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Felder v. Edwards

United States District Court, Fifth Circuit

December 5, 2013

DR. PAMELA M. FELDER, Plaintiff,


TOM S. LEE, District Judge.

This cause is before the court on the motion of defendants Dr. Jayne Sargent and Jackson Public School District (JPS) "to dismiss on [the] basis of qualified immunity from federal claims and individual immunity from state law claims or, alternatively, for summary judgment."[1] Plaintiff Dr. Pamela M. Felder both opposes the motion and requests a "continuance to conduct immunity related discovery before responding to the Defendants' Motion to Dismiss/Summary Judgment so that Plaintiff can show that defendants violated her clearly established constitutional and statutory rights and the defendants' conduct was not objectively reasonable."[2] The court, having reviewed the parties' memoranda and the exhibits attached thereto, concludes that the motion should be granted in part and stayed in part to allow plaintiff to conduct immunity-related discovery to the extent discussed herein.

Plaintiff was formerly employed by JPS as Deputy Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction/Accreditation. Following her nonrenewal in 2012, she filed this action against JPS and former JPS superintendents Dr. Lonnie Edwards[3] and Dr. Sargent, in their individual capacities only, asserting various federal claims and a state law claim for breach of contract. The facts as set forth in the complaint are as follows:

During Lonnie Edwards' tenure as JPS superintendent, which commenced in 2008, JPS hired Felder to serve as one of two deputy superintendents. Felder, who had previously served as a teacher and principal in the JPS system, was selected as Deputy Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction/Accreditation, because Edwards, to whom she directly reported, lacked experience in the areas of curriculum and instruction. In this position, Felder was responsible for exceptional education, assessment, accountability and research, state and federal programs, professional development, literacy, advanced academics, instructional and information technology and instruction.

Felder alleges that in addition to fulfilling the job duties outlined for her position, she performed many of the duties set out in Edwards' job description, with Edwards receiving both the credit and the compensation for her work. While she toiled at her desk completing her and Edwards' work, Edwards and Deputy Superintendent for Schools Wilbur Walters "lollygagged about Jackson, [Mississippi]." Felder further alleges that Walters was not required to complete any acts of substance, but rather his primary role was to chauffeur Edwards.

On March 29, 2011, plaintiff slipped and fell down some stairs while on the job. Despite the disability caused by the injury, she was able to perform the essential functions of the job and was permitted by Edwards to work half days at the Central Office and half days from home. During this time, Edwards, who had been notified by JPS that his contract would not be renewed, asked Felder to testify on his behalf at his due process hearing and to respond to specific items outlined in his non-renewal letter from the board. While she complied with his request regarding the items outlined in the non-renewal letter, she advised him due to her disability, she would not voluntarily appear to testify at the hearing. Although it is unclear whether she expressed the same to Edwards, plaintiff alleges she was reluctant to testify because she did not want to associate herself with Edwards and/or voluntarily interject herself into the controversy between Edwards and the school board. She asserts that immediately following her refusal, Edwards began to retaliate against her by requiring her to submit her time sheets directly to him, instead of following the usual procedure whereby she gave her time sheets to her secretary who then submitted them to the payroll officer/department.

Following Edwards' tenure with JPS which ended June 30, 2011, Dr. Sargent, who had previously served as JPS Superintendent from 1997 to 2002, was appointed as Interim Superintendent. According to the complaint, during Sargent's previous term as superintendent, she had allowed Felder to work from home to accommodate a previous disability. However, upon commencing service as Interim Superintendent, Sargent refused to continue this reasonable accommodation for plaintiff's current disability. Specifically, on July 18, 2011, Sargent notified Felder by letter that she was not aware of any JPS policy which allowed an employee to complete job duties from home and further advised plaintiff that she was required to comply with the district's sick leave policy which required her to use sick leave for time she was away from work due to illness.

Felder further charges that Dr. Sargent excluded her from executive team/instructional meetings and removed her from a supervisory position over the directors of Information Technology, State and Federal Programs and Exceptional Education, transferring their supervision to Deputy Superintendent Walters with instructions that plaintiff no longer interact with the directors. On February 23, 2012, months after her alleged demotion and while she was on leave to attend to her disability, Sargent sent her a nonrenewal letter which stated, "[T]he reasons for your nonrenewal as Deputy Superintendent are as follows: The financial constraints of the school district necessitate the elimination of your positions [sic]. The school district is facing a severe budgetary challenge for this fiscal year and future fiscal years." Sargent further advised, "[T]he school district will no longer employ two deputy superintendents. Consequently, the school administration will be restructured to provide concentrated focus on curriculum and the delivery of instruction such that two deputies will not be required." While plaintiff was non-renewed, Wilbur Walters retained his position as a deputy superintendent.

Felder alleges that in implementing what was purportedly a reduction in force, Sargent failed to follow applicable JPS policies. She also contends, though, that there was no real reduction in force and that JPS did not actually eliminate the position of "Deputy Superintendent of Instructional Support and School Accreditation." She contends that instead, by its purported reduction in force, JPS eliminated only three administrative positions (not including the position she had held), and that it merely renamed the remaining administrative positions, and offered the renamed positions with a reduction in pay to the same administrators who had held those positions before they were renamed, with the exception of her. She claims that she was disabled at the time, and was the only administrator in the renamed positions who was not offered an alternate position. According to the complaint, the supposed reduction in force is belied by the fact that days before Sargent left as Interim Superintendent, she allowed Walters to recommend that Sargent's own son be promoted to Executive Director for Research and Accountability, when Sargent had previously denied plaintiff permission to hire an employee to fill the position.

Felder further alleges that while the foregoing events were transpiring, JPS was also interfering with her rights under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), 29 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq. According to her complaint, JPS required her to apply for FMLA leave commencing on April 13, 2011. JPS thereafter interfered with her FMLA rights by miscalculating her FMLA leave time; failing to give her notice that she was required to take FMLA leave concurrently with her receipt of workers' compensation benefits; rescinding approval of her FMLA leave on October 11, 2011; and refusing to continue to honor the reasonable accommodation of allowing her to work from home.

Lastly, the complaint charges upon her separation from the District, JPS failed to pay her for 142 days of sick leave which had been donated by employees in school districts across the state.

On this factual basis, Felder purports to assert claims against all the named defendants for gender discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. She additionally asserts claims against them under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violation of her alleged constitutional rights to be left alone (First Amendment); to not be deprived of her property without due process (Fifth Amendment takings clause); to privacy (Fourteenth Amendment); and to procedural due process (Fourteenth Amendment). And she alleges claims under the Americans with Disability Act (ADA), 42 U.S.S. § 12101 et seq., and the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), 29 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq. Finally, plaintiff purports to advance a state law claim for breach of contract. The court first addresses Felder's putative federal claims.

"Section 1983 provides a cause of action for persons who have been depriv[ed] of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws' of the United States by the actions of a person or entity operating under color of state law." Kovacic v. Villarreal , 628 F.3d 209, 213 (5th Cir. 2010) (alteration in original) (quoting § 1983). Defendants maintain that Sargent, who has been sued only in her individual capacity, is entitled to qualified immunity as to the federal claims set out in the complaint. While plaintiff has responded in opposition to the substance of the motion, she has also requested that the court defer consideration of the motion to allow for immunity-related discovery.

Qualified immunity promotes the necessary, effective, and efficient performance of governmental duties, Harlow v. Fitzgerald , 457 U.S. 800, 807, 102 S.Ct. 2727, 73 L.Ed.2d 396 (1982), by shielding from suit all but the "plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law, " Brumfield v. Hollins , 551 F.3d 322, 326 (5th Cir. 2008) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Once a defendant properly invokes qualified immunity, the plaintiff bears the burden to rebut its applicability. McClendon v. City of Columbia , 305 F.3d 314, 323 (5th Cir. 2002). The qualified immunity analysis asks whether (1) the claims as pled in the complaint "establish a violation of clearly established right, " and (2) "whether the conduct was objectively reasonable in light of clearly established law at the time of the incident." Lauderdale v. Texas ...

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