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Ellis v. Tupelo Public School District

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

March 31, 2014

CALVIN ELLIS, Plaintiff,
v.
TUPELO PUBLIC SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION ON MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

SHARION AYCOCK, District Judge.

This cause comes before the Court on Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment [29]. Because the Court determines that Plaintiff's breach of contract, tortious breach of contract, and procedural due process claims are barred by the doctrine of res judicata, the Court dismisses those counts of Plaintiff's Complaint. In addition, the Court finds that Plaintiff has failed to establish a genuine dispute of material fact with regard to his equal protection and tortious interference claims and grants summary judgment in favor of Defendant as to those counts as well.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

The instant suit arises from a disagreement between Calvin Ellis and the Tupelo Public School District ("the District") regarding Plaintiff's termination. Ellis, who was hired by the District in 2006, was employed as both a music teacher and the show choir director at Tupelo High School. The terms of that employment relationship were embodied in a written contract, which was renewed on an annual basis. That contract was renewed for the 2011 though 2012 academic year in August of 2011.

On September 30, 2011, Ellis hosted a "bonding night" for the male students enrolled in the school's coed show choir. That same night, Ellis's wife hosted a "hair and makeup night" for the female students enrolled in the choir. During the course of the evening, the group of female students "pranked" the males' cars "by painting them with shaving cream and other nondestructive substances." In return, the group of male students decided to engage in some "pranking, " themselves. According to Plaintiff, however, the boys' methods were admittedly "more aggravated."

The following week, the District administration received a parental complaint regarding Ellis's involvement in the alleged "pranking" incident. The interim superintendent, David Meadows, ensured that an investigation of the events would ensue. He further conveyed that the complaint should be lodged with the high school principal, Jason Harris. On October 6, 2011, Harris delivered Ellis a letter informing him that the superintendent was placing him on administrative leave until a thorough investigation could be conducted. Ellis was directed to abstain from contacting any students or parents during the pendency of the investigation, and was further instructed to discontinue giving private voice lessons to students in the interim.

As the administration conducted interviews with concerned parents and students, the scope of the investigation broadened to allegations outside of the pranking incident as well. During the course of the investigation, Meadows met with Ellis on October 13, 2011 to discuss both his involvement in the pranking incident and additional matters which had been brought to the attention of the administration. Ellis thereafter retained an attorney and requested another meeting to respond to the District's allegations. On October 28, 2011, Ellis was terminated pursuant to a letter identifying twenty-three purported counts of misconduct, including, in part, violation of music copyright laws, providing private voice lessons during the school day, failing to provide adequate supervision on a field trip, failing to provide adequate supervision at a competition, accompanying minors out after midnight in violation of a city ordinance, creating a hostile work environment, charging personal expenses to a booster club credit card, and committing acts of insubordination while on administrative leave.

Ellis, through counsel, thereafter requested a public hearing pursuant to Mississippi Code Section 37-9-59. Consequently, the Board opted to employ a hearing officer under Mississippi Code Section 37-9-111, which provides school boards the discretion to conduct the hearing or appoint an officer for such purpose. That hearing was set for December 5, 2011. In the interim, Ellis unsuccessfully sought clarification on the purported instances of misconduct, and attempted to gain access to his former email account and booster club financial records. The District provided Ellis with its witness list on December 1, 2011, and relinquished a copy of its exhibits on December 4, 2011.

The hearing spanned approximately ten days over a three month period, generating in excess of 2, 000 pages of transcribed argument and testimony. Upon agreement of the parties, Ellis and the District supplemented the hearing record with additional affidavits. On March 23, 2011, the hearing officer issued his report, concluding that the termination was "a proper employment decision based upon a valid educational reason." Pursuant to his request, Ellis was allowed to present a statement regarding the hearing officer's findings before the Board on March 26, 2012. In spite of his plea, the Board nonetheless issued a written decision adopting and affirming the dismissal on March 28, 2011. That written decision reiterated that Ellis had a right to appeal, contingent on the filing of a petition in the Lee County Chancery Court. Ellis intentionally opted to forego filing that appeal, and instead filed a separate action in this Court. On December 18, 2012, Ellis filed an amended complaint, averring liability under equal protection, procedural due process, tort, and contract theories. Defendant has since filed a motion for summary judgment, contending that Plaintiff's claims are due to fail as a matter of law.

SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD

Summary judgment is warranted under Rule 56(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure when the evidence reveals both that there is no genuine dispute regarding any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The rule "mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett , 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986).

The party moving for summary judgment "bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of [the record] which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Id. at 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548. The nonmoving party must then "go beyond the pleadings" and "designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'" Id. at 324, 106 S.Ct. 2548 (citation omitted). In reviewing the evidence, factual controversies are to be resolved in favor of the nonmovant, "but only when... both parties have submitted evidence of contradictory facts." Little v. Liquid Air Corp. , 37 F.3d 1069, 1075 (5th Cir. 1994) (en banc). When such contradictory facts exist, the court may "not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence." Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc. , 530 U.S. 133, 150, 120 S.Ct. 2097, 147 L.Ed.2d 105 (2000). However, conclusory allegations, speculation, unsubstantiated assertions, and legalistic arguments have never constituted an adequate substitute for specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial. TIG Ins. Co. v. Sedgwick James of Wash. , 276 F.3d 754, 759 (5th Cir. 2002); SEC v. Recile , 10 F.3d 1093, 1097 (5th Cir. 1997); Little , 37 F.3d at 1075.

DISCUSSION AND ANALYSIS

Defendant contends that a number of Plaintiff's claims are precluded, while arguing that the remaining claims simply fail on their merits. Accordingly, the Court first considers Defendant's preclusion ...


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