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Hollins v. Wilkinson County School District

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

August 9, 2019

BARNETTER HOLLINS PLAINTIFF
v.
WILKINSON 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 Summary Judgment [48].

         I. Background

         The Court discussed the background of this case in a previous opinion. See Hollins v. Wilkinson County Sch. Dist., 2018 WL 4997052, at *1 (S.D.Miss. Oct. 15, 2018). In the Court's Memorandum Opinion and Order [28] of October 15, 2018, it 1) held that Plaintiff neither asserted a Fifth Amendment taking claim nor sought leave to amend her pleading, 2) dismissed Plaintiff's Fifth Amendment due process claims against the individual Defendants, and 3) dismissed Plaintiff's Fourteenth Amendment due process claims against the individual Defendants. Id. at *3-*4. Defendants filed a Motion for Summary Judgment [48] as to Plaintiffs' remaining claims, which the Court now addresses.

         II. Standard of Review

         Rule 56 provides that “[t]he court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see also Sierra Club, Inc. v. Sandy Creek Energy Assocs., L.P., 627 F.3d 134, 138 (5th Cir. 2010). “Where the burden of production at trial ultimately rests on the nonmovant, the movant must merely demonstrate an absence of evidentiary support in the record for the nonmovant's case.” Cuadra v. Houston Indep. Sch. Dist., 626 F.3d 808, 812 (5th Cir. 2010) (punctuation omitted). The nonmovant “must come forward with specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Id. “An issue is material if its resolution could affect the outcome of the action.” Sierra Club, 627 F.3d at 138. “An issue is ‘genuine' if the evidence is sufficient for a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Cuadra, 626 F.3d at 812.

         The Court is not permitted to make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence. Deville v. Marcantel, 567 F.3d 156, 164 (5th Cir. 2009). When deciding whether a genuine fact issue exists, “the court must view the facts and the inference to be drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.” Sierra Club, 627 F.3d at 138. However, “[c]onclusional allegations and denials, speculation, improbable inferences, unsubstantiated assertions, and legalistic argumentation do not adequately substitute for specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial.” Oliver v. Scott, 276 F.3d 736, 744 (5th Cir. 2002).

         III. Discussion

         A. Municipal Liability under Section 1983

         First, Defendants generally argue that Plaintiff can not establish municipal liability under Section 1983 because she can not prove the existence of a District policy or custom that caused the alleged constitutional violations. The Fifth Circuit provided the following summary of the law concerning municipal liability under § 1983:

A municipality is not liable under § 1983 on the theory of respondeat superior, but only for acts that are directly attributable to it through some official action or imprimatur. To hold a municipality liable under § 1983 for the misconduct of an employee, a plaintiff must show, in addition to a constitutional violation, that an official policy promulgated by the municipality's policymaker was the moving force behind, or actual cause of the constitutional injury. The official policy itself must be unconstitutional or, if not, must have been adopted with deliberate indifference to the known or obvious fact that such constitutional violations would result.
Official policy can arise in various forms. It usually exists in the form of written policy statements, ordinances, or regulations, but may also arise in the form of a widespread practice that is so common and well-settled as to constitute a custom that fairly represents municipal policy. A policy is official only when it results from the decision or acquiescence of the municipal officer or body with final policymaking authority over the subject matter of the offending policy.
Although an official policy can render a municipality culpable, there can be no municipal liability unless it is the moving force behind the constitutional violation. In other words, a plaintiff must show direct causation, i.e., that there was a direct causal link between the policy and the violation.
A plaintiff must show that, where the official policy itself is not facially unconstitutional, it was adopted with deliberate indifference as to its known or obvious consequences. Deliberate indifference is a degree of culpability beyond mere negligence; it must amount to an intentional choice, not merely an unintentionally negligent oversight.

James v. Harris County, 577 F.3d 612, 617-18 (5th Cir. 2009) (punctuation and citations omitted).

         However, “[w]hen a municipality's final policy and decision maker in a single action directly and intentionally deprives a person of a federal constitutional right, . . . the person need not show that a policy or custom caused his injury in order to recover. In such a case, the municipality's action is deemed to be the direct cause or moving force behind the deprivation of right and injury.” Coggin v. Longview Indep. Sch. Dist., 289 F.3d 326, 333 (5th Cir. 2002) (citing Bd. of County Comm'ners v. Brown, 520 U.S. 397, 402-04, 117 S.Ct. 1382, 137 L.Ed.2d 626 (1997)). “To prove liability under the single-incident exception, a plaintiff must at least show (1) that the defendant acted with deliberate indifference by disregarding a known or obvious consequence of his action and (2) that there is a direct causal link between the defendant's action and the deprivation of federal rights.” Waltman v. Payne, 535 F.3d 342, 350 (5th Cir. 2008). Therefore, a single action by one who establishes governmental policy is sufficient to impose municipal liability in certain circumstances. Id. (citing Pembaur v. City of Cincinnati, 475 U.S. 469, 481, 106 S.Ct. 1292, 89 L.Ed.2d 452 (1997)).

         Plaintiff presented evidence, in the form of her own interrogatory responses, that Defendant Kimberly Jackson 1) falsely accused her of workplace infractions, 2) reduced her responsibilities and salary in July 2016, 3) refused to reimburse $960.41 withheld from her paycheck, 4) intentionally assigned her duties that conflicted with restrictions imposed by her physician, 5) required her to report to work while other employees were not required to do so, 6) terminated her employment in June 2017. Exhibit 5 to Response at 3-4, Hollins v. Wilkinson County Sch. Dist., No. 5:17-CV-108-KS-MTP (S.D.Miss. June 13, 2019), ECF No. 51-5. These are some of the alleged actions forming the basis of Plaintiff's Section 1983 claims.

         As the Court noted in its previous opinion, Mississippi law provides school boards the general authority to “select all school district personnel in the manner provided by law . . . .” Miss. Code Ann. § 37-7-301(p). With respect to noninstructional employees, the board has the power to “employ . . . and fix the duties and compensation of such personnel deemed necessary pursuant to the recommendation of the superintendent of schools.” Miss. Code Ann. § 37-7-301(w) (emphasis added). The superintendent “shall recommend to the school board . . . all noninstructional employees to be employed and may prescribe the duties thereof.” Miss. Code Ann. § 37-9-3. Moreover, the superintendent has the “power, authority, and dut[y]” to “employ and dismiss noninstructional and nonlicensed employees as provided by law.” Miss. Code Ann. § 37-9-14. Accordingly, the Fifth Circuit has acknowledged that the school board's power with regard to noninstructional employees “is limited to acting pursuant to the superintendent's recommendation.” Saddler v. Quitman County Sch. Dist., 278 F. App=x 412, 417-18 (5th Cir. 2008).

         Therefore, Jackson was effectively a final decision-maker with respect to many of the alleged constitutional violations, and Plaintiff provided evidence that Jackson intentionally committed these actions. In the Court's opinion, this is sufficient to impose municipal liability on the County under the single-incident exception.

         B. First Amendment Retaliation

         Next, Defendants argue that Plaintiff can not prove that they retaliated against her because of her speech. To prove a claim of First Amendment retaliation, Plaintiff must present evidence that “(1) [she] suffered an adverse employment action; (2) [she] spoke as a citizen on a matter of public concern; (3) [her] interest in the speech outweighs the government's interest in the efficient provision of public services; and (4) the speech precipitated the adverse employment action.” Anderson v. Valdez, 845 F.3d 580, 590 (5th Cir. 2016). Defendants argue that Plaintiff can not satisfy the fourth element, causation.

         To prove causation, a plaintiff must prove that “his speech was a substantial or motivating factor behind the defendant's actions.” James v. Texas Collin County, 535 F.3d 365, 376 (5th Cir. 2008). If the plaintiff meets this burden, “a defendant may still avoid liability by showing, by a preponderance of the evidence, that it would have taken the same adverse employment action even in the absence of the protected speech.” Haverda v. Hays County, 723 F.3d 586, 592 (5th Cir. 2013). “An employee can, however, refute this showing by presenting evidence that his employer's ostensible explanation for the discharge is merely pretextual.” Id.

         “[D]irect evidence of retaliatory motive is not necessary to show causation, ” Bosque v. Starr County, Tex., 630 Fed.Appx. 300, 305 (5th Cir. 2015), and “summary disposition of the causation issue in First Amendment retaliation claims is generally inappropriate.” Haverda, 723 F.3d at 595. “Courts deciding the causation issue by summary disposition have generally done so only when the employer's reasons have not been controverted.” Id. at 596.

         Plaintiff claims that Defendants retaliated against her because she publicly supported Timothy Scott, the former superintendent, in an election that Defendant Jackson eventually won. Plaintiff presented a sworn declaration from Scott. See Exhibit 1 to Response, Hollins v. Wilkinson County Sch. Dist., No. 5:17-CV-108-KS-MTP (S.D.Miss. June 13, 2019), ECF No. 51-1. He said that he heard Defendant Jean Jones “say that she and [Defendant] Kimberly Jackson, the Superintendent-elect had discussed that [Plaintiff] would no longer be needed because [Plaintiff] was publicly supporting me and my campaign.” Id. at 2. In the Court's opinion, this is sufficient to create a genuine dispute of material fact as ...


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