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Hollins v. Wilkinson County School District

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

October 15, 2018

BARNETTER HOLLINS PLAINTIFF
v.
WILKINSON COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT, et al. DEFENDANTS

          ORDER

          KEITH STARRETT UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         For the reasons below, the Court grants in part and denies in part Defendants' Motion to Dismiss [15]. The Court denies the motion as to Plaintiff's claims of First Amendment retaliation. The Court grants it as to Plaintiff's claims of Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment due process violations against Defendants Jackson and Jones in their individual capacities.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff was the Assistant Transportation Director for the Wilkinson County School District (“WCSD”) from March 2014 to June 2017. Defendant Jean Jones was the Transportation Director for the WCSD and Plaintiff's supervisor. Plaintiff supported the reelection campaign for the incumbent Superintendent of Education for the WCSD in the fall of 2015, but Defendant Kimberly Jackson won the election and became the new Superintendent in January 2016.

         Plaintiff alleges that Defendants Jones and Jackson retaliated against her for her political speech in support of the former Superintendent. Among other things, she alleges that they threatened and harassed her, made false accusations against her, reduced her salary, reduced her duties and responsibilities, failed to modify her work responsibilities to conform to medical restrictions, required Plaintiff to work while others did not have to do so, and ultimately terminated her employment. She filed this lawsuit against the School District, Jones, and Jackson, asserting various constitutional claims. Defendants Jones and Jackson filed a Motion to Dismiss [15], which the Court now addresses.

         II. Standard of Review

         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).[1] “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).

         Additionally, Defendants' motion raises the defense of qualified immunity. “Although nominally a defense, the plaintiff has the burden to negate the defense [of qualified immunity] once properly raised.” Poole v. Shreveport, 691 F.3d 624, 627 (5th Cir. 2012). When qualified immunity is raised at the pleading stage, “[h]eightened pleading” is required. Reyes v. Sazan, 168 F.3d 158, 161 (5th Cir. 1991). The plaintiff must provide “allegations of fact focusing specifically on the conduct of the individual who caused the plaintiffs' injury.” Id. 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 plaintiff must “speak to the factual particular of the alleged actions, at least when those facts are known to the plaintiff and are not peculiarly within the knowledge of defendants.” Schultea v. Wood, 47 F.3d 1427, 1432 (5th Cir. 1995).

         III. Discussion

         Defendants argue that they are entitled to qualified immunity from liability for Plaintiff's claims. There are two steps in the qualified immunity analysis. First, the Court determines whether Plaintiff alleged sufficient facts to state a claim that Defendants' “conduct violates an actual constitutional right.” Brumfield v. Hollins, 551 F.3d 322, 326 (5th Cir. 2008). Second, the Court must “consider whether [Defendants'] actions were objectively unreasonable in the light of clearly established law at the time of the conduct in question.” Id.

         A. Final Decision-Maker

         First, Defendants argue that they cannot be liable for the District's actions against Plaintiff because neither of them was the final decision-maker with respect to her termination. Defendants are mistaken. The Fifth Circuit recently clarified that individual liability under Section 1983 “turns on traditional tort principles of whether the particular act was a ‘causal link' in the termination.” Sims v. City of Madisonville, 894 F.3d 632, 640 (5th Cir. 2018). That is, “individual liability for a government official who violates constitutional rights, including First Amendment ones, turns on traditional principles of ‘but-for' causation.” Id. at 639. “If an individual defendant's animus against a coworker's exercise of First Amendment rights is a link in the causal chain that leads to a plaintiff's firing, the individual may be liable even if she is not the final decision-maker.” Id.

         Here, Plaintiff alleged that her working relationship with Defendant Jones “deteriorated” after Timothy Scott lost the election for superintendent, and that Jones told her that she would let the new superintendent, Defendant Jackson, “know that Plaintiff was no longer needed . . . .” Complaint at 4, Hollins v. Wilkinson County Sch. Dist., No. 5:17-CV-108-KS-MTP (S.D.Miss. Aug. 24, 2017), ECF No. 1. Thereafter, Jones allegedly “made threatening comments to the plaintiff regarding her job security.” Id. at 5. Defendant Jackson allegedly “voiced her displeasure and disapproval that the plaintiff and other employees” had supported the former superintendent in the election. Id. Plaintiff also alleges that Defendants threatened and harassed her, made false accusations against her, reduced her salary, reduced her duties and responsibilities, failed to modify her work responsibilities to conform to medical restrictions, and required Plaintiff to work while others did not have to do so. Id. at 5-6. Plaintiff alleged these actions with particularity, providing specific dates for many of them. Id.

         Therefore, Plaintiff alleged sufficient facts to demonstrate that Defendant Jones's animus against her support of Scott in the superintendent election was “a link in the causal chain” that led to her ...


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