, (2) supervised and controlled employee work schedules or conditions of employment, (3) determined the rate and method of payment, and (4) maintained employment records." Gray, 673 F.3d at 355 (quoting Williams, 595 F.3d at 620). " Under that test, the right to control the details and means by which the work is to be performed is the most important factor." Craft-Palmer v. State Farm Ins. Co., 157 F.3d 903, 1998 WL 612388, at *1 (5th Cir. 1998) (per curiam) (citing Fields v. Hallsville Indep. Sch. Dist., 906 F.2d 1017, 1019 (5th Cir. 1990) (internal quotation marks omitted)). In cases where there may be more than one employer, such as the case sub judice, the Court " must apply the economic realities test to each individual or entity alleged to be an employer and each must satisfy the four part test." Id. (citing Watson, 909 F.2d at 1556). Thus, here, the Court will apply the economic realities test to both Defendants McPhail and Nelson, as Plaintiff maintains that both of them were her employer for purposes of the Equal Pay Act.

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1. Power to Hire and Fire Employees

With respect to the first factor, as Defendants argue, it is well established that school boards in Mississippi are vested with final authority for ultimate employment decisions, such as dismissal and non-renewal. See Yarbrough v. Camphor, 645 So.2d 867, 870 (Miss. 1994); Tutwiler v. Jones, 394 So.2d 1346, 1348 (Miss. 1981). Thus, Plaintiff cannot establish that either Defendant McPhail or Defendant Nelson, acting alone, hired or fired her.

2. Supervision or Control of Employee Work Schedules or Conditions of Employment

With respect to the second factor, the Court looks to see whether Plaintiff has alleged that Defendant McPhail and/or Defendant Nelson supervised or controlled her work schedules or conditions of employment.

Defendant McPhail

Plaintiff alleges that Defendant McPhail, as a board member, had some control over LCSD athletic teams' financial issues and had " co-signed for a bank note so the baseball team could get a state-of-the-art pitching machine" ; Plaintiff further alleges that Defendant McPhail " had told [Jimmy Lee Murphey, LCSD's assistant athletic director,] he was not going to pay for the work [Murphey had] done on the softball dugout." Pl.'s Compl. [1] ¶ 38. Plaintiff avers that Defendants McPhail and Nelson came to her office before school started and asked her not to go to the school board and speak about her concerns of inequality and stated that " they would take care of the lack of coaches and inequalities among the softball and baseball teams." Id. ¶ 47. Plaintiff argues in her response to Defendants' motion that she has alleged that Defendant McPhail " intimidated [Plaintiff] into removing her name from a board agenda, thus preventing her from informing the board of the discrepancies in pay" ; told Plaintiff after that meeting that she " may have won some battles, but he would win the war" ; and (3) " further instructed male coaches not to disclose their actual stipends and threatened employees with termination if they assisted in any investigation questioning LCSD's coaching stipends." Pl.'s Mem. Br. Supp. Resp. Opp'n to Defs.' Mot. Dismiss [16] at 10. None of her allegations or argument support that Defendant McPhail supervised or controlled her work schedules or conditions of employment. Thus, Plaintiff has failed to satisfy the second factor with respect to Defendant McPhail.

Defendant Nelson

The Court now turns to whether Plaintiff has alleged that Defendant Nelson supervised or controlled her work schedules or conditions of employment. It is clear to the Court from the face of Plaintiff's complaint that Defendant Nelson, as athletic director, supervised at least certain key aspects of Plaintiff's work. She alleges that Defendant Nelson " named" the individuals who served as Plaintiff's assistant coach during her time at LCSD, see Pl.'s Compl. [1] ¶ 26; " moved the girls' softball team training period" in a preliminary draft for the 2011-2012 school year, id. ¶ 61; " promised [to] address" Plaintiff's concerns about the alleged inequalities she faced as the girls' head softball coach with the LCSD school board, see id. ¶ ¶ 46-47, 64; and " reassigned Plaintiff from her middle school advance fitness teaching post to study halls at the middle school" and " released Plaintiff from all her coaching obligations" --in effect " demot[ing]" her, see id. ¶ ¶ 72, 77. It is apparent from Plaintiff's complaint that she felt that Defendant Nelson was her supervisor, as Defendant Nelson was the one she voiced her numerous concerns to about her assistant coaches, see id. ¶ 27-28, as well as her

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concerns about the alleged inequalities the girls' softball team faced in comparison with the boys' baseball team, see id. ¶ ¶ 46, 60. It is also apparent, however, from the face of Plaintiff's complaint, that Defendant Nelson was subordinate to the LCSD school board, see id. ¶ ¶ 52, 64, 70, 78, 80, and at least at times acted more as a mediator than supervisor between the various LCSD athletic teams, see id. ¶ 60. Plaintiff argues in her response to Defendants' motion that Defendant Nelson also " cooked the books in dealing with coaching stipends to hide the fact that men got paid more than women" ; " after Plaintiff confronted [Defendant Nelson] on the salary inequities, Defendant Nelson immediately went to the board and recommended [Plaintiff] be removed from her position as softball coach" ; and that " [t]he Board followed his lead and rubber[-]stamped his decision." Pl.'s Mem. Br. Supp. Resp. Opp'n to Defs.' Mot. Dismiss [16] at 10. Overall, the Court finds that Plaintiff has alleged that Defendant Nelson supervised or controlled her work schedules or conditions of employment and thus has satisfied the second factor with respect to Defendant Nelson.

3. Determination of the Rate or Method of Payment

With respect to the third factor, school boards in Mississippi are vested with the authority to assign the salaries of licensed employees. See Miss. Code Ann. § 37-9-37. Thus, Plaintiff cannot establish that either Defendant McPhail or Defendant Nelson, acting alone, determined the rate and method of her pay.

4. Maintenance of Employee Records

Plaintiff does not allege that either Defendant McPhail or Defendant Nelson maintained employment records. Thus, Plaintiff has not satisfied the fourth factor.

In sum, applying the economic reality test to Defendant McPhail and then to Defendant Nelson, the Court finds that Plaintiff has failed to allege that either Defendant McPhail or Defendant Nelson were her employer for purposes of the Equal Pay Act. She has alleged that Defendant Nelson supervised, at least somewhat controlled her work schedule, and controlled some conditions of her employment. However, meeting this factor alone is insufficient to establish that Defendant Nelson was her employer for purposes of the Equal Pay Act. Plaintiff has not alleged that Defendant McPhail and/or Defendant Nelson were sufficiently involved in the operation of her employment to be her employer for purposes of the Equal Pay Act, and thus, this claim is dismissed. Defendants do not challenge ...


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