King v. Charleston County School Dist., Civil Action No. 2:07-CV-3949-PMD.

CourtUnited States District Courts. 4th Circuit. United States District Court of South Carolina
Writing for the CourtPatrick Michael Duffy
Citation664 F.Supp.2d 571
PartiesWilliam KING, Plaintiff, v. CHARLESTON COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendant.
Decision Date21 May 2009
Docket NumberCivil Action No. 2:07-CV-3949-PMD.
664 F.Supp.2d 571
William KING, Plaintiff,
Civil Action No. 2:07-CV-3949-PMD.
United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Charleston Division.
May 21, 2009.

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A. Christopher Potts, Hitchcock and Potts, Charleston, SC, for Plaintiff.

Alice Fountain Paylor, Elizabeth P. Marlow, Rosen Rosen and Hagood, Charleston, SC, for Defendant.



This matter is before the court upon Defendant Charleston County School District's Motion for Summary Judgment as to claims made by Plaintiff William King ("Plaintiff") against it for wrongful termination in violation of the First Amendment, the Family and Medical Leave Act, and his employment contract. For the reasons set forth below, the court grants Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment.


In 2004, Defendant Charleston County School District hired Plaintiff to serve as principal of Murray LaSaine Elementary School for one year. After the 2004-2005 school year, Charleston County School District officials had a favorable impression of Plaintiff's performance and renewed his employment contract for the 2005-2006 school year. Because of its large number of low-income students, the school qualified for supplemental federal funding pursuant to Title I, 20 U.S.C. § 6301 et seq.1 Murray LaSaine used its Title I funds to employ a child development teacher as well as an assistant for the teacher. The child development program is a preschool program for four-year-old children, which the school identified as "at risk" students based on the low scores they received after certain testing. In

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January 2006, Plaintiff believed that Murray LaSaine had misused its Title I funding by allowing students who did not live in the school's attendance zone to enroll in the school's four-year-old child development class. Specifically, Plaintiff believed that the school allowed students who should have attended James Island Elementary School, a school that does not qualify for Title I funding, to enroll in Murray LaSaine and, therefore, improperly used its Title I funding to serve these students. Plaintiff reported his concerns to Dr. Doug Gepford, the Associate Superintendent and Plaintiff's direct supervisor, on three separate occasions. After his third complaint, Dr. Gepford informed Plaintiff that Superintendent Dr. Maria Goodloe-Johnson would be taking care of the problem. Plaintiff also informed Michelle English Watson, the Charleston County School District employee in charge of Title I funds, and Nancy Busbee, the South Carolina Department of Education Director of Federal Programs, of his concerns. Ms Busbee informed Plaintiff that she appreciated the call and had a team going to Charleston in April that would look into the matter.

On February 22, 2006, Dr. Gepford visited Murray LaSaine to speak with teachers and staff and to let them bring to his attention any issues that may exist at the school. Dr. Gepford conducted similar visits at all the schools located in the Charleston County School District in an effort to increase communication between the teachers and the administrators. Although Dr. Gepford had given Plaintiff notice of this visit, Plaintiff was not at the school, but did inform his staff of Dr. Gepford's visit. According to Dr. Gepford, many of the teachers and staff expressed great concern over Plaintiff's leadership and management of the school. The complaints varied from Plaintiff intimidating teachers and staff and threatening not to renew their contracts to Plaintiff rearranging furniture in their classrooms. Overall, Dr. Gepford found that the teachers and staff were afraid for their jobs, but also felt that, if they complained, Plaintiff would try to get rid of them. Because of these complaints, Dr. Gepford believed a serious problem existed in terms of staff relations and asked Dr. Beverly Varnado, the Human Resources Director of Employee Relations, to visit Murray LaSaine to conduct her own interviews of the teachers and staff.

On April 5, 2006, Dr. Varnado issued a report based on the 18 interviews she conducted at Murray LaSaine. Dr. Varnado concluded that the negative comments far outweighed the positive comments she received about Plaintiff. In her report, Dr. Varnado stated: "By far, the most common descriptors of [Plaintiff's] behavior were as a micromanager, controller, intimidator, and manipulator." Dr. Varnado's report also noted the following:

Based on the volume and consistency of negative comments from a variety of personnel, Mr. King has failed to develop a positive and cooperative environment in his school to the detriment of the faculty. If the atmosphere at Murray-LaSaine Elementary School from this date until the end of the school year continues, teachers feel there will be further deterioration of morale affecting the retention of staff. Several teachers reported that 14 teachers left last year at the end of Mr. King's first year as principal. In spite of the fear of retaliation, and judging by the answers to the question, "Are you going to sign your contract to return here next year?" approximately 75% of the faculty plan to use the transfer option.

Based on her interviews with the teachers and staff, Dr. Varnado recommended that school officials make a timely decision as to whether or not Plaintiff's contract would

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be renewed and what his future assignment with the school district would be. She believed a timely decision was necessary so that any changes to Plaintiff's employment could be communicated to the faculty. She found it imperative that teachers who did not intend on renewing their contract if Plaintiff remained the principal at Murray LaSaine could make informed decisions about their future career with the Charleston County School District.

After learning from Dr. Gepford that teachers and staff expressed concern about the working environment at Murray LaSaine, Plaintiff claims to have taken immediate action to better the situation: he provided a "thank you" breakfast for all of the staff; he publicly acknowledged a trust building process during staff development day; he established clear, nonthreatening communication opportunities; he purchased, planned, and implemented the "Caring Administrator" Positive Resource Guide; and he requested assistance from Kathy Lewis, a Charleston County School District employee trained to deal with work environment issues. Plaintiff believes Dr. Varnado did not conduct the interviews according to the proper procedures. He asserts that he and several other staff members were denied the opportunity to talk to Dr. Varnado during her visit, and Plaintiff never received any sort of discipline regarding the adverse information Dr. Gepford and Dr. Varnado learned of, as he never received a verbal or written warning, never was placed on a performance-improvement plan, and never was suspended. Plaintiff believes that because he raised concerns over the use of Title I money at Murray LaSaine, Dr. Gepford had these teacher interviews conducted in an effort to remove him.

On April 7, Nancy McGinley, the Chief Academic Officer for Charleston County School District, and Jim Gray, the Interim Director of Human Resources, asked Plaintiff to meet with them at the district office. While driving to this meeting, Plaintiff alleges to have received a telephone call from one of his teachers, Linda Cox, informing him that Dr. Varnado had met with the staff at Murray LaSaine and told them that Charleston County School District would not rehire Plaintiff as principal of the school for the following school year. At his meeting, Ms. McGinley and Mr. Gray informed Plaintiff that he would not be offered a contract for a principal position for the following school year; rather, he would be offered a teaching position at another school. Plaintiff understood, however, that he was still expected to finish out his employment contract as principal of Murray LaSaine for the remainder of the 2005-2006 school year.

April 7 happened to be the last day of classes before the start of spring break for schools in Charleston County. After this meeting and during his spring break, Plaintiff asserts that he became ill and couldn't sleep; he was throwing up, had diarrhea and experienced migraines; and he had elevated blood pressure and felt depressed. During the spring break, however, Plaintiff did remove personal possessions and other items from his office at Murray LaSaine, which allegedly made it appear as if Plaintiff cleaned out his office, and when spring break ended on April 17, Plaintiff failed to return to work. He still felt ill and had Dr. Jason Laird fax a medical excuse slip to Murray LaSaine, which merely stated that Plaintiff needed to be excused from work "due to illness" from April 17 to April 21. On April 19, the district office received a fax from Charleston Medical Care informing them that Dr. Laird planned to reevaluate Plaintiff on Friday, April 21. Since Dr. Gepford never heard from Plaintiff, he wrote Plaintiff a letter on April 20, asking Plaintiff to call him to discuss his current status and to complete the sick-leave forms required by

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Charleston County School District policies. While Plaintiff had not responded to Dr. Gepford's requests to notify him of his status by Friday, April 21, Plaintiff had been at his home, as he approved a teacher's request for a short leave of absence form on April 20.2 On that Friday, Dr. Gepford wrote a letter to Plaintiff notifying him that he was immediately suspended with pay pending an investigation into his absence from work. The suspension was based on Plaintiff's failure to respond to two phone calls and two letters, as well as Plaintiff's decision to clean out his office, including his desk, all files in file cabinets, and shelves, suggesting that he may...

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