Kirkland v. St. Vrain Valley Sch. Dist. No. re-1J

Decision Date26 September 2006
Docket NumberNo. 05-1040.,No. 05-1020.,05-1020.,05-1040.
Citation464 F.3d 1182
PartiesKenneth KIRKLAND, Plaintiff-Counterclaim-Defendant-Appellee-Cross-Appellant, v. ST. VRAIN VALLEY SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. RE-1J, a Colorado Public School District, Defendant-Counter-Claimant-Cross-Appellee, and Rick Samson, Tammy Pilkington, Sandi Searles, Kathy Hall, Mike Rademacher, Larry Silver, Brenda Everett, Randy Zila, Defendants-Counter-Claimants-Appellants-Cross-Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Tenth Circuit

Patrick B. Mooney (Erica L. White, with him on the briefs), Semple, Miller, Mooney & Farrington, P.C., Denver, Co, for Defendants-Counter-Claimants-Appellants-Cross-Appellees.

Roger T. Castle, Roger T. Castle, P.C., Denver, Co, for Plaintiff-Counterclaim-Defendant-Appellee-Cross-Appellant.

Before O'BRIEN, EBEL, and TYMKOVICH, Circuit Judges.

EBEL, Circuit Judge.

These interlocutory cross-appeals stem from a financial crisis occurring in the St. Vrain Valley School District No. RE-1J ("the District") in 2002. Due to several accounting errors made by personnel in the District's finance department, the District had unknowingly been operating for several years with a sizable and increasing deficit. When the District discovered this growing deficit, in the fall of 2002, it did not have enough money to meet its next payroll and could only continue operating after receiving substantial assistance from the State of Colorado.

Plaintiff-Appellant Kenneth Kirkland was the assistant superintendent of auxiliary services overseeing the District's finance department during this time period. In this litigation, he asserts that, in the wake of the District's discovering this deficit, the District, as well as its superintendent and individual School Board members (the "individual Defendants"), deprived Kirkland of property and liberty interests without due process when the District refused to abide by a resignation agreement Kirkland made with the District's superintendent, deciding instead to suspend Kirkland without pay and eventually to terminate him.

In appeal No. 05-1020, the individual Defendants appeal the district court's decision denying them qualified immunity from Kirkland's claims. Because Kirkland failed to allege any constitutional violation, we conclude the individual Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity. We, therefore, REVERSE the district court's decision denying these Defendants immunity.

In appeal No. 05-1040, Kirkland appeals a discovery ruling. We decline to address the merits of this appeal, however, because we lack jurisdiction to do so. We, therefore, DISMISS the cross-appeal.

I. BACKGROUND

In 1999, the District hired Kirkland to be the assistant superintendent in charge of the District's auxiliary services. In that position, Kirkland supervised ten District departments, including the financial services department. Kirkland was employed pursuant to a series of one-year contracts, the last of which ran from July 1, 2002, through June 30, 2003.

In November 2002, Kirkland informed Superintendent Randy Zila that one of Kirkland's employees in the finance department had made several accounting errors that had resulted in an unexpected and dramatic shortfall in the District's budget. Due to these accounting errors, the District had been operating under the mistaken belief that it had a slight budget surplus; in fact, the District had between a $9 and $13 million deficit, and would not be able to meet its next payroll. The District could only continue operating if it received "substantial loans from the State of Colorado and [implemented] significant spending cuts."

After this budget shortfall came to light, Superintendent Randy Zila and Assistant Superintendent Tom Garcia met with Kirkland, on November 13, 2002, and informed Kirkland that the School Board ("the Board") had lost confidence in his ability to provide the Board with accurate budget information. They requested that Kirkland resign. By the end of this meeting, Kirkland had agreed to resign in return for the District's continuing to pay him his salary and benefits through the remainder of his one-year employment contract. Garcia "accepted" Kirkland's handwritten resignation.1 Several days later, however, at the November 16 school board meeting, the Board rejected Kirkland's resignation and the resignation agreement. The Board instead placed Kirkland on unpaid administrative leave.

Thereafter, in November 2002, Board member Rick Samson publicly commented that Kirkland had lied to the Board and had falsified documents. A local newspaper published those remarks.

In April 2003, Kirkland and the District reached a termination agreement. That written agreement, dated April 15, 2003, provided that Kirkland would "not request a hearing by the Board of Education regarding the termination," and in return, the Board would terminate Kirkland's employment without public comment. The Board did so on April 23, 2003.

Kirkland filed suit against the District, seven individual Board members, and the District's superintendent.2 In that action, Kirkland asserted claims under 42 U.S.C. § 19833 alleging that 1) the District and the individual Defendants deprived him of property without due process by a) failing to abide by the November resignation agreement, b) suspending him without pay, and c) terminating him; and 2) the District and the individual Defendants deprived Kirkland of a liberty interest in his future employability without due process, based upon Board member Samson's public comments accusing Kirkland of dishonesty.4 The individual Defendants moved for summary judgment, asserting they were entitled to qualified immunity. The district court, however, denied these individual Defendants immunity.

II. APPEAL NO. 05-1020

In case No. 05-1020, the individual Defendants appeal the district court's decision denying them qualified immunity. Because a government official's qualified immunity provides, not simply a defense to liability, but a right not to stand trial in the first place, a district court's decision denying a government official qualified immunity, to the extent it turns on an issue of law, is an immediately appealable final collateral order. See Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 524-27, 530, 105 S.Ct. 2806, 86 L.Ed.2d 411 (1985). Thus, this court "ha[s] jurisdiction to review purely legal questions that arise from the denial of qualified immunity." Perez v. Ellington, 421 F.3d 1128, 1131 (10th Cir.2005). In doing so, we "review de novo a district court's denial of a summary judgment motion raising qualified immunity questions." Id. In conducting this review, this court considers the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party who, in this case, is Kirkland. See Mimics, Inc. v. Vill. of Angel Fire, 394 F.3d 836, 841 (10th Cir.2005).

Because of the underlying purposes of qualified immunity, we review summary judgment orders deciding qualified immunity decisions differently from other summary judgment decisions. After a defendant asserts a qualified immunity defense, the burden shifts to the plaintiff, and the plaintiff must first establish that the defendant's actions violated a constitutional or statutory right. If a favorable view of the facts alleged show[s] the violation of a constitutional right, the next, sequential step is to ask whether the right was clearly established at the time of the defendant's unlawful conduct. When the plaintiff fails to satisfy either part of this two-part inquiry, the court must grant the defendant qualified immunity.

Smith v. Cochran, 339 F.3d 1205, 1211 (10th Cir.2003) (citations, quotations omitted).5

Although at times it may be tempting for a court to address the second issue first, the Supreme Court directs that a court consider these questions in order. See Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201, 121 S.Ct. 2151, 150 L.Ed.2d 272 (2001).

A court required to rule upon the qualified immunity issue must consider, then, this threshold question: Taken in the light most favorable to the party asserting the injury, do the facts alleged show the [government official]'s conduct violated a constitutional right? This must be the initial inquiry. In the course of determining whether a constitutional right was violated on the premises alleged, a court might find it necessary to set forth principles which will become the basis for a holding that a right is clearly established. This is the process for the law's elaboration from case to case, and it is one reason for our insisting upon turning to the existence or nonexistence of a constitutional right as the first inquiry. The law might be deprived of this explanation were a court simply to skip ahead to the question whether the law clearly established that the [government official]'s conduct was unlawful in the circumstances of the case.

Id. (citation omitted).

In this case, all of Kirkland's § 1983 claims allege that the Defendants, in some way or another, deprived him of procedural due process.

The Fourteenth Amendment protects citizens from the deprivation of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law. Procedural due process ensures that a state will not deprive a person of life, liberty or property unless fair procedures are used in making that decision. To determine whether a plaintiff was denied procedural due process, we engage in a two-step inquiry: (1) Did the individual possess a protected interest to which due process protection was applicable? (2) Was the individual afforded an appropriate level of process?

Brown v. N.M. State Pers. Office, 399 F.3d 1248, 1254 (10th Cir.2005) (citations, quotations, alteration omitted).

Before a person is deprived of a protected interest, he must be afforded opportunity for some kind of a hearing, except for extraordinary situations where some valid government interest is at stake that justifies postponing the...

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