Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Denial of tenure alleged to have been based on the educator’s exercising her First Amendment rights to free speech

Denial of tenure alleged to have been based on the educator’s exercising her First Amendment rights to free speech
Nagle v Mamaroneck Union Free School District, et al, USCA, Second Circuit, Docket #10-1420-cv

Nancy L. Nagle sued the Mamaroneck Union Free School District and a number school district officials alleging that she had been denied tenure and subjected to retaliation because she had exercised her First Amendment rights to free speech.

Nagle complaint alleged that the decision not to recommend her for tenure was made in retaliation for two acts that, she argued, were protected by the First Amendment.

One act on which Nagle based her claim involved her reporting alleged acts of child abuse by another teacher to her principal, including her claim that she witnessed the teacher striking a child while she was employed as a special education teacher by a public school in the State of Virginia.*

The second act alleged by Nagle was that she had received a copy of a teaching observation report of her class written and signed an assistant principal but that she declined to sign the report. However, she alleged, she received a copy that “appeared to bear her signature.” Reporting the “seemingly false signature” to school officials and the president of the teacher’s union, the matter was referred to police. Although the police “determined that no crime had been committed, a separate handwriting experts were employed by Nagle and by the District. Both experts concluded that the assistant principal had signed Nagle’s name to the document.**

Essentially the federal district court ruled that [1] Nagle’s speech was not protected within the meaning of the First Amendment because it was “personal” and it was not a matter of public concern and [2] ruled that the school officials had a “qualified immunity” in that, as a general rule, unless the individual is able to demonstrate "publication" and prove "malice," courts usually dispose of such cases involving a public employer by applying the doctrine of "qualified immunity."***

The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit disagreed.

The court concluded that Nagle has made a prima facie showing that retaliation in violation of the First Amendment caused her to be denied tenure.

The Circuit Court said that although the School District’s rebuttal to Nagle’s prima facie case is subject to credibility, the issue of credibility cannot be resolved as a matter of law. Further, said the court, certain of the school administrators are not, “at this stage of the proceedings, entitled to qualified immunity.”

Accordingly, the Circuit Court vacated the district court’s order granting summary judgment and remanded the matter for further proceedings.

* According to the Circuit Court’s decision, the teacher alleged to have abused the students resigned, citing family reasons. . Nagle then reported what she had told school administrators to Virginia’s Department of Child Protective Services and to the Virginia state police. After a police investigation, the teacher was charged with several counts of felony child abuse; she eventually pled guilty to assault.

** The district “declined to renew” the assistant principal’s contract for the following year, and the assistant principal resigned

*** The Doctrine of Qualified Immunity protects public officials from being sued for damages unless it can be shown that they violated “clearly established” law of which a reasonable official in his position would have known. In contrast, the Doctrine of Absolute Immunity bars lawsuits against public officials based on their official acts or omissions without regard to motive. For example, a judge has complete protection from personal liability for exercising judicial functions.

The decision is posted on the Internet at:

Handbooks focusing on State and Municipal Public Personnel Law continue to be available for purchase via the links provided below:

The Discipline Book at http://thedisciplinebook.blogspot.com/

Challenging Adverse Personnel Decisions at http://nypplarchives.blogspot.com

The Disability Benefits E-book: at http://section207.blogspot.com/

Layoff, Preferred Lists at http://nylayoff.blogspot.com/

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