228 F.3d 729 (6th Cir. 2000), 99-6266, Leary v Daeschner

Docket Nº:99-6266, 99-6267
Citation:228 F.3d 729
Party Name:Mary Elizabeth Leary; Glenda H. Williams, Plaintiffs-Appellants/ Cross-Appellees, v. Stephen W. Daeschner, Superintendent of the Jefferson County Board of Education, Defendant-Appellee/ Cross-Appellant.
Case Date:September 20, 2000
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
 
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228 F.3d 729 (6th Cir. 2000)

Mary Elizabeth Leary; Glenda H. Williams, Plaintiffs-Appellants/

Cross-Appellees,

v.

Stephen W. Daeschner, Superintendent of the Jefferson County Board of Education, Defendant-Appellee/ Cross-Appellant.

Nos. 99-6266, 99-6267

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

September 20, 2000

Argued: August 1, 2000

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Kentucky at Louisville. No. 99-00465--Charles R. Simpson III, Chief District Judge.

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Daniel T. Taylor III, Louisville, Kentucky, for Appellants.

Michael K. Kirk, Denise L. St. Clair, WYATT, TARRANT & COMBS, Louisville, Kentucky, for Appellee.

Before: MOORE and CLAY, Circuit Judges; HOOD,[*] District Judge.

OPINION

KAREN NELSON MOORE, Circuit Judge.

Plaintiffs-appellants and cross-appellees Mary Elizabeth Leary and Glenda H. Williams ("plaintiffs") were teachers at the Atkinson Elementary School ("Atkinson"), a public school in Jefferson County, Kentucky. At the end of the 1998-99 school year, they were involuntarily transferred to another school within the school district. Alleging that they were transferred in retaliation for exercising their First Amendment rights and that they were not afforded due process in connection with the transfer, the plaintiffs brought the instant suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against defendant-appellee and cross-appellant Stephen W. Daeschner, the Superintendent of the Jefferson County Board of Education, seeking a preliminary injunction preventing

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the school district from completing the transfer. The district court denied the plaintiffs' motion for preliminary injunction based on their First Amendment claim but enjoined Daeschner from transferring the plaintiffs until they had received due process. Three days later, the district court dissolved the injunction, finding that the school had provided sufficient process to the plaintiffs in the time since the court's original order. The plaintiffs then brought this appeal, claiming that the district court abused its discretion in denying a preliminary injunction on their First Amendment claims and in finding that the plaintiffs had been afforded due process. Daeschner cross-appealed, claiming that the district court's original determination that the plaintiffs were entitled to due process was in error. For the reasons discussed below, we AFFIRM all of the district court's rulings.

I. BACKGROUND

Mary Elizabeth Leary and Glenda H. Williams were long-time special education teachers at the Atkinson Elementary School, a public school in Jefferson County, Kentucky.1 Atkinson, the undisputed evidence shows, is a highly troubled elementary school, producing some of the lowest student test scores in the state of Kentucky. In fact, Atkinson was identified by the state as a school "in decline." Moreover, the school has a reputation for being an unpleasant place to work: testimony presented to the district court suggested that Atkinson has had great difficulty in getting qualified individuals to accept and keep the job of principal, due in part to the tense relationship between Atkinson faculty and administration. In addition, several teachers testified that student discipline was a significant problem.

Due to Atkinson's poor academic achievement level, the school qualified under the Kentucky Education Reform Act to receive the assistance of a Distinguished Educator, or "Highly Skilled Educator," an employee of the school district who specializes in aiding troubled schools. Atkinson's Distinguished Educator was Nancy Bowlds, who arrived at the school in August 1998. Bowlds conducted a number of meetings, communicated with teachers and administrators, and worked closely with the then-principal of Atkinson, LeDita Howard, in order to devise an improvement plan for the school. Ultimately, it was decided that a "collaborative model" of education was the preferable one, and Howard formally presented the idea to the Atkinson faculty, where it met with some resistance. Shortly thereafter, in approximately May of 1999, the decision was made to transfer some of the teachers from Atkinson to another school, purportedly in order to ensure that the faculty would primarily consist of teachers who were in favor of implementing the proposed changes, and partly also in hopes of changing the overall climate at the school through a change of personnel. The unrefuted testimony of the defendant's witnesses indicates that the idea of transferring personnel was initiated by district-level administrators William Eckels, the Executive Director of Human Resources, and Dr. Freda Meriweather, the Assistant Superintendent for District-Wide Instruction, with the approval of Superintendent Stephen Daeschner.

Once the decision was taken to transfer some teachers, Meriweather asked Howard and Bowlds to suggest the names of teachers who would be most likely to resist or impede the impending changes at Atkinson. Bowlds's list contained both Leary's and Williams's names, but Howard's did not contain either. Meriweather compared the lists and asked Howard whether she would agree with Bowlds's identification of Leary and Williams as

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prospects for transfer. Howard agreed. Neither Meriweather nor Eckels personally knew very much about the plaintiffs, but rather relied entirely on the advice of Howard and Bowlds. Ultimately, five teachers and one security monitor were given notice that they would be transferred out of the Atkinson school. Williams and Leary received letters on May 29, 1999, and June 1, 1999, respectively -- the last days of the school year -- informing them that they would be transferred pursuant to section D of the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the Jefferson County Board of Education and the Jefferson County Teachers' Association (JCTA). It is undisputed that the plaintiffs were given no prior notice of the decision and no reason for the transfer, except that it was "for good cause and extenuating circumstances" and "necessary for the efficient operation of the school district," which is the language of Section D2. Nor were the plaintiffs given an opportunity to be heard, except that they had the opportunity to grieve the decision through the process set out in the CBA.

Leary and Williams presented substantial evidence to the district court showing that they had been highly vocal on a number of occasions in criticizing various aspects of the management of the Atkinson school and that they were considered "leaders" among the faculty in this respect. In early 1997, Leary was involved in presenting complaints -- and ultimately a petition -- to the School-Based Decision Making Committee, a sort of mini-school board that consisted of Atkinson employees and governed Atkinson alone, regarding the school's handling of student discipline. Leary had also been particularly critical of the changes to the ECE program proposed by Bowlds and the rest of the administration in the spring of 1999, suggesting that the changes could put the school in violation of the law. Furthermore, Williams was a teachers' union (JCTA) representative and therefore had voiced a number of concerns over the years to Howard on behalf of other teachers -- as often as every two weeks, according to Howard.

The defense witnesses gave reasons for transferring the plaintiffs that were unrelated to the plaintiffs' vocal criticism of school policy, however. Bowlds testified that she believed that Leary and Williams had leadership problems and were not "team players." She claimed that both plaintiffs had failed to attend the meetings of certain committees that they were involved with. Bowlds also noted that Leary had a propensity for yelling at students and colleagues alike. Bowlds admitted that her problems with the plaintiffs were not related to the plaintiffs' competence in the classroom, and in fact, that she had not even reviewed the plaintiffs' (uncontrovertedly positive) job evaluations before designating them for transfer. Howards testified that Leary had explicitly indicated her unwillingness to adopt the "collaborative model" in her classroom and agreed that Leary was not a "team player." J.A. at 199-200 (Howard Test.). Howard had similar things to say about Williams, and further complained that Williams had continually questioned Howard's authority. At one point during her deposition, Howard conceded that Leary was probably transferred because of her speaking out on various issues and because of "other things," but then immediately backtracked from this testimony. J.A. at 199-202.

The plaintiffs filed suit on July 16, 1999, in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky, alleging that school board superintendent Stephen Daeschner had violated their rights to free speech in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and their rights to procedural due process, in

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violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. They requested preliminary and permanent injunctive relief as well as declaratory relief. The district court held hearings on August 5, 6, 12, and 13, in order to attempt to resolve the matter of the preliminary injunction before the Atkinson students were scheduled to return to school on August 17, 1999. On August 13, 1999, the district court orally ruled against the plaintiffs on their First Amendment claim but found that they were entitled to more process than they had received before their transfer was effected. Therefore, the district court enjoined the school board from transferring Leary and Williams until they had been afforded "notice of the proposed transfer, a statement of the reasons [therefor], and an opportunity to be heard." J.A. at 379-81 (Tr. of Hr'g).

On the morning of August...

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