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Brookins v. Lawrence County School District

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

October 19, 2017

JASON BROOKINS, PLAINTIFF
v.
LAWRENCE COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT, et al. DEFENDANTS

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          KEITH STARRETT, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         For the reasons below, the Court grants in part and denies in part Defendants' Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings [12]. Specifically, the Court grants the motion as to Plaintiff's Title VII claims against Defendants Turner and Fairburn in their individual capacities, but the Court denies the motion as to Plaintiff's claims of racial discrimination under Sections 1981 and 1983, and claim of First Amendment retaliation under Section 1983.

         I. Background

         This is an employment discrimination case. Plaintiff was a teacher employed by Defendant, the Lawrence County School District. Defendant Darrell Turner is the principal of Lawrence County High School, and Defendant Tammy Fairburn is the Superintendent of the District.

         Plaintiff alleges that Defendants engaged in a series of discriminatory and retaliatory actions against him because he complained about racial discrimination against African-American teachers and students. Among other things, he alleges that Defendants suspended him without pay, formally reprimanded him, instituted false charges against him, threatened him when he asserted his due process rights, prevented him from traveling for work, refused to accept his office referrals for disruptive student behavior, permitted students to sexually harass him, restricted his classroom internet access, refused to address his concerns regarding another teacher's discriminatory treatment of his son, threatened to follow him and his wife home, and generally treated him more harshly than they did similarly situated white teachers. Plaintiff claims that he was constructively discharged, having resigned because of Defendant's actions.

         Plaintiff asserted claims of racial discrimination and retaliation under Title VII, racial discrimination under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981 and 1983, and First Amendment retaliation under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. He also asserted the following state-law claims: breach of contract, libel, and slander. Defendants Fairburn and Turner filed a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings [12], which the Court now addresses.

         II. Standard of Review

         A “motion for judgment on the pleadings under Rule 12(c) is subject to the same standard as a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6).” Doe v. MySpace, Inc., 528 F.3d 413, 418 (5th Cir. 2008). To survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co. LLC v. La. State, 624 F.3d 201, 210 (5th Cir. 2010) (punctuation omitted). “To be plausible, the complaint's factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Id. (punctuation omitted). The Court must “accept all well-pleaded facts as true and construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Id. But the Court will not accept as true “conclusory allegations, unwarranted factual inferences, or legal conclusions.” Id. Likewise, “a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” PSKS, Inc. v. Leegin Creative Leather Prods., Inc., 615 F.3d 412, 417 (5th Cir. 2010) (punctuation omitted). “While legal conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they must be supported by factual allegations.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 679, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1950, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009).

         III. Discussion

         A. Title VII Discrimination and Retaliation

         First, Defendants argue that the Court should dismiss the Title VII claims against them because they were not Plaintiff's employer. Plaintiff did not respond to this argument.

         “An ‘employer' under Title VII is a ‘person in an industry affecting commerce who has fifteen or more employees . . . .” Oden v. Oktibbeha County, 246 F.3d 458, 465 (5th Cir. 2001) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(b)). This definition “includes one or more individuals, governments, governmental agencies, [or] political subdivisions . . . .” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(a). Accordingly, a supervisor may be “considered an ‘employer' under Title VII if he wields the employer's traditional rights, such as hiring and firing.” Huckabay v. Moore, 142 F.3d 233, 241 (5th Cir. 1998). But if the supervisor exercises such power in their official - rather than individual - capacity, it “is necessarily exercised . . . by a person who acts as an agent of the corporate or municipal body he represents. Because the wrongful acts are performed in his official capacity, any recovery . . . must be against him in that capacity, not individually.” Id.[1] Therefore, Defendants Turner and Fairburn can not be liable in their individual capacities under Title VII.

         B. Section 1981 - Discrimination

         Next, Defendants argue that they are entitled to qualified immunity from liability for Plaintiff's claim of racial discrimination under Section 1981, and that Plaintiff did not plead sufficient facts to satisfy the heightened pleading standard applicable in qualified immunity cases.

         Section 1981 provides:

All persons within the jurisdiction of the United States shall have the same right in every State and Territory to make and enforce contracts, to sue, be parties, give evidence, and to the full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of persons and property as is enjoyed by white citizens, and shall be subject to like punishment, pains, penalties, taxes, licenses, and exactions of every kind, and to no other.

42 U.S.C. § 1981(a). “[T]he term ‘make and enforce contracts' includes the making, performance, modification, and termination of contracts, and the enjoyment of all benefits, privileges, terms, and conditions of the contractual relationship.” 42 U.S.C. § 1981(b). To state a claim of racial discrimination under 42 U.S.C. § 1981, Plaintiff must allege “(1) that he is a racial minority; (2) that the defendant intended to discriminate against him on the basis of race; and (3) that the discrimination concerns one or more of the activities enumerated in the statute.” Wesley v. Gen. Drivers, Warehousemen & Helpers Local 745, 660 F.3d 211, 213 (5th Cir. 2011).

         “The doctrine of qualified immunity protects government officials from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231, 129 S.Ct. 808, 172 L.Ed.2d 565 (2009). “Although nominally a defense, the plaintiff has the burden to negate the defense once properly raised.” Poole v. Shreveport, 691 F.3d 624, 627 (5th Cir. 2012).

         Qualified immunity can be raised at either the pleading or summary judgment stage of litigation. When it is raised at the pleading stage, “[h]eightened pleading” is required. Reyes v. Sazan, 168 F.3d 158, 161 (5th Cir. 1999). The plaintiff must provide “allegations of fact focusing specifically on the conduct of the individual who caused the plaintiffs' injury.” Id. Plaintiffs must “rest their complaint on more than conclusions alone and plead their case with precision and factual specificity.” Nunez v. Simms, 341 F.3d 385, 388 (5th Cir. 2003). In other words, a “plaintiff seeking to overcome qualified immunity must plead specific facts that both allow the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the harm he has alleged and that defeat a qualified immunity defense with equal specificity.” Backe v. Leblanc, 691 F.3d 645, 648 (5th Cir. 2012). The ...


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