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Farrell v. Cox

United States District Court, D. Maryland

May 31, 2019

DR. DAVID A. COX, et al., Defendants.



         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Defendants David A. Cox, Benjamin Brauer, and Sheree Witt's Early Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 40). The Motion is ripe for disposition, and no hearing is necessary. See Local Rule 105.6 (D.Md. 2018). For the reasons outlined below, the Court will grant the Motion.

         I. BACKGROUND[1]

         Plaintiff Robert S. Farrell worked as a teacher for the Allegany County Public Schools (“ACPS”) from 2003 to 2007, and then as the Coordinator of Safety and Security until his termination in 2015. (Compl. ¶¶ 16, 36, ECF No. 2; Robert S. Farrell Dep. [“Farrell Dep.”] 16:7-17:20, 36:8-20, 93:11-94:15, 97:12-19, Mar. 13, 2018, ECF No. 40-6). Farrell's late wife, Lorelee M. Farrell, (collectively with Mr. Farrell, the “Farrells”) worked for ACPS, as a Health and Family Life Assistant Supervisor. (Compl. ¶ 15; Farrell Dep. 94:21-22).

         In 2014, Ms. Farrell ran for a seat on the Board of Education of Allegany County (the “Board”). (Compl. ¶ 20; Farrell Dep. 46:8-22). During the campaign, Ms. Farrell said she would change the Board's Communication Policy (the “Policy”), which required all communication between ACPS employees and the Board to go through the Superintendent, Cox. (Compl. ¶¶ 22, 24-26; Farrell Dep. 46:23-49:2). Mr. Farrell generally supported Ms. Farrell's candidacy and “exercised his right of free speech” regarding matters of public concern relating to the operation of ACPS. (Compl. ¶ 21; Robert Farrell Decl. [“Farrell Decl.”] ¶ 13, ECF No. 46-2). Mr. Farrell's support of his wife included supporting her proposed change to the Policy. (See Compl. ¶ 29; Farrell Dep. 50:7-55:23). Ms. Farrell was not elected to the Board in 2014. (Compl. ¶ 33).

         In July 2014, Brauer, ACPS Supervisor of Student Services and Mr. Farrell's supervisor, conducted a performance evaluation of Mr. Farrell for the first time, concluding that he needed improvement in four categories. (Compl. ¶¶ 10, 30; Farrell Dep. 56:2-57:7; Brauer Decl. ¶ 7, ECF No. 40-4). On January 16, 2015, Witt, ACPS Executive Director of Special Education, and Brauer convened a “due process” meeting with Mr. Farrell, during which they discussed Brauer's concerns, but not the Policy. (Compl. ¶ 32; Farrell Dep. 68:4-76:21).[2]

         The meeting or “hearing” was continued on February 2, 2015, with Mr. Farrell's counsel in attendance, and included further discussion of Farrell's job performance. (Compl. ¶¶ 33-34; Farrell Dep. 76:22-81:2). Before that second meeting, Witt told Mr. Farrell that he “doesn't live in a vacuum” at the Board, which he interpreted as a threat to his employment. (Compl. ¶¶ 33-34). During the meeting, Witt told Mr. Farrell that “I think you've been around here long enough, you know how things work, ” which Mr. Farrell understood to mean the Board was directing the review of his job performance. (Farrell Dep. 81:3-82:8). Mr. Farrell did not receive information regarding any charges against him at any point, and Mr. Farrell's counsel objected to the meeting process. (Compl. ¶¶ 34-35; Farrell Dep. 77:13-15, 84:1-3). The Board terminated Mr. Farrell's employment, effective June 30, 2015, because ACPS had eliminated the Coordinator of Safety and Security position as part of budget cost-cutting. (Compl. ¶ 36; Farrell Dep. 93:11-94:15, 97:12-19).

         On May 17, 2016, the Farrells sued Defendants and the Board in the Circuit Court for Allegany County, Maryland, alleging three counts: (1) violation of Ms. 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 Article 24 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights.[3] (Compl. ¶¶ 40-60). On June 21, 2016, Defendants removed the action to this Court. (ECF No. 1). On March 21, 2017, the Court issued a Memorandum Opinion and Order, dismissing certain claims and dismissing the Board as a Defendant. (ECF Nos. 13, 14). Ms. Farrell died in November 2017, (see ECF No. 35), and on March 14, 2018, the parties filed a Stipulation of Dismissal regarding her claim, Count I, (see ECF No. 36).

         On June 25, 2018, the Court permitted Defendants to file their Early Motion for Summary Judgment. (ECF No. 40; see ECF Nos. 44, 45). On July 13, 2018, Mr. Farrell filed an Opposition. (ECF No. 46). On July 27, 2018, Defendants filed their Reply. (ECF No. 47).


         A. Standard of Review

         In reviewing a motion for summary judgment, the Court views the facts in a light most favorable to the nonmovant, drawing all justifiable inferences in that party's favor. Ricci v. DeStefano, 557 U.S. 557, 586 (2009); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986) (citing Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 158-59 (1970)). Summary judgment is proper when the movant demonstrates, through “particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations . . . admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials, ” that “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the Significantly, a party must be able to present the materials it cites in “a form that would be admissible in evidence, ” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(2), and supporting affidavits and declarations “must be made on personal knowledge” and “set out facts that would be admissible in evidence, ” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(4).

         Once a motion for summary judgment is properly made and supported, the burden shifts to the nonmovant to identify evidence showing there is a genuine dispute of material fact. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586- 87 (1986). The nonmovant cannot create a genuine dispute of material fact “through mere speculation or the building of one inference upon another.” Othentec Ltd. v. Phelan, 526 F.3d 135, 141 (4th Cir. 2008) (quoting Beale v. Hardy, 769 F.2d 213, 214 (4th Cir. 1985)).

         A “material fact” is one that might affect the outcome of a party's case. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248; see also JKC Holding Co. v. Wash. Sports Ventures, Inc., 264 F.3d 459, 465 (4th Cir. 2001) (citing Hooven-Lewis v. Caldera, 249 F.3d 259, 265 (4th Cir. 2001)). Whether a fact is considered to be “material” is determined by the substantive law, and “[o]nly disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248; accord Hooven-Lewis, 249 F.3d at 265. A “genuine” dispute concerning a “material” fact arises when the evidence is sufficient to allow a reasonable jury to return a verdict in the nonmoving party's favor. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. If the nonmovant has failed to make a sufficient showing on an essential element of her case where she has the burden of proof, “there can be ‘no ...

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