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Dearman v. Stone County School District

United States District Court, S.D. Mississippi, Southern Division

March 21, 2014

KRISTI DEARMAN, Plaintiff,
v.
STONE COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT, and GWEN MILLER, individually, Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART DR. GWEN MILLER'S MOTION TO DISMISS ALL CLAIMS AGAINST INDIVIDUAL DEFENDANT GWEN MILLER

HALIL SULEYMAN OZERDEN, District Judge.

BEFORE THE COURT is the Motion [23] to Dismiss All Claims Against Individual Defendant Gwen Miller, filed by Defendant Dr. Gwen Miller, the Superintendent of the Stone County, Mississippi, School District. The Motion has been fully briefed. After consideration of the parties' submissions, the record, and relevant legal authorities, the Court finds that Dr. Miller's Motion [23] should be granted in part and denied in part. Plaintiff Kristi Dearman's individual capacity claims against Dr. Miller for First Amendment retaliation, violation of procedural due process under the Fourteenth Amendment, and malicious interference with employment should not be dismissed on summary judgment. Ms. Dearman's claim against Dr. Miller individually for intentional infliction of emotional distress should be dismissed. No claim for defamation will proceed because Ms. Dearman did not adequately plead a defamation claim in her Amended Complaint [15], and to the extent the Amended Complaint could be construed to assert such a claim, it will be dismissed.

I. BACKGROUND

In August 2002, Plaintiff Kristi Dearman began working for the Stone County School District as a special education teacher at Stone County Middle School. Aff. of Dearman [25-2] at 1; Aff. of Miller [23-1] at 1. From 2003 until 2008, Ms. Dearman was a Local Survey Committee ("LSC") case manager and LSC Committee chair. Aff. of Miller [23-1] at 1. As an LSC case manager, Ms. Dearman was authorized to access middle school special education students' records through an online program called Special Education Automated System ("SEAS"). Aff. of Dearman [25-2] at 1; Aff. of Miller [23-1] at 1; Def.'s Reply [29] at 3. In SEAS, Ms. Dearman could complete individual education plans and re-evaluation plans for the special education students assigned to her. Aff. of Dearman [25-2] at 2. In 2010, Ms. Dearman transferred to the position of guidance counselor at Stone County Middle School. Aff. of Dearman [25-2] at 1; Aff. of Miller [23-1] at 1.

In 2011, Stone County Middle School special education teacher Jim Nightengale ran as a candidate in the election for Superintendent of the Stone County School District. Aff. of Dearman [25-2] at 1; Am. Compl. [15] at 2. During his campaign, Mr. Nightengale openly criticized the School District. Defendant Dr. Miller was a part of the School District's administration. Aff. of Nightengale [25-1] at 1-2. Ms. Dearman, along with several other teachers, openly supported Mr. Nightengale's campaign. Aff. of Dearman [25-2] at 1. Ms. Dearman placed a "Jim Nightengale" sign in her front yard. Id. According to Ms. Dearman, she was told by Stone County Middle School's principal that there could be negative repercussions for having a Nightengale sign in her yard. Id.

In November 2011, Mr. Nightengale lost the election for Superintendent to Dr. Miller. Aff. of Nightengale [25-1] at 1; Aff. of Dearman [25-2] at 2. Dr. Miller took office in January 2012. Aff. of Dearman [25-2] at 2. In July 2012, Ms. Dearman was transferred to a guidance counselor position at Stone Elementary School, and Mr. Nightengale was transferred to Stone County High School to teach "severe/profound special needs" students. Id.; Aff. of Nightengale [25-1] at 2.

Both Ms. Dearman and Mr. Nightengale refer to their transfers as unilateral transfers prompted by Dr. Miller, occurring despite their protests that they were not trained to teach elementary students or "severe/profound special needs" students, respectively. Pl.'s Resp. [25] at 3; Aff. of Nightengale [25-1]. Ms. Dearman makes the conclusory allegation in her Affidavit that "[o]ther teachers who supported Nightengale were also moved' around." Aff. of Dearman [25-2] at 2. Ms. Dearman has not identified these "other teachers." However, it is undisputed that Mr. Nightengale was also transferred in July 2012. Aff. of Nightengale [25-1] at 2.

In January 2013, Wendy Rogers, Special Education Director for the Stone County School District, reported to Dr. Miller that Ms. Dearman was assisting Mr. Nightengale with evaluation plans for high school special education students. Aff. of Miller [23-1] at 2; Letter [25-7] at 1. On January 30, 2013, Dr. Miller and Ms. Rogers met with Ms. Dearman. Ms. Dearman admitted that she had accessed SEAS at the request of Mr. Nightengale, who needed assistance completing re-evaluation plans for two high school special education students. Aff. of Miller [23-1] at 2; Aff. of Dearman [25-2] at 2. According to Dr. Miller, Ms. Dearman, as an elementary school guidance counselor, was not authorized to view high school special education students' records and doing so violated the two students' statutorily-protected rights to confidentiality. Aff. of Miller [23-1] at 2. Ms. Dearman submits that she did not violate the students' confidentiality because she had completed evaluation plans for the same two students as an LSC case manager at Stone County Middle School when the students were in middle school. Aff. of Dearman [25-2] at 2.

Dr. Miller contends that Ms. Dearman had previously been instructed in 2010 "not to complete Jim Nightengale's work for him, " after it was reported that Ms. Dearman was completing evaluation plans for Mr. Nightengale. Aff. of Miller [23-1] at 2. Dr. Miller maintains that Ms. Dearman acknowledged this previous incident during the January 30, 2013, meeting. Id. Ms. Dearman denies ever being told not to help Mr. Nightengale and insists that the administration directed Mr. Nightengale to "ask someone" if he needed help. Aff. of Dearman [25-2] at 2. Ms. Dearman submits that she was the most qualified to help Mr. Nightengale because she was the LSC case manager who last evaluated the two special education students in question. Id; Dearman Letter [25-4]. Ms. Dearman avers in her Affidavit that she also "corrected information in SEAS" for Ms. Rogers. Aff. of Dearman [25-2] at 2-3. Ms. Dearman contends that she used Ms. Rogers' SEAS user name and password, which Ms. Rogers provided to her, in order to complete this task. Id. Dr. Miller generally questions the veracity of Ms. Dearman's allegation regarding Ms. Rogers but has not provided summary judgment evidence contradicting it. Def.'s Reply [29] at 3.

Dr. Miller has submitted evidence indicating that Ms. Dearman accessed SEAS again on January 31, 2013, a day after she was told not to do so by Dr. Miller and Ms. Rogers. Docs. [23-1] at 7-0. Ms. Dearman does not address this evidence in her Response and therefore does not dispute that she continued to access SEAS even after meeting with Dr. Miller and Ms. Rogers on January 30, 2013.

By letters dated February 21, 2013, Dr. Miller notified Ms. Dearman and Mr. Nightengale that she was recommending their termination to the School Board at its March 4, 2013, meeting. Miller Letter [23-1] at 11; Miller Letter [29-1] at 34. Dr. Miller's letter to Ms. Dearman provided:

The reason for termination is the violation of Federal Law, FERPA, Federal Special Education Law: Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Federal and State Regulations: Procedural Safeguards Requirements under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Amendments of 2004 Section 612, Section 617, 34 CFR Parts 300 123, 300 610, 300 611, 300 612, 300 613, 300 614, 300 616, 300 618, and 300 623, and the Stone County School District Board Policy - IDDF/Special Education Programs[.]
You violated a special education student's confidentiality by accepting an original IEP and re-evaluation from a high school special education teacher[.] You also utilized that teacher's username and password, which was provided to you, to access the student's personal identifiable data in the SEAS program in order to modify the re-evaluation. You have also accessed another student's confidential information by editing information in SEAS[.]

Miller Letter [23-1] at 11.

Ms. Dearman requested a hearing on her proposed termination, and one was held at the School Board's meeting on March 4, 2013. Am. Compl. [15] at 4; Aff. of Dearman [25-2] at 2. The School Board did not immediately render a decision, and Ms. Dearman filed this lawsuit on April 30, 2013. In May 2013, Ms. Dearman was notified that the School Board was not pursuing termination but would instead proceed with nonrenewal of her teaching contract. Miller Letter [23-1] at 12; Courtney Letter [15-2]. The stated reason for nonrenwal was Ms. Dearman's purported violation of special education students' confidentiality. Miller Letter [23-1] at 12.

A School Board hearing on the proposed nonrenewal of Ms. Dearman's teaching contract was scheduled to occur on June 4, 2013. Id. On May 20, 2013, and upon her request, Ms. Dearman timely received the statutorily-required specific reasons for nonreemployment and supporting documents from the School District. Am. Compl. [15] at 5; Keith Letter [15-4]; see Miss. Code Ann. § 37-9-109. In order for the hearing to proceed, Ms. Dearman was required to provide the School District "not less than five (5) days before the scheduled date for the hearing, a response to the specific reasons for nonreemployment, a list of witnesses and a copy of documentary evidence intended to be presented at the hearing." Miss. Code Ann. § 37-9-109. Under the foregoing statute, a failure to provide a response would render "the recommendation of nonreemployment... final without the necessity of a hearing." Id.

Ms. Dearman's counsel maintains that on May 28, 2013, he mailed Ms. Dearman's response to the specific reasons for nonreemployment to Dr. Miller at her School District address. Aff. of Waide [25-3]; Waide Letter [15-3]. According to Dr. Miller, neither she, the School District, nor its counsel received Ms. Dearman's response. Def.'s Mem. [24] at 10; Def.'s Reply [29] at 12; Keith Letter [15-4]. By letter dated June 3, 2013, the School District, through counsel, informed Ms. Dearman's counsel that the June 4, 2013, hearing would not proceed because Ms. Dearman had not provided a response to the School District's specific reasons for nonreemployment. Keith Letter [15-4]. The School District refused Ms. Dearman's counsel's request for a continuance of the hearing and his offer to resubmit Ms. Dearman's response. Aff. of Waide ...


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