Castle v. Marquardt, Civil Action No. 2:07-CV-0104-WCO.

Citation632 F.Supp.2d 1317
Decision Date02 July 2009
Docket NumberCivil Action No. 2:07-CV-0104-WCO.
PartiesSara CASTLE, Plaintiff, v. Dr. Martha MARQUARDT, Dean of Health Services; Joan Thompson, Vice President; Dr. Trina Boteler, Executive Affairs Officer; in their individual capacities, Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Northern District of Georgia
632 F.Supp.2d 1317
Sara CASTLE, Plaintiff,
Dr. Martha MARQUARDT, Dean of Health Services; Joan Thompson, Vice President; Dr. Trina Boteler, Executive Affairs Officer; in their individual capacities, Defendants.
Civil Action No. 2:07-CV-0104-WCO.
United States District Court, N.D. Georgia, Gainesville Division.
July 2, 2009.

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James A. Satcher, Jr., Office of James A. Satcher, Rome, GA, for Petitioner.

Holly Loy Smith, State of Georgia Law Department, Atlanta, GA, for Defendant.


WILLIAM C. O'KELLEY, Senior District Judge.

The captioned case is before the court for consideration of defendants' motion for summary judgment [80-1] and plaintiff's motion to amend statements of additional facts which the respondent contends are material and present a genuine issue for trial [109-1].

I. Introduction

This case arises out of plaintiff's suspension from the Licensed Practical Nursing Program at Appalachian Technical College (the "College") in Jasper, Georgia. In January 2007, plaintiff matriculated as a student at the College, and she was suspended in August 2007. Two days before she was suspended, plaintiff reported one of her instructors to school administrators for violating state nursing regulations, and plaintiff claims that the school suspended her in retaliation for making the complaint. Defendants, all of whom are administrators at the College, immediately investigated plaintiff's complaints and, finding merit in plaintiff's contentions, fired the instructor one day later—the same day that the College suspended plaintiff. Rather than being based on a retaliatory motive, however, defendants contend that plaintiff's suspension was based on plaintiff's unrelated pattern of disruptive behavior at the school. Plaintiff brings 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claims alleging violations of her procedural and substantive due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment and two claims under the First Amendment for the College's alleged retaliation against plaintiff's protected speech.1

II. Factual Background

A. Plaintiff's Behavior

1. March 2007 Disciplinary Warning

In March 2007, Patricia Vincent, one of plaintiff's instructors, expressed concern about plaintiff's behavior to defendant Dr. Martha Marquardt, whose title then was Director of Nursing and Allied Health.2 Vincent explained that plaintiff often disrupted class with disorderly behavior. On March 13, 2007, Marquardt convened Vincent and plaintiff for a meeting to discuss plaintiff's conduct and to convey the school's demand that she improve her behavior or face expulsion. At the end of the meeting, plaintiff signed a written disciplinary warning that reads:

Your instructor Mrs. Vincent has expressed some concerns about your behavior in the classroom.

Immediate changes in your behavior include:

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Come to class prepared, having read the assigned text.

Discuss topics and bring up questions in class without interrupting the instructor, arguing, and being sarcastic.

Respect other students' rights to confidentiality.

Maintain good boundaries within the classroom setting, i.e., hold your issues to yourself. Do not enlist others in your struggle[,] as this is disruptive to the learning environment.

Recognize and change your negative attitude to a positive attitude.

Failure to immediately make these changes will jeopardize your ability to continue in the Practical Nursing Program.

(Ex. 2 to Marquardt Aff. 1) (emphasis in original). Vincent later told Marquardt that plaintiff's behavior improved.

2. The Petition

During the spring 2007 semester, plaintiff's first at the College, a petition seeking to change the College's passing-grade requirement was circulated among the nursing students. It is undisputed that plaintiff signed and supported the petition. The parties dispute, however, the extent to which plaintiff pressured her classmates to sign the petition. Defendants present evidence that plaintiff pressed her peers to sign the petition, going so far as to threaten at least one classmate, Max McGhee, that he "was going to be attacked by [his] fellow students if [he] didn't sign th[e] petition."3 (McGhee Dep., Ex. 4 to Defs.' Statement Mat. Facts 14). Another student, Suanne Clayton, claims that plaintiff yelled at her in front of other students and called Clayton a traitor.4 Plaintiff insists that she did not attempt to intimidate her peers into signing the petition. Despite plaintiff's alleged threats and their professed fears, both McGhee and Clayton eventually signed the petition so as to avoid further harassment.5

3. Additional Reports of Plaintiff's Disruptive Behavior

On or about June 19, 2007, Marquardt learned from another instructor, Sandra Holcomb, that a student reported that plaintiff threatened him and that he feared plaintiff.6 Roughly two months later, on

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or about August 21, 2007, a third instructor, Carolyn Keating, reported to Marquardt that plaintiff had "been inappropriately loud and disruptive" during a class discussion about the final exam. (Ex. 3 to Marquardt Aff. 1). Keating also told Marquardt that Clayton reported to Keating that she felt threatened by plaintiff. Clayton told Keating that when Clayton refused to sign the petition seeking a change in the school's minimum grade requirements, plaintiff threatened her, warning her to "be careful in the parking lot." (Ex. 3 to Marquardt Aff. 1).

Plaintiff's relationship with Clayton continued to deteriorate, as plaintiff became convinced that Clayton threatened the integrity of the practical nursing program in two ways. First, plaintiff noticed that Clayton missed several classes without, to plaintiff's knowledge, suffering adverse consequences.7 Plaintiff's second concern with Clayton was more subjective: according to plaintiff, Clayton received preferential treatment from Betty Sue Loflin, a clinical instructor. The two concerns festered in plaintiff's mind, leading to separate but related confrontations in August 2007 between plaintiff and Clayton and plaintiff and Loflin.

B. Events of August 2007
1. Plaintiff Confronts Clayton

On August 22, 2007, "everything kind of blew up." (Clayton Dep., Ex. 3 to Defs.' Statement Mat. Facts 31). On that date, the clinical class assembled, as usual, around 6:30 a.m. It was not long before "[l]ots of yelling" filled the room. (Id.). Plaintiff and Liz Mata, a classmate, insisted that Clayton explain her absences and that Loflin defend the perceived favoritism toward Clayton. Despite demanding that Clayton and Loflin justify their allegedly improper actions, plaintiff refused to allow Clayton to defend herself, insisting that "[t]here is no defense; it's just the way I feel." (Audio File, Ex. 6 to Defs.' Statement Material Facts, at 1:24.30). After confronting Clayton, plaintiff and Mata left the hospital and headed toward the College, where they reported what they believed were infractions by both Loflin and Clayton.

2. Plaintiff Reports Loflin and Clayton

When they arrived at the College following the confrontation with Clayton, plaintiff and Mata requested a meeting with defendant Joan Thompson, the Vice President of Academic Affairs, and Marquardt. During the meeting, plaintiff and Mata reported that Loflin consistently released students after as little as one hour of clinical time, rather than requiring students to attend the full 6:45 a.m. through 3:15 p.m. schedule. They also alleged that Loflin threatened the students that any report of her practice of releasing students early would be met with retribution. Plaintiff also indicated that Clayton had missed an "excessive number of additional days, and that she felt that Ms. Clayton had received preferential treatment from [Loflin]." (Marquardt Aff. ¶ 12).

While any instructor would violate her duties to her employer and her students by providing less instructional time than scheduled, the infraction was particularly egregious in this context, as students are required by the state of Georgia to complete 700 clinical hours in order to graduate from a practical nursing program. Recognizing the gravity of the charge against Loflin, Thompson and Marquardt initiated an investigation. The next day,

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on August 23, 2007, Marquardt met with Loflin, who denied plaintiff and Mata's accusations. That same day, Marquardt and Thompson also interviewed six of the remaining seven students in the clinical class; of those, four admitted to the early dismissals immediately, while the remaining two admitted to the missed clinical time only after initially denying it.

On August 24, 2007—two days after plaintiff and Mata advised Marquardt of Loflin's improper dismissals, and one day after interviewing both Loflin and nearly all of the students in the class—Loflin was fired. On August 27, 2007, Marquardt notified the Georgia State Board of Nursing of Loflin's dismissal and the underlying reasons for the termination.

3. Clayton's Report

On August 23, 2007, Clayton reported plaintiff's alleged pattern of disruptive behavior to Thompson and Boteler. Clayton also filed a formal grievance, which read in part:

On many occasions, [plaintiff] has cornered me, yelled at me[,] slammed her fists on tables[,] and called me names like trader [sic] and rat. She tried to turn the whole nursing class against me by telling them I was a rat [and] that Dr. Marquardt had me spying for her. She has made up lies about me and fellow students trying to cause conflict. In class she argues with teachers and is disruptive to our learning. [Plaintiff] has made false statements now about my husband and her and Liz Mata both have said they didn't think I should be in the program because I missed 2 clinical days and 2 class days. . . . [Plaintiff] and [Mata] have both yelled and bullied me, Miss Loflin, and others for a personal vendetta all...

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