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Farrell v. Board of Education of Allegany County

United States District Court, D. Maryland

March 21, 2017

LORELEE M. FARRELL, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
BOARD OF EDUCATION OF ALLEGANY COUNTY, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          George L. Russell, III United States District Judge

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Defendants', Board of Education of Allegany County (the “Board”), David A. Cox, Benjamin Brauer, and Sheree Witt, Motion to Dismiss (ECF No. 6). This 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action arises from Plaintiffs', Lorelee M. Farrell and Robert S. Farrell, involvement in the Board's 2014 election and the subsequent end of their employment with Allegany County Public Schools (“ACPS”). The Motion is ripe for disposition, and no hearing is necessary. See Local Rule 105.6 (D.Md. 2016). For the reasons outlined below, the Court will grant in part and deny in part the Motion.

         I. BACKGROUND [1]

         Mr. Farrell was a tenured teacher with ACPS. (Compl. ¶ 13, ECF No. 2). He first worked as a teacher from 2003 to 2007 and then worked as the Coordinator of Safety and Security from 2007 until his termination in 2015. (Id. ¶¶ 16, 36). According to Mr. Farrell, he was a successful teacher and received commendable evaluations for most of his time with ACPS. (Id. ¶ 18). Mrs. Farrell was a Health and Family Life Assistant Supervisor with ACPS. (Id. ¶ 15). Like Mr. Farrell, Mrs. Farrell experienced success at her position and received commendable evaluations for most of her time with ACPS. (Id. ¶ 19).

         In 2014, Mrs. Farrell ran for elected office with the Board. (Id. ¶ 21). Mr. Farrell spoke in support of Mrs. Farrell's campaign. (Id. ¶¶ 21, 50). One campaign issue publically discussed leading up to the Board election was a 2013 revision of the Board's communication policy (“Revised Policy”). (Id. ¶¶ 22, 24, 25). The Revised Policy required all communication between Board employees to go through the Superintendent, Defendant Cox, who enacted the Policy. (Id. ¶¶ 24, 27). Mrs. Farrell voiced her opposition to the Revised Policy during her 2014 campaign. (Id. ¶¶ 22, 26). She argued that the Revised Policy limited communication and that, instead, the Board should foster communication to further the public interest. (Id. ¶ 26). Mr. Farrell also opposed Cox's stance on the Revised Policy. (See Id. ¶ 29). Later in the 2014 campaign, the Board revised the communication policy again to remove the 2013 revisions and formally encourage communication between Board employees. (Id. ¶ 28).

         During the 2014 campaign, Defendant Brauer, Mr. Farrell's supervisor, conducted a performance evaluation of Mr. Farrell and found he needed improvement, for the first time, in four categories of his job. (Id. ¶ 30). After the election, on January 16, 2015, Defendant Witt, Mrs. Farrell's supervisor, conducted a performance evaluation of Mrs. Farrell and found she needed improvement, for the first time, in three categories of her job evaluation. (Id. ¶ 31).

         In May of 2015, the Board granted Mrs. Farrell's request for leave to receive cancer treatment. (Id. ¶ 37). On January 16, 2015, Brauer and Witt required Mr. Farrell to attend a hearing in February of 2015 in order to provide him “due process” -- but did not reveal any additional details about the hearing's purpose. (Id. ¶ 32). Witt also told Mr. Farrell that he “doesn't live in a vacuum” at the Board, which Mr. Farrell interpreted as a threat to his employment. (Id. ¶ 33). Mr. Farrell never received any notice detailing any charges against him or any evidence that would serve as a basis for employment decisions. (Id. ¶ 34).

         The hearing took place on February 2, 2015, and Mr. Farrell attended with counsel. (Id. ¶¶ 32, 34). Mr. Farrell sought additional information regarding any charges against him, notice of offense, or evidence that would serve as a basis for employment decisions, but neither Witt nor Brauer provided any of that information during the hearing. (Id. ¶ 35). Mr. Farrell objected to the Board's hearing. (Id.). On June 30, 2015, the Board terminated Mr. Farrell's employment with ACPS, citing the elimination of Mr. Farrell's Coordinator of Safety and Security position as its reason. (Id. ¶ 36). When Mrs. Farrell returned from leave in December of 2015, the Board significantly changed her job responsibilities, placing her in a position equivalent to a teacher's classroom assistant. (Id. ¶ 38). She later retired in January of 2016 “solely as a result of the acts and actions” of the Board. (Id. ¶ 39).

         On May 17, 2016, The Farrells sued Defendants in the Circuit Court for Allegany County, Maryland. (Compl.). They allege three counts: (1) violation of Mrs. Farrell's First Amendment rights; (2) violation of Mr. Farrell's First Amendment rights; and (3) violation of Mr. Farrell's due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and under Article 24 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights. (Id.). The Farrells seek monetary damages and retrospective and prospective injunctive relief. On June 21, 2016, Defendants removed the action to this Court. (ECF No. 1). On June 28, 2016, Defendants move to dismiss each claim for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). (ECF No. 6). On July 22, 2016, the Farrells filed a Response, (ECF No. 11), and on August 8, 2016, Defendants filed a Reply. (ECF No. 12).

         II. DISCUSSION

         A. Standard of Review

         The purpose of a Rule 12(b)(6) motion “is to test the sufficiency of a complaint, ” not to “resolve contests surrounding the facts, the merits of a claim, or the applicability of defenses.” Edwards v. City of Goldsboro, 178 F.3d 231, 243-44 (4th Cir. 1999) (quoting Republican Party v. Martin, 980 F.2d 943, 952 (4th Cir. 1992)). A complaint fails to state a claim if it does not contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, ” Rule 8(a)(2), or does not “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face, ” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). A claim is facially plausible “when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). “Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.” Id. (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). Though the plaintiff is not required to forecast evidence to prove the elements of the claim, the complaint must allege sufficient facts to establish each element. Goss v. Bank of Am., N.A., 917 F.Supp.2d 445, 449 (D.Md. 2013) (quoting Walters v. McMahen, 684 F.3d 435, 439 (4th Cir. 2012)), aff'd sub nom., Goss v. Bank of Am., NA, 546 F.App'x 165 (4th Cir. 2013).

         In considering a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, a court must examine the complaint as a whole, consider the factual allegations in the complaint as true, and construe the factual allegations in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Albright v. Oliver, 510 U.S. 266, 268 (1994); Lambeth v. Bd. of Comm'rs of Davidson Cty., 407 F.3d 266, 268 (4th Cir. 2005) (citing Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974)). But, the court need not accept unsupported or conclusory factual allegations devoid of any reference to actual events, United Black Firefighters v. Hirst, 604 F.2d 844, 847 (4th Cir. 1979), or legal conclusions couched as factual allegations, Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.

         B. Analysis

         1. Eleventh Amendment Immunity from Suit

         The Farrells bring their claims under § 1983. Section 1983 provides that a plaintiff may file suit against any person who, acting under color of state law, “subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws” of the United States. 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Section 1983 “is not itself a source of substantive rights, ' but merely provides ‘a method for vindicating federal rights elsewhere conferred.” Albright v. Oliver,510 U.S. 266, 271 (1994) (quoting Baker v. McCollan,443 U.S. 137, 144 n.3 (1979)). To state a claim under § 1983, “a plaintiff must aver that a ...


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