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Taylor v. Greenville Public School District

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

July 9, 2019

LEESON TAYLOR PLAINTIFF
v.
GREENVILLE PUBLIC SCHOOL DISTRICT and DR. LORETTA SHANNON, KIMBERLY MERCHANT, JAN VAUGHN, SHIRLEY CARTLIDGE and BETSY ALEXANDER, IN THEIR OFFICIAL CAPACITIES AS MEMBERS OF THE GREENVILLE PUBLIC SCHOOL DISTRICT DEFENDANTS

          ORDER

          MICHAEL P. MILLS U.S. JUDGE

         This cause comes before the court on the motion of defendants Greenville Public School District et al for summary judgment, pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 56. Plaintiff Leeson Taylor has responded in opposition to the motion, and the court, having considered the memoranda and submissions of the parties, concludes that it should dismiss plaintiff's federal claims and that it should decline to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over his remaining state law claims.

         This is a wrongful termination case brought by plaintiff Taylor, who is the former superintendent of the Greenville Public School District. Taylor was fired by the Board of Trustees of the School District (hereinafter “the Board”) on December 2, 2016, following a ninety-minute hearing which had been held three days earlier. The Board cited two primary reasons for firing plaintiff, namely 1) the manner in which he handled the investigation and discipline of a teacher who struck a special education student, and 2) the “F” rating the Greenville Public School District received from the Mississippi Department of Education for the 2015-2016 school year. The incident involving the striking of the student had caused a great deal of outrage in the community, and the Board contends that plaintiff did not adequately convey the seriousness of the incident to it, prior to a video of it “going viral.”

         On October 10, 2016, the Board held a meeting to discuss the incident and plaintiff's reaction to it. Three days later, the Board held another meeting, at which it decided to place plaintiff on administrative leave with pay as a means of facilitating its own investigation into the matter. On October 17, 2016, the Board met yet again to discuss the incident, and it hired Tonya Franklin, a local Greenville attorney, to conduct an independent investigation. On October 24, 2016, the Board received Franklin's initial report on the results of her investigation. After reviewing the report, the Board submitted follow-up questions to Franklin, who made a supplemental and a second supplemental report. On November 1, 2016 the Board president, Dr. Loretta Shannon, sent Taylor a notice of termination letter. This letter spelled out the grounds for his termination and advised him of his right to appeal it. Plaintiff did, in fact, appeal his firing, and the Board held a ninety-minute hearing on that appeal on November 29, 2016. On December 2, 2016, Taylor was sent a copy of the Board's final decision upholding his termination. Feeling aggrieved, plaintiff filed a wrongful termination action in state court, asserting both state and federal claims. Defendants timely removed the case to federal court. Defendants have presently moved for summary judgment, arguing that no genuine issue of fact exists regarding their potential liability in this case and that they are entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

         In addressing the summary judgment motion, this court will first consider plaintiff's federal law claims, since it is these claims which provide the jurisdictional basis for this lawsuit. In asserting that his termination violated federal law, plaintiff relies primarily upon an argument that the termination hearing which he was granted did not comply with the procedural due process requirements of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In his summary judgment brief, however, plaintiff fails to address many of the arguments which defendants set forth in their own summary judgment briefing. Defendants argue, and this court agrees, that to the extent that plaintiff failed to address the arguments which they raised in their briefing, those arguments are properly considered to be conceded.

         The limited arguments which plaintiff does offer on his due process claims relate primarily to his contention that he was denied the public hearing to which, he contends, he was entitled under the “liberty” provision of the Fourteenth Amendment's due process clause. In particular, plaintiff contends that the charges against him were so stigmatizing that they entitled him to a public “name clearing” hearing. It is well settled that termination by a public employer may implicate a liberty interest in circumstances “where a person's good name, reputation, honor, or integrity is at stake” or that will impose a “stigma that [will foreclose] freedom to take advantage of other employment opportunities.” Bd. of Regents of State Colleges v. Roth, 408 U.S. 564, 573 (1972).

         This court concludes that multiple deficiencies exist with regard to plaintiff's liberty interest claim, relating both to his basic right to a “name clearing hearing” and also to his failure to specifically request a public hearing. In their brief, defendants correctly note that, in the Fifth Circuit, courts employ a seven-element ‘stigma-plus-infringement' test to determine whether § 1983 affords a government employee a remedy for deprivation of liberty without an opportunity to clear his name. Bledsoe v. City of Horn Lake, Miss., 449 F.3d 650, 653 (5th Cir. 2006). The plaintiff must show that: (1) he was discharged; (2) stigmatizing charges were made against him in connection with the discharge; (3) the charges were false; (4) he was not provided notice or an opportunity to be heard prior to the discharge; (5) the charges were made public; (6) he requested a hearing to clear his name; and (7) the employer denied the request.” Id.

         In their brief, defendants offer extensive arguments and authorities relating to the second element of the “stigma plus” test, arguing that the charges against plaintiff were not sufficiently stigmatizing to even raise the possibility of a liberty interest claim. Specifically, defendants write in their brief that:

As a threshold matter, Plaintiff's proof must create a genuine issue of fact that the charges implicated a “liberty interest.” However, the charges herein in Taylor's November 1, 2016 Notice of Termination letter did not implicate a liberty interest. They concern matters of inadequate job performance, lack of professional judgment, and poor leadership. They are not sufficiently stigmatizing to trigger a liberty interest. Ball v. Bd. of Trustees of Kerrville Indep. Sch. Dist., 584 F.2d 684, 685 (5th Cir. 1978); see also Wells v. Hico Indep. Sch. Dist., 736 F.2d 243, 256 and n.16 (5th Cir. 1984) (“that for a charge to be stigmatizing, it must be worse than adverse”).
Other Courts in the Fifth Circuit have noted that accusations of exercising “poor judgment, ” or failing to report are not sufficiently stigmatizing to implicate a liberty interest. Vander Zee v. Reno, 73 F.3d 1365, 1369 (5th Cir. 1996) (statement that plaintiff exercised “poor judgment” was not sufficiently condemnatory to satisfy the stigma prong of the test); Blackburn v. City of Marshall, 42 F.3d 925, 936 (5th Cir. 1995) (newspaper article containing adverse comments on plaintiff's qualifications and attitude insufficient); O'Neill v. City of Auburn, 23 F.3d 685, 691 (2d Cir. 1994) (charge of “incompetence” and sloppy work insufficient); Connelly v. Comptroller of the Currency, 876 F.2d 1209, 1215 (5th Cir. 1989) (public statement that plaintiff lacked qualifications was insufficient); Huffstutler v. Bergland, 607 F.2d 1090, 1092 (5th Cir. 1979) (rating of honesty as “unsatisfactory” insufficient); Stretten v. Wadsworth Veterans Hosp., 537 F.2d 361, 366 (9th Cir. 1976) (incompetence and inability to get along with co-workers in a professional manner insufficient). Taylor admitted that what he contended made the statements or charges “stigmatizing” was that “they put forth in the community that I had failed to perform by functions as superintendent.” (Exh. 1, Pl. Dep. 110). These kinds of statements are not sufficiently stigmatizing to implicate any liberty interest Taylor may have had.

[Defendants' brief at 16-17].

         This court finds defendants' arguments in this regard to be persuasive, and it does not believe that plaintiff has made even a good faith effort to rebut them. In finding defendants' arguments to be well taken, this court emphasizes that, on some level, virtually every termination for cause is stigmatizing and harmful to an individual's career prospects, at least to some degree. That is, a finding by an employer that an employee did not perform his job duties in a competent manner is one which would tend to make a future employer less likely to hire him. As noted in defendants' authorities quoted above, however, the Fifth Circuit has held that, to support a “liberty interest” claim, much more is required than simply a contention that an employee failed to perform his job duties properly. In Ball, for example, the Fifth Circuit wrote that “[a] due process claim for violation of a ‘liberty interest' entitling [plaintiff] to a full hearing would arise if and only if the reason given or the dismissal procedure adopted resulted in a ‘badge of infamy,' public scorn, or the like.” Ball, 584 F.2d at 685, citing Paul v. Davis, 424 U.S. 693, 96 S.Ct. 1155, 47 L.Ed.2d 405 (1976). Similarly, the Fifth Circuit has written that “[a] liberty interest arises . . . when one is publicly subjected to a badge of infamy, such as being ‘posted' as a drunkard.” Dennis v. S & S Consol. Rural High Sch. Dist., 577 F.2d 338, 340 (5th Cir. 1978) citing Wisconsin v. Constantineau, 400 U.S. 433, 91 S.Ct. 507, 27 L.Ed.2d 515 (1971).

         This court regards Dennis' example of an employee being fired for being a “drunkard” as illustrative, since it demonstrates the sort of allegations which might genuinely place a “badge of infamy” on an employee and seriously damage his standing in the community. In so stating, this court notes parenthetically that it recently permitted a liberty interest claim to go before a jury in a case in which the plaintiff was alleged to have posted a nude photograph of himself on a website dedicated to individuals seeking to have extra-marital affairs. Wallace v. Desoto County School District, No. 3:16CV287 (N.D. Miss. 2018). While this court has thus been receptive to liberty interest claims in appropriate cases, it does not believe that the charges against plaintiff in this case rise to that level, and plaintiff has offered no arguments in his brief suggesting that they do.

In his brief, plaintiff writes that:
Plaintiff was terminated simply because he did not terminate Linda Winters - Johnson, a certain special education teacher who struck and dragged a special education student across the gymnasium floor on the “Greenville Campus” of Greenville High School on the afternoon of September 21, 2016. Plaintiff avers that Defendants' assertion that he was terminated because the Greenville Public School District received a “F” rating from the Mississippi Department Of Education for the 2015 - 2016 school year was pretext.

         [Plaintiff's brief at 2]. In a different section of his brief, plaintiff writes that:

That as a result of Plaintiff's termination, he was stigmatized by the comments made by Defendants. As opposed to Defendants saying “no comment ..... this is a personnel matter” Defendants stated that he (i.e. Plaintiff) failed to notify them of the alleged incident and that he failed to report the alleged incident to the Mississippi Department Of Education. (See Exhibit 1, page 111, lines 1 - 18). As a result of the “stigma”, Plaintiff has not been able to secure employment. That the position of superintendent of education carries with it broad based respect in the community in general and the education community specifically. Thus, when a superintendent is falsely ...

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