364 F.2d 177 (4th Cir. 1966), 10281, Johnson v. Branch

Docket Nº:10281.
Citation:364 F.2d 177
Party Name:Willa JOHNSON, individually and as a representative of a class composed of herself and other Negro school teachers of Halifax County, North Carolina, similarly situated, and as a representative of a class composed of herself and other Negro citizens of Halifax County, North Carolina, similarly situated, Appellant, v. Joseph BRANCH, individually and
Case Date:June 06, 1966
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

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364 F.2d 177 (4th Cir. 1966)

Willa JOHNSON, individually and as a representative of a class composed of herself and other Negro school teachers of Halifax County, North Carolina, similarly situated, and as a representative of a class composed of herself and other Negro citizens of Halifax County, North Carolina, similarly situated, Appellant,


Joseph BRANCH, individually and as attorney for the Board of Education ofHalifax County, North Carolina, et al., Appellees.

No. 10281.

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit.

June 6, 1966

Argued April 7, 1966.

William M. Kunstler, New York City, and Philip J. Hirschkop, Alexandria, Va. (Kunstler, Kunstler & Kinoy, New York City, Lainof, Cohen & Cohen, Alexandria, Va., Samuel S. Mitchell, Raleigh, N.C., and Prof. Chester J. Antieau, Washington, D.C., on brief), for appellant.

Richard B. Allsbrook, Roanoke Rapids, N.C. (Julian R. Allsbrook and Allsbrook, Benton, Knott, Allsbrook & Cranford, Roanoke Rapids, N.C., on brief), for appellees.

Before HAYNSWORTH, Chief Judge, and SOBELOFF, BOREMAN, BRYAN and J. SPENCER BELL, Circuit Judges.

J. SPENCER BELL, Circuit Judge:

This is an appeal from a judgment of the district court dismissing with prejudice

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the plaintiff's complaint seeking reversal of the action of her school committee which refused to renew her contract of employment as a teacher. She contends that the committee acted either in an arbitrary and capricious manner or acted to penalize her for exercising her constitutional rights. Jurisdiction is based upon Title 28 U.S.C. § 1343(3), Title 42 U.S.C. §§ 1971, 1981, 1983 and 1985, and the First, Fifth, Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States.

The record discloses, the defendants concede, and the court found that the plaintiff, a Negro, was a well qualified, conscientious, and competent teacher of English at the T. S. Inborden High School in the town of Enfield, North Carolina, for a period of nearly twelve years preceding the incidents involved here. In addition to her teaching duties she had done a great deal of 'extracurricular' work for the school and for student activities which indicated her devotion to her professional task. During the year 1962-1963 the Principal graded her in all fields as excellent and above average, the two highest possible ratings used in the system of grading teachers by the Halifax school system. Her superintendent, a defendant, testified that she had been an above average teacher and was doing very satisfactory work.

Beginning in the month of April 1963, the town of Enfield became a focal point of civil rights activity which included a voter registration drive, the candidacy of a number of Negroes for public offices, a major federal voting suit, an attempt to use the public library by Negro high school students, and the picketing of places of public accommodation. The local theatre closed, and mass convictions for picketing at a local restaurant were finally reversed by the Supreme Court. Blow v. North Carolina, 379 U.S. 684, 85 S.Ct. 635, 13 L.Ed.2d 603 (1965). The plaintiff was a participant in one of the demonstrations and in the voter registration and voting activity. Both her husband and her father were candidates for public office. Her uncle brought suit in the federal district court in an effort to secure the Negroes an adequate opportunity to register.

The civil rights movement in Enfield became increasingly active and controversial during the summer and fall of 1963 and continued into the winter of 1964. It had not terminated at the time that teaching contracts came up for renewal at the April 23, 1964, meeting of the District School Committee. In March, Mrs. Johnson received from her Principal, L. M. Williams, a letter dated March 10, 1964, listing seven infractions of the school rules which he asked her to correct. The plaintiff offered expert evidence to show, and the district court in its comments appeared to agree, that these infractions individually and collectively were not in themselves justification for failure to re-employ the plaintiff. None of them involved the quality of her classroom work. Instead they covered such matters as being 15 minutes late to supervise an evening athletic contest; arriving at the school building a few minutes after the prescribed sign-in time but before any class was due to commence; failure to furnish a written explanation for not attending a P.T.A. meeting; failure to stand in the door of her classroom to supervise pupils as the classes changed, and failure to see that the cabinets in her home room were clean and free of fire hazard. To all of these, the plaintiff offered explanations, and early in April the plaintiff received a letter dated Marvh 31, 1964, in which the Principal informed her that he had seen improvement 'in the areas mentioned' in the letter of March 10th. The letter continued 'I am recommending you for re-election for a teacher for the 1964-1965 school term on condition that you continue to show improvement. * * *' Prior to the meeting of the District School Board in April, Principal Williams did in fact sign the plaintiff's contract, thus complying with the state's legal requirment that he recommend her before the Committee could act on her contract. The record discloses that the former pleasant relationship between

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Mrs. Johnson and the Principal, Williams, became strained over the period of her civil rights activities. The plaintiff contends that Williams was opposed to such activity on the part of school teachers and exhibited his hostility by criticizing her. She concedes that she took offense at his actions. However, she insisted that at no time were their relations such that they interfered with her official duties, and Williams also conceded that he could not specify a single infringement of the rules after the warning of March 10th. In any event, his testimony confirmed his statement of March 31st that she had improved and that he had recommended extending her contract for another year.

The District Committee met on April 23, 1964, to consider renewal of teacher contracts. In attendance were County Superintendent Overman, Principal Williams, Committee Chairman Coppage, and members Thorne, Copeland, Mrs. Arnold and Mrs. Morisette. All the members of the school committee knew of the civil rights activity in general and of the participation of Mr. Johnson, the plaintiff's husband, therein, though they denied specific knowledge of the plaintiff's part or of her relationship as wife to the Mr. Johnson who was running for the State Senate from that district. At this meeting all the committee members (except the Chairman, Coppage, who had received copies) first became aware of the two letters to Mrs. Johnson. In their testimony before the court they all declared that their decision was based solely on the letters. Superintendent Overman testified that at the meeting Williams renewed his favorable recommendation of March 31st. None of the members was able to testify to any inquiry into further details made at the meeting. All action on teacher contracts was postponed until a meeting on May 27, 1964. During the interval no further investigation was made by any member of the committee of Mrs. Johnson's conduct. The meeting on May 27th was attended by the...

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