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Harper v. Houston County Board of Education

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Southern Division

July 12, 2019

KACEY HARPER, Plaintiff,
v.
HOUSTON COUNTY BOARD OF EDUCATION, a local education authority; TIM PITCHFORD, MARSHA SHELLEY, and BRANDY WHITE, each in his or her individual capacity, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          ANDREW L. BRASHER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This matter comes before the court on Defendants the Houston County Board of Education, Tim Pitchford, Marsha Shelley, and Brandy White's motion for summary judgment. (Doc. 26). Plaintiff Kacey Harper taught as a non-tenured teacher at Webb Elementary School. Her teaching career at Webb Elementary ended abruptly at the end of her third year when the Houston County Board of Education (“the Board”) nonrenewed her contract. Now Harper complains that the nonrenewal was unconstitutional retaliation, suing the Board and three persons in their individual capacities: Tom Pitchford, superintendent for the Board;[1] Marsha Shelley, principal of Webb Elementary School; and Brandy White, assistant principal of Webb. Specifically, Harper complains that she was nonrenewed because (1) she reported to the State Board of Education that another teacher was allegedly cheating on a standardized test, or (2) she declined to support her supervisor's preferred candidate for superintendent.

         Upon consideration, the motion is GRANTED.

         BACKGROUND

         Harper's complaint stems from an election and an investigation.

         Harper taught at Webb Elementary during the election for Houston County Superintendent. Being part of Houston County, many employees of Webb Elementary took an interest in who their next boss would be. (Doc. 26-1 at 9). Unremarkably, some employees, including White, assisted in the various campaigns. (Doc. 26-1 at 9).

         The investigation began with some allegations of cheating on the ACT Aspire test. At the time of this dispute, all public schools in Alabama took this test, which employs a variety of safeguards to prevent cheating. (Doc. 26-9 at 3). In Spring 2016, the Houston Board of Education received anonymous allegations of cheating and reported the allegations to the State Department of Education. (Doc. 26-9 at 3-4). The State asked Joseph Haddock to investigate the allegations. (Doc. 26-9 at 4). At Superintendent Pitchford's suggestion, a third-party, Dr. Ronnie Jackson, assisted with the investigation. (Doc. 26-2 at 8; Doc. 26-9 at 4). As part of the investigation, Haddock and Jackson interviewed “each faculty member at Webb during the 2013- 2014 and 2014-15 school years.” (Doc. 26-9 at 4). During the interview with Harper, she told Haddock and Jackson:

There was investigation, the ACT Aspire, of reports of … cheating on the ACT Aspire. And when investigations took place with Mr. Haddock and the gentleman from the State and questions were asked to all staff members, I gave my truthful statement of what I had witnessed. And due to that being Ms. Shelley's niece, then when that got discussed, later date, that was what I was-I was nonrenewed because of me telling what I had witnessed and it being Ms. Shelley's niece.

(Doc. 26-1 at 4). According to Haddock, Harper told him and Jackson that “during a professional development training, Brandi Paramore showed teachers an exemplar and commented ‘that was on the test.' Ms. Harper denied knowledge of any actual testing violations.” (Doc. 26-9 at 4). Haddock noted that “[d]uring the interview and investigative process, no one provided information concerning an actual testing violation.” (Doc. 26-9 at 5). Ultimately, Haddock did not find any substance to the allegations during his investigation.

         Harper's Testimony

         Harper does not know when Defendants made the decision to nonrenew her. (Doc. 26-1 at 8). But Harper believes she was nonrenewed for two reasons. First, Harper told the investigators that Shelley's niece, who was also a teacher, was cheating on the ACT Aspire. (Doc. 26-1 at 4). Second, Harper believed that Shelley thought she did not support Shelley's preferred candidate for superintendent, Matt Swann. (Doc. 26-1 at 9).

         As to Harper's first claim, it is undisputed at this juncture that Harper told investigators that “during a professional development training, [Shelly's niece] showed teachers an exemplar and commented ‘that was on the test.'” (Doc. 26-9 at 4). As to her second claim, however, Harper admitted she had no evidence that Shelley and White believed she did not support Swann. (Doc. 26-1 at 10-11). In fact, Harper asked White for a Matt Swann campaign sign, and White “actually came to [her] home, at [her] request, and put a Matt Swann sign in [her] house.” (Doc. 26-1 at 10). And Harper never discussed with Shelley who she supported in the election. (Doc. 26-1 at 24).

         Harper supposes that White might have told Shelley that Harper declined White's invitation to pass out fliers on two occasions and to attend a rummage sale. But Harper does not remember much of the conversation regarding the rummage sale, just that she ultimately did not go to the sale. (Doc. 26-1 at 18). She decided not to go because she heard in a conversation with White and other staff members that some attendees would be wearing Matt Swann shirts. (Doc. 26-1 at 21-22). Harper also does not remember any details from the conversations about passing out fliers, only that she did not pass them out. (Doc. 26-1 at 19-20).

         When Harper spoke with the other nonrenewed teacher, that teacher said she believed she was nonrenewed for not being willing to change grade levels when asked. (Doc. 26-1 at 11-12).

         Other Testimony

         Shelley recommended Harper and one other third-year teacher for nonrenewal. The reason Shelley nonrenewed the other third-year teacher was that the teacher did not show love and care towards the children. (Doc. 26-5 at 30-31). As for Harper, Shelley stated that she had multiple reasons for recommending her nonrenewal, which together formed the basis for her decision.

         First, Marla Rice, a special ed aide at Webb Elementary, complained that Harper “lacked the compassion and care other teachers at Webb Elementary demonstrated.” (Doc. 26-4 at 5). Rice's daughter, who had special medical needs, frequently had to miss class. After one absence, Rice's daughter saw some art projects the students had been working on and asked to make-up the missed art project. (Doc. 26-12 at 2-3). Despite some art projects still being incomplete, Harper refused to allow Rice's daughter to do the art project. (Doc. 26-12 at 3). Rice transferred her daughter out of the class and to a different school later that year. (Doc. 26-12 at 3). Shelley gave Rice's complaint great weight because Rice was both a parent and a special ed aide who interacted daily with faculty. (Doc. 26-4 at 5).

         Also, Shelley had never received a similar complaint about a teacher she was considering for renewal. (Doc. 26-4 at 5).

         Second, Harper did not include one of the other third-grade teachers, Ms. Brawner, in joint grade-level activities. (Doc. 26-4 at 5).

         Third, Shelley found Harper to be insubordinate. One day, Shelley noticed that some children on the playground needed more supervision. (Doc. 26-4 at 6). She saw Harper and another teacher sitting in the gazebo on the playground, so she told them they needed to go watch the children. (Doc. 26-4 at 6). The other teacher immediately got up. (Doc. 26-4 at ...


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