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Garth v. Curlee

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

September 24, 2018




         Cloyd Garth filed his Complaint [1] in this Court on June 26, 2017, alleging various Constitutional and Civil Rights violations related to his termination as Principal for the Aberdeen School District on June 2, 2017. Now before the Court is Defendant Mac Curlee's Motion to Dismiss [59] on the Basis of Qualified Immunity, Motion to Grant [63] Defendant's Motion to Dismiss on the Basis of Qualified Immunity as Confessed, and Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment [55].

         Factual and Procedural Background

         In 2012, Governor Phil Bryant declared a state of emergency in the Aberdeen, Mississippi School District due to poor student performance and the District's inability to pay its bills. When the Governor declares a state of emergency in a school district, the Mississippi State Board of Education may assign a conservator to the school district. Miss. Code Ann. § 37-17-6(12)(c)(ii). Once assigned, the conservator acts as both the superintendent and the school board, and has the authority to enter into contracts on behalf of the school district. The conservator is then responsible for the administration, management, and operation of the school district. See Miss. Code Ann. § 37-17-6(15)(a). Following the Governor's declaration, the Mississippi Department of Education took control of the District and appointed a conservator, Robert Strebeck, in 2012. In the fall of 2013, Mac Curlee was appointed as conservator to the Aberdeen School District. In July of 2014, Curlee hired the Plaintiff, a black male, as the principal of Aberdeen High School.

         On July 1, 2016, the Mississippi Department of Education selected a school board (“Board”) to serve in an advisory capacity and undergo training prior to taking full control of the District on July 1, 2017. In December 2016, the District hired the Mississippi School Board Association (“MSBA”) to assist with the District's search for a new District superintendent for the 2017-2018 school year, in anticipation of the District returning to local control on July 1, 2017. The MSBA publicized the search and received applications. During the search for a new superintendent, the Plaintiff, while still working as Principal, conveyed his interest in the superintendent position to Curlee.

         After collecting the applications of interested parties, the MSBA then presented the applications to the Board, which then selected five candidates to interview. The Plaintiff was one of the candidates selected for interviews. On May 9, 2017, the Board met in executive session and unanimously chose Jeff Clay, a white male, to serve as superintendent. At the time of the Board's vote, the conservatorship was still in place and the Board was acting solely in an advisory capacity. See Miss. Code Ann. § 37-17-6(15)(a). As Conservator, Curlee held the ultimate and singular authority to select the new superintendent and, upon the recommendation from the Board, Curlee selected Clay as the superintendent for the 2017-2018 school year. Id.

         On May 11, 2017, at the request of the Board, Curlee met with the Plaintiff to notify him of the selection of Clay as the new superintendent. According to the Plaintiff, Curlee told the Plaintiff that he expected him to encourage the African-American community to accept Clay as the new superintendent and to help smooth over his selection with the African-American community. The Plaintiff expressed his belief that Clay was the wrong choice and responded that it was not his job to garner support for Clay in the local community. District Counsel, Nathaniel Armistad, later met with the Plaintiff who assured him that despite his opinions on Clay's selection, he had no problems working with Clay.

         On May 11, Curlee also evaluated the Plaintiff's performance and rated the Plaintiff at ¶ 3.68 on a 4.0 scale. Following the evaluation, Curlee extended the Plaintiff a new contract for the 2017-2018 school year, July 1, 2017, through June 30, 2018.

         On May 25, 2017, the District's CFO (Straughter-Campbell) brought concerns with the Plaintiff's noncompliance with the District's time trust system to Curlee. The Plaintiff's issue with the Time Trust system arose because instead of clocking himself in and out, the Plaintiff frequently had Ilana Randle clock him in and out a total of 164 times between November 3, 2014, and June 3, 2017.[1] See [55-18]. On June 2, 2017, Curlee and Armistad met with the Plaintiff to discuss the District's Time Trust system, which all District employees were required to use to clock in and out. Curlee asked the Plaintiff to explain why Randle was clocking him in and out so frequently. After hearing the Plaintiff's responses, Curlee gave the Plaintiff the option to either resign or be terminated. The Plaintiff refused to continue the conversation. Curlee terminated the Plaintiff on June 2, 2017, for violating District procedures regarding time clock and payroll procedures. Specifically, Curlee terminated the Plaintiff for “failure to refrain from falsifying records (payroll/time sheet information) or directing others to do so in violation of Standard 2.2(b) of the Mississippi Code of Ethics.”

         Procedural Posture

         On June 20, 2018, the Defendants' filed a Motion for Summary Judgment [55] on all four of the Plaintiff's claims: 1) Fourteenth Amendment procedural due process claim brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, 2) race discrimination, 3) First Amendment retaliation, 4) state law breach of contract. On June 26, 2018, Defendant Curlee filed a Motion to Dismiss [59] on the basis of qualified immunity on all four claims. While the Motion [59] is styled as a motion to dismiss, Curlee presented matters outside the pleadings and, as such, the Court will consider the motion as one for summary judgment. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(d). Because the Plaintiff failed to file a response to Curlee's Motion, Curlee filed a Motion to Grant [63] Defendant's Motion as confessed.

         Rule 56 makes it clear that there is “no summary judgment by default” and even a complete lack of a response by the Plaintiff does not alter the Court's summary judgment inquiry. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56; Calais v. Theriot, 589 Fed.Appx. 310, 311 (5th Cir. 2015); Hibernia Natl. Bank v. Administracion Cent. Sociedad Anonima, 776 F.2d 1277, 1279 (5th Cir. 1985).

         Standard of Review

         Summary judgment is warranted when the evidence reveals no genuine dispute regarding any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P 56(a). 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.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). The nonmoving party must then “go beyond the pleadings” and “set forth ‘specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Id. at 324, 106 S.Ct. 2548 (citation omitted).

         The normal “summary judgment burden of proof is altered in the case of a qualified immunity defense.” Wolfe v. Meziere, 566 Fed.Appx. 353, 354 (5th Cir. 2014) (citing Michalik v. Hermann, 422 F.3d 252, 262 (5th Cir. 2005); Bazan ex rel. Bazan v. Hidalgo Cnty., 246 F.3d 481, 489 (5th Cir. 2001)). Where a defendant seeks dismissal based on qualified immunity, the complaint is subject to a heightened pleading requirement, Schultea v. Wood, 47 F.3d 1427, 1434 (5th Cir. 1995), as follows: “‘[T]o survive [a motion to dismiss],' a plaintiff must plead the defendant alleged constitutional violations ‘with factual detail and particularity, not mere conclusionary allegations.'” Wells v. Newkirk-Turner, No. 3:13-CV-733-DPJ, 2014 WL 5392960, at *3 (S.D.Miss. Oct. 22, 2014) (quoting Anderson v. Pasadena Indep. Sch. Dist., 184 F.3d 439, 443 (5th Cir. 1999)).

         The qualified immunity doctrine protects government officials from civil liability for damages based upon the performance of discretionary functions if the official's conduct did not violate a clearly established constitutional or statutory law of which a reasonable person would have known. Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 230, 129 S.Ct. 808 (2009); Crostley v. Lamar Cty., Texas, 717 F.3d 410, 422-24 (5th Cir. 2013) (citing Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818, 102 S.Ct. 2727, 73 L.Ed.2d 396 (1982); Kinney v. Weaver, 367 F.3d 337, 346 (5th Cir. 2004)). “Qualified immunity gives government officials breathing room to make reasonable but mistaken judgments about open legal questions. When properly applied, it protects all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.” Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 743, 131 S.Ct. 2074, 179 L.Ed.2d 1149 (2011).

         Courts use a two-prong analysis to determine whether a defendant is entitled to qualified immunity. The court must decide 1) whether the plaintiff has alleged a violation of a constitutional right and 2) whether the government official acted objectively unreasonably in light of “clearly established” law at the time of the incident. Surratt v. McClarin, 851 F.3d 389, 392 (5th Cir. 2017), cert. denied sub nom. Surratt v. McClaran, 138 S.Ct. 147, 199 L.Ed.2d 37 (2017) (citing Freeman v. Gore, 483 F.3d 404, 411 (5th Cir. 2007)). To be “clearly established” for purposes of qualified immunity, “[t]he contours of the rights must be sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right.” Anderson v. Valdez, 845 F.3d 580 (5th Cir. 2016).

         Discussion and Analysis

         The Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment [55] and Defendant Curlee's Motion to Dismiss [59] on the basis of qualified immunity request summary judgment on the following grounds. First, the Defendants' argue the Plaintiff cannot show that the actions of Curlee violated his clearly established right to Procedural Due Process. Second, the Defendants' argue that the Plaintiff cannot established a prima facie case of race discrimination claim under Section 1983 and argue that this claim must fail as a matter of law. Third, the Defendants' argue that the Plaintiff failed to support his First Amendment retaliation claim with competent evidence. Finally, the Defendants' argue that the Plaintiff cannot prove his state law breach of contract claim.

         1. Fourteenth Amendment Procedural Due Process Claim

         The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment states, in relevant part: “nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” U.S. Const. Amend. XIV, § 1. To invoke the protections of procedural due process a plaintiff must have suffered a deprivation of life, liberty, or property. Toler v. City of Greenville, No. 4:96-CV-34-D, 1997 WL 332168, at *3 (N.D. Miss. June 4, 1997) (citing Blackburn v. City of Marshall, 42 F.3d 925, 935 (5th Cir. 1995); San Jacinto Sav. & Loan v. Kacal, 928 F.2d 697, 700 (5th Cir. 1991); Board of Regents v. Roth, 408 U.S. 564, 569, 92 S.Ct. 2701, 33 L.Ed. 548 (1972)). When a property interest is taken, “some form of hearing is required” before a final ...

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