Hamilton Cnty. Educ. Ass'n v. Hamilton Cnty. Bd. of Educ., 15–5749.

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (6th Circuit)
Citation822 F.3d 831
Docket NumberNo. 15–5749.,15–5749.
Decision Date20 April 2016

ON BRIEF: Richard L. Colbert, Kay, Griffin, Enkema & Colbert, PLLC, Nashville, Tennessee, for Appellant. D. Scott Bennett, Mary C. DeCamp, Leitner, William, Dooley & Napolitan, PLLC, Chattanooga, Tennessee, for Appellee.

Before SUHRHEINRICH, McKEAGUE, and DONALD, Circuit Judges.



, Circuit Judge.

PlaintiffAppellant Hamilton County Education Association (HCEA) is a voluntary association of employees of the Hamilton County Department of Education (HCDE). HCEA brought this lawsuit against its members' employer, DefendantAppellee Hamilton County Board of Education (Board), asserting two violations of the Tennessee Education Professional Negotiations Act (“EPNA”) and one violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983

for infringing on HCEA's First Amendment right of expressive association. The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. The district court granted the Board's motion, denied HCEA's motion, and dismissed the case. HCEA appeals that decision. We affirm.

I. Background

The facts in this case are largely undisputed. HCEA was recognized by the Board under EPNA as the exclusive representative of all the Board's professional employees. On May 19, 2011, HCEA and the Board entered into a collective bargaining agreement that was set to expire three years later on June 30, 2014. While this agreement was in effect, the Tennessee legislature passed the Professional Educators Collaborative Conferencing Act (“PECCA”), which amended and replaced EPNA. See 2011 Tenn. Pub. Acts ch. 378 (codified as amended at Tenn.Code Ann. § 49–5–601

to –609 (2011)). Under Tenn.Code Ann. § 49–5–604(b), however, PECCA would not govern the parties' relationship until the expiration of their existing agreement on June 30, 2014. HCEA and the Board entered into the most recent (and final) version of their collective bargaining agreement under EPNA on September 20, 2013.

Although not yet applicable to the parties at the time of the underlying events, PECCA implemented two changes relevant to this case. First, it created a new category of Board employees known as “management team” members who are no longer considered “professional employees” entitled to participate in concerted activities as part of a professional employee organization. Tenn.Code Ann. §§ 49–5–602(4)

, (8), (9), –603. This “management team” includes principals and assistant principals. Id. § 49–5–602(4). PECCA also added a subsection making it unlawful for a professional employee organization to [c]oerce or attempt to intimidate professional employees who choose not to join a professional employee organization.” Id. § 49–5–606(b)(7).

On September 17, 2013, HCEA held its Representative Assembly, a monthly meeting of HCEA representatives and building representatives. Following this meeting, the HCEA Representative for Red Bank Middle School forwarded notes from the meeting to the Red Bank Middle School teachers. One teacher who received the notes, Beth Morgan (“Morgan”), contacted Stacy Stewart (“Stewart”), the Board's Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources, about the notes. Morgan expressed concern about a portion of the notes reporting [h]orror stories” from other Tennessee counties where collective bargaining contracts expired, including teachers receiving a 118–page code of conduct and losing their retirement benefits. The notes suggested that if HCEA's membership dipped to less than a majority, its contract would become and void and the county could require teachers to attend 40 hours of in-service, force them to work 10 hours a day, and discontinue medical coverage upon retirement. Morgan forwarded the notes from the Representative Assembly to Stewart. Following her conversation with Morgan, Stewart obtained other materials distributed at the Representative Assembly, including a promotional flyer that referred to a competing organization, the Professional Educators of Tennessee (“PET”), as a “cheap dime-store knockoff” and “a dime-store operation charging for services it cannot provide.” Stewart also learned of comments made by HCEA President Sandra Hughes (“Hughes”) at a principals' meeting encouraging the principals to maintain their HCEA membership and offering HCEA's continued support.

Based on this information, Stewart wrote a letter addressed to Hughes in her capacity as HCEA President. The letter addressed three issues. First, Stewart referred to the comments made at the principals' meeting and noted that, under PECCA, HCEA could not represent management team members such as principals and assistant principals nor count them among membership totals. Stewart concluded, “I trust that this information will be shared appropriately with any HCDE administrators who inquire about remaining members of the Association.” Second, Stewart mentioned the statements from the Representative Assembly notes that described the potential consequences of decreased membership and suggested that these statements “could be construed as intimidating.” Third, Stewart pointed to the promotional document distributed at the Representative Assembly that referred to PET in what Stewart described as “pejorative ways.” Stewart concluded the letter by citing to PECCA's new prohibition on coercing or intimidating employees who choose not to join a professional organization and stating that “HCDE respectfully asks that HCEA and its representatives refrain from continuing such negative or coercive statements.” While noting the Board's desire to maintain “a collaborative relationship” with HCEA, Stewart stated that [c]ontinued such coercion, however, will either result in an official request for a retraction of such statements or in clarification/correction of these statements by the district.”

HCEA filed suit against the Board on the basis of this letter in Hamilton County Chancery Court on March 20, 2014. HCEA alleged that the letter violated two provisions of EPNA and infringed on its First Amendment right of expressive association. The Board removed the action to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee. After discovery, both parties filed a motion for summary judgment. By this time, PECCA had replaced EPNA as the governing law between HCEA and the Board.

The district court granted the Board's motion for summary judgment and denied HCEA's motion. The court first found that HCEA's EPNA claims were not rendered moot by the intervening arrival of PECCA's effective date. Proceeding to the merits, the court held that Stewart's letter did not violate EPNA because the letter contained no threat of reprisal and thus “fell squarely within the protective space afforded to the Board [under Tenn.Code Ann. § 49–5–606(a)(5)

] to ‘express any views or opinions on the subject of employer-employee relations.’ As for the First Amendment claim, the district court ruled that Stewart's letter did not significantly burden HCEA's expressive activity and, therefore, did not violate HCEA's constitutional rights. HCEA timely appealed the district court's order.

The district court properly exercised jurisdiction over this case under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331

and 1441. This court has jurisdiction over HCEA's appeal under 28 U.S.C. § 1291 as an appeal from the final decision of a United States district court.

II. Standard of Review

We review a district court's grant of summary judgment de novo, applying the same standard as the district court. Keith v. Cnty. of Oakland,

703 F.3d 918, 923 (6th Cir.2013). Summary judgment is proper “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). The court must view the facts and draw reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587, 106 S.Ct. 1348, 89 L.Ed.2d 538 (1986). Summary judgment may be granted “unless there is sufficient evidence favoring the nonmoving party for a jury to return a verdict for that party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). This standard of review does not differ when reviewing cross-motions for summary judgment versus a motion filed by only one party. U.S. SEC v. Sierra Brokerage Servs., Inc., 712 F.3d 321, 327 (6th Cir.2013).

III. Analysis
A. EPNA Claims

HCEA claims that the Board's letter violated two provisions of EPNA. First, HCEA asserts that the Board's comments violated § 49–5–606(a)(2)

by interfering with, restraining, or coercing employees in the exercise of their rights under § 49–5–603, which protects professional employees' right to self-organization and other concerted activities. Second, HCEA alleges the Board dominated or interfered in the administration of HCEA and assisted its rival organization PET in violation of § 49–5–606(a)(7). The Board argues that both EPNA claims became moot in July 2014 when PECCA became effective between HCEA and the Board, thereby supplanting EPNA. The Board further asserts that, even if HCEA's EPNA claims are justiciable, they fail on the merits because the Board's letter merely exercised its right under EPNA § 49–5–606(a)(5) to express its views on employer-employee relations.

1. Mootness

A case is moot only “when a live controversy no longer exists such that a court is no longer able to affect the legal relations between the parties.” Cam I, Inc. v. Louisville/Jefferson Cnty. Metro. Gov't, 460 F.3d 717, 719–20 (6th Cir.2006)

. A controversy does not cease to exist merely by virtue of a change in the applicable law. Id. at 720. Rather, the court should consider whether the new statute “is sufficiently similar to the repealed [statute] that it is permissible to say that the challenged conduct continues.” Ne. Fla. Chapter of...

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