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Newcomb v. Corinth School District

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

May 1, 2014

ALFRED L. NEWCOMB, Plaintiff,
v.
CORINTH SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION ON MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

SHARION AYCOCK, District Judge.

Presently before the Court is Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment [40]. For the reasons set forth below, that motion is granted in part and denied in part.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

The instant suit arises from a disagreement between Alfred Newcomb and the Corinth School District ("the District") regarding Plaintiff's termination. Because the implementation of District's purported reduction in force bears heavy significance in this case, context regarding both the District's organizational structure and the fiscal concerns facing the District is required. Newcomb, who was hired by the District in 2005, was primarily employed as a vehicle maintenance worker and bus driver in the transportation department. According to Newcomb, Edward Lee Childress, the District superintendent, hired him both "to do repair on buses and work in the bus shop" and "take care of any need of transportation as far as children." When work was slow in the transportation department, however, Newcomb also pitched in to perform general building maintenance. Although Newcomb primarily answered to the transportation director, Nathaniel Rogers, he also occasionally worked under the direction of the maintenance director, Brent Avent.[1] As a result of this split in responsibilities, Newcomb could not be neatly categorized as either a maintenance or transportation employee. In Childress's declaration submitted alongside the District's motion for summary judgment, for instance, he consistently refers to Newcomb as a transportation/maintenance employee.

The District's transportation department was rather small, consisting of only Newcomb and Rogers. Although other employees occasionally provided support to the department, Newcomb testified that only he and Rogers were hired for the primary purpose of providing maintenance to the district's fleet of buses. The maintenance department, on the other hand, was comprised of three subservient employees who worked under the direction of Avent. Specifically, Tommy James, Mike Rutledge, and Tracy Stafford were employed exclusively in the maintenance department under Avent's charge. Although those employees occasionally lent assistance to the transportation department by jumping buses off and filling in for sick drivers, they were categorized as maintenance employees. As such, their primary responsibilities included performing general maintenance on the District's buildings.

During the 2009 through 2010 academic year, the District's state appropriated funding was reduced, and administrators were told to expect additional reductions in the following year's funding. On February 12, 2010, Childress met with the District's Board of Trustees (the Board) and discussed potential cost-saving avenues for the District going forward. Following that meeting, Childress met with the District's finance director, Bobbie Sparks, and crafted a costreduction plan that involved significant staff reductions. That plan included cutting at least nineteen positions district-wide and contemplated eliminating positions from both the maintenance and transportation departments. Childress thereafter met with numerous supervisors whose departments would be affected by the anticipated personnel reductions. Rogers was concerned about the effects such a cut would have on the transportation department and voiced opposition to any plan that involved eliminating Newcomb's position. Around the same time, the District continued on a previously implemented consolidation plan that sought to downsize the District from five campuses to three campuses within the next year. On May 10, 2010, Childress submitted the proposed personnel plan to the Board. On May 24, 2010, Rogers sent Childress a letter in which he recommended approximately twenty-four bus drivers as personnel for the upcoming year. Newcomb was not included on that list. On May 25, 2010, Childress wrote a letter to the Board in which he stated, "the financial crisis facing the State and the unknown factors associated with our local economy have led us to make the following recommendations regarding staffing for the 2009-2010 school year." The letter included a list of proposed position eliminations and articulated that "[t]he following positions are being eliminated in the district as a result of reduced funding, consolidation of school services, and enrollment projections." Included in the list of positions to be eliminated were: "2-Maintenance positions (1 Due to Bldg. Consolidation)" and "1-Transportation Position." In total, the plan proposed eliminating eighteen positions and stated that eleven employees were not being recommended back for reemployment. Included in that list was "Alfred Newcomb, " who was identified as an employee of the transportation department, as well as "Mike Rutledge, " who was identified as an employee of the maintenance department. The plan indicated that there remained some fluidity in the situation, however, articulating that "[i]t is my hope and belief that we will be able to offer employment back to at least two of the teachers being recommended for nonrenewal."

Over the course of the next several months, the District proceeded to non-renew a total of nine employees. Seven of those employees were non-renewed at the end of May 2010, while two others were non-renewed at the beginning of July 2010. The layoffs included five teachers, one teacher's assistant, two custodians, and one cafeteria employee. In the maintenance and transportation departments, Stafford's maintenance position was eliminated but he was transferred into a custodial job. Rutledge, who had initially been targeted for elimination, was never actually terminated. According to Childress, while "transitioning into the new buildings, " the administration determined that Rutledge's position was needed and he was thus retained. Newcomb, on the other hand, also continued his employment with the District throughout the summer. Childress claims that although the District never changed its mind regarding his impending termination, they opted to keep him on staff "at least until school started in 2010" to perform maintenance on the buses during the summer, drive the buses for the summer session, and assist in general consolidation efforts.

On August 2, 2010, Newcomb was assisting a co-worker on a personal building project when the two fell backwards from seventeen feet of scaffolding. Immediately after the fall, Newcomb was admitted to the local hospital for a number of diagnostic procedures, and scheduled a follow-up appointment with Dr. Randall Frazier for the next day. On August 3, Newcomb attended the appointment with Frazier and then contacted Rogers to inform him about the fall and his subsequent injury. Childress was made aware that Newcomb had suffered an injury and would be at least temporarily unavailable to work.

In the coming weeks, Newcomb continued to keep the District apprised of his condition by providing District personnel with medical documentation. Newcomb informed the District that he would need to exhaust his personal and sick leave, and the District declined to inform him of his entitlement to leave under the Family Medical Leave Act ("FMLA"). On September 8, 2010, Newcomb's visit with Frazier revealed that he remained totally disabled by the injury, and a surgical procedure was scheduled for September 16. On September 16, Frazier conducted an exploratory surgery on Newcomb's injured arm. According to Newcomb, the procedure revealed a torn "curtain, " but Frazier was able to repair it during the same operation. Newcomb was released from the care of the hospital the next day on September 17.

When he arrived home, Newcomb received a termination letter from Childress that informed him that his position was being eliminated as a result of the district-wide reduction in force. In pertinent part, that letter stated:

Dear Alfred:
I regret to inform you of your termination as an employee of the school district. As a result of school mergers and financial considerations, the district is going through a reduction-in-force. Your position is being eliminated as a part of our reduction-inforce.
...
I am sorry to inform you in this manner, but you have not been on the job for me to discuss this matter with you.
...
Thank you for your service to the Corinth ...

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