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Epps v. Hazlehurst City School District

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

October 26, 2018

HAZLEHURST CITY SCHOOL DISTRICT; LISA DAVIS, in her individual and official capacities; KENNETH THRASHER, in his individual and official capacities; PAUL RHODES, in his individual and official capacities; and JOHN DOES 3-10 DEFENDANTS



         BEFORE THE COURT is the [23] Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings Based on Qualified Immunity filed by Defendants Lisa Davis, Paul Rhodes, and Kenneth Thrasher. The Motion argues that Plaintiff Latarsha Epps has failed to plead her claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 with sufficient particularity to overcome Defendants qualified immunity. However, it is unclear what specific relief Defendants' seek. The Motion interchangeably requests dismissal of the § 1983 claims, a Court-ordered Schultea reply, and limited immunity-related discovery. The Motion is fully briefed. Having reviewed the pleadings, the submissions of the parties, and relevant law, the Court finds that a Schultea reply is required.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Latarsha Epps is a former employee of the Hazlehurst City School District (“the School District”) who held various different positions from March 2009 through her date of termination on November 18, 2016. At the time of her termination, she was employed as a business office assistant and also as the administrative assistant clerk for the Board of Trustees of the School District (“the Board”). She says that her position as the Board's administrative assistant clerk was pursuant to a contract providing for a one-year term of employment beginning July 1, 2016.

         Epps' [4] Amended Complaint alleges that from July 1, 2016 through the date of her termination, she informed all of the defendants - the District, Lisa Davis, Kenneth Thrasher, and Paul Rhodes - that various actions by Davis - the superintendent for the District - and the Board violated state laws regarding nepotism, finances, bids, and Board meeting record keeping. Epps asserts she told Thrasher and Rhodes - members of the Board - and Davis that Davis's decision to hire her son into a position in which Davis was his supervisor violated the state's nepotism prohibition. Epps says she informed Thrasher, Rhodes, and Davis that the Board's use of District money to pay for Mississippi High School Athletic Association passes for Board members, Davis, and Davis's family was a misappropriation of public funds.

         Epps also maintains that she informed Thrasher, Rhodes, and Davis that Davis's attempt to coerce Epps to change already-approved meeting minutes and the Board's decision to alter those approved minutes were both illegal. Epps says she spoke to, and emailed, Thrasher, Rhodes, and Davis about Davis abusing her power as superintendent, failing to follow travel requirements, backdating documents, changing board minutes, failing to follow statutory purchasing requirements, and improper use of money. Finally, Epps says she told Thrasher and Rhodes that Davis retaliates against employees for exercising their free speech right. On November 18, 2016, Epps was fired. She says her termination was retaliation for speaking publicly about Davis's unlawful conduct.

         Epps' Amended Complaint alleges causes of action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the Fair Labor Standards Act, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and Mississippi tort law. Pertinent to the instant Motion for Judgment Based on Qualified Immunity on the Pleadings are Epps' § 1983 claims. She alleges First Amendment retaliation against all defendants and a related claim, purportedly against the District, Thrasher, and Rhodes, for their failure to investigate Epps' charges of wrongdoing and unlawful termination.

         The Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings Based on Qualified Immunity seemingly requests three alternative forms of relief: 1) dismissal of the plaintiff's § 1983 claims against Davis, Thrasher, and Rhodes in their individual capacities, 2) a Schultea Reply stating “specific factual and legal allegations tied to each particular defendant, ” or 3) leave for the parties to conduct limited immunity-related discovery. (Defs.' Mem. Supp. Mot. J. Pleadings 8, ECF No. 24.) Epps contends in response that she has sufficiently pleaded a factual basis for her claims against Davis, Thrasher, and Rhodes individually, but alternatively asks for leave to file a Schultea Reply. In Reply, Defendants argue that Epps' failure to investigate claim fails to allege a constitutional violation and that Epps' First Amendment retaliation claim fails because she does not allege that her protected speech was made as a citizen.


         a. 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 avoid dismissal, “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). A claim is facially plausible “when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id.

         In deciding a Rule 12(c) motion, the Court accepts all well pleaded facts as true and views them in the light most favorable to Plaintiff. Linicomn v. Hill, 902 F.3d 529, 533 (5th Cir. 2018). But “the complaint must allege more than labels and conclusions, a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do, and factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Jabaco, Inc. v. Harrah's Operating Co., Inc., 587 F.3d 314, 318 (5th Cir. 2009). “While legal conclusions can provide the complaint's framework, they must be supported by factual allegations.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 664. “Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.” Id. at 678.

         b. Qualified Immunity

         42 U.S.C. § 1983 provides a cause of action for the violation of an individual's rights secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States by a person acting under color of state law. However, “[t]he 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 (2009) (quoting Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982)). Accordingly, a government official is entitled to immunity from suit unless (1) Plaintiff has made allegations sufficient to show a violation of a ...

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