United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Southern Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
L. BRASHER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
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; 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
consideration, the motion is GRANTED.
complaint stems from an election and an investigation.
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).
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.
(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.
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).
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
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).
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).
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.
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).
Shelley had never received a similar complaint about a
teacher she was considering for renewal. (Doc. 26-4 at 5).
Harper did not include one of the other third-grade teachers,
Ms. Brawner, in joint grade-level activities. (Doc. 26-4 at
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 ...