702 F.3d 444 (8th Cir. 2012), 12-1276, Sutton v. Bailey

Docket Nº:12-1276.
Citation:702 F.3d 444
Opinion Judge:LOKEN, Circuit Judge.
Party Name:Toby J. SUTTON, Plaintiff-Appellee v. Patricia BAILEY, Individually & in Official Capacity as Vice-Chancellor of Academic & Student Affairs; Kellie Thomas, Individually & in Official Capacity as Director of Instruction, Defendants-Appellants.
Attorney:Mark Mayfield, argued, Ryan M. Wilson, on the brief, Jonesboro, AR, for appellant. Donn Mixon, argued, Rebecca Worsham, on the brief, Jonesboro, AR, for appellee.
Judge Panel:Before RILEY, Chief Judge, LOKEN and BENTON, Circuit Judges.
Case Date:December 03, 2012
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit
 
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Page 444

702 F.3d 444 (8th Cir. 2012)

Toby J. SUTTON, Plaintiff-Appellee

v.

Patricia BAILEY, Individually & in Official Capacity as Vice-Chancellor of Academic & Student Affairs; Kellie Thomas, Individually & in Official Capacity as Director of Instruction, Defendants-Appellants.

No. 12-1276.

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit.

December 3, 2012

Submitted: Oct. 3, 2012.

Page 445

Mark Mayfield, argued, Ryan M. Wilson, on the brief, Jonesboro, AR, for appellant.

Donn Mixon, argued, Rebecca Worsham, on the brief, Jonesboro, AR, for appellee.

Before RILEY, Chief Judge, LOKEN and BENTON, Circuit Judges.

Page 446

LOKEN, Circuit Judge.

Toby J. Sutton commenced this lawsuit after he was terminated as a Funeral Science Director at Arkansas State University— Mountain Home. He asserted procedural due process claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Vice-Chancellor Patricia Bailey and Director-of-Instruction Kellie Thomas in their official and individual capacities, alleging they provided constitutionally inadequate pre-termination process and seeking damages and injunctive relief. Bailey and Thomas (collectively " Appellants" ) appeal the district court's denial of qualified immunity on these individual-capacity damage claims. 1 Reviewing the denial of qualified immunity de novo and the record in the light most favorable to Sutton, we conclude that reasonable school officials would not have known that Appellants' conduct violated Sutton's clearly established due-process rights and therefore reverse. See Monroe v. Ark. State Univ., 495 F.3d 591, 594 (8th Cir.2007) (standard of review).

I.

In May 2010, Sutton entered into a nine-month contract with the University to serve as a Funeral Science Director for the 2010-11 academic year. The contract provided that Sutton could be terminated at any time " for adequate cause." On November 2, 2010, Sutton received an email from Bailey's assistant asking him to attend a meeting the following day but not disclosing the subject of the meeting. The next day, Sutton met with Appellants and a Human Resources Department representative. Bailey presented Sutton with a statement that had been posted on his Facebook page in June 2010: " Toby Sutton hopes this teaching gig works out. Guess I shouldn't have cheated through mortuary school and faked people out. Crap!"

After reading the statement aloud, Bailey told Sutton he was fired. Sutton asked if it mattered that the statement was a joke. Bailey said, " No." Sutton then asked if it mattered that he had posted the statement before he began teaching. Bailey replied, " Not really." Bailey then handed Sutton an Employee Counseling Statement, which she had already signed. The one-page form stated that Sutton was being dismissed for a June 2010 Incident of " Academic Fraud and unprofessional conduct." Next to a heading titled " Supervisor Statement," the form stated: " Mr. Sutton posted material on Facebook indicating he had ‘ cheated’ his way through mortuary school. There are multiple other class related issues." Bailey told Sutton he had " the opportunity to make a statement" before signing the form. Sutton declined and signed the form without further comment. Sutton's employment benefits did not end until after that meeting.

The University has adopted a six-step Faculty Grievance Procedure, which provides that, upon receiving a grievance, the Faculty Grievance Committee must " 1) study the written complaint, 2) take testimonies from concerned parties, 3) examine relevant files and/or documents, and 4) either recommend that the grievance be dismissed or recommend a remedy." A party dissatisfied with the Committee's decision may appeal to the Chancellor of the University. Sutton knew this grievance procedure existed, but chose not to use it,

Page 447

opting instead to file this lawsuit.2

II.

When state law grants a public employee a property right in continued employment, as in this case, " he may not be discharged from his job without due process." Riggins v. Bd. of Regents of the Univ. of Neb., 790 F.2d...

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