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Quigg v. Thomas County Sch. Dist.

United States District Court, M.D. Georgia, Valdosta Division

September 9, 2014

LINDA JEAN QUIGG, Ed.D., Plaintiff,

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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For Thomas County School District, Defendant: Randall C. Farmer, Brock, Clay, Calhoun & Rogers, P.C., Marietta, GA.

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HUGH LAWSON, Senior United States District Judge.

Before the Court are Defendant Thomas County School District's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 69) and the Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 57) filed by Defendants Charles Evans, Nancy Hiers, Scott Morgan, Mark NeSmith, and Kay Streets (collectively " Defendant Board Members" ).[1] For the reasons stated below, the motions are granted.

I. Summary Judgment Standard

Summary judgment is appropriate when " the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and ... the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); see Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). A genuine issue of material fact arises only when " the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). The court must evaluate all of the evidence, together with any logical inferences, in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Id. at 254-55. The court may not, however, make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence. Id. at 255; see also Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150, 120 S.Ct. 2097, 147 L.Ed.2d 105 (2000).

The party seeking summary judgment " always bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of a material fact." Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323 (internal quotation omitted). If the movant meets this burden, the burden shifts to the opposing party to go beyond the pleadings and present specific evidence showing that there is a genuine issue of material fact, or that the movant is not entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Id. at 324-26. This evidence must consist of more than conclusory allegations. See Avirgan v. Hull, 932 F.2d 1572, 1577 (11th Cir. 1991). Summary judgment must be entered " against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. Furthermore, under Local Rule 56, the facts listed in the

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movant's statement of material facts will be deemed admitted as undisputed unless the non-movant denies each specific fact and provides a supporting citation to the factual record. M.D. Ga. L.R. 56.

II. Factual Background

This case arises from the vote by the Thomas County Board of Education (" Board of Education" or " the Board" ) on February 8, 2011 not to renew the contract of Plaintiff Linda Quigg (" Plaintiff" ) as the superintendent for the Thomas County School District (" County School District" ). Thomas County, Georgia has two public school systems, the County School District and the Thomasville City School District (" City School District" ). Generally speaking, children residing in Thomas County can attend either the county or city schools. (Defendant Board Members' Statement of Material Facts (" Members' SMF" ), Doc. 58, ¶ ¶ 1, 12a).

A. Plaintiff's Tenure as Superintendent

After being hired by the Board of Education to a three-year contract, Plaintiff began working as superintendent on July 1, 2007. She had been working in the school district since August 1995, first as an assistant principal and later as an assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction. Defendant Kay Streets (" Streets" ), who of the Defendant Board Members was the only one on the Board at the time, voted to hire Plaintiff as superintendent. On July 1, 2008, the Board of Education extended Plaintiff's contract by a year. Defendant Nancy Hiers (" Hiers" ), Defendant Charles Evans (" Evans" ), and Streets voted in favor of this extension. In November 2008, Defendants Mark NeSmith (" NeSmith" ) and Scott Morgan (" Morgan" ) were also elected to the Board of Education. In 2009 Plaintiff requested, but did not receive, an additional one-year extension. In Plaintiff's experience, a typical superintendent in Georgia only remains with a school district for three years. (Id. at ¶ 8; Thomas County School District's Statement of Material Facts (" District's SMF" ), Doc. 70, ¶ ¶ 30-40, 45; Plaintiff's Declaration, Doc. 85, ¶ ¶ 34, 36).

During the 2008-2009 school year, Kay Streets, who was then chairman of the Board of Education, gave Plaintiff a Letter of Understanding. The letter's purpose was to improve Plaintiff's relationship with the Board. The letter set forth a number of performance goals for Plaintiff, including the following: increasing graduation rates, increasing test scores, selecting programs to implement, developing a communication plan, creating transparency and accountability throughout the school system, ensuring board meetings focused on school operations, and establishing procedures for superintendent/board working relationships. Plaintiff did not see anything inappropriate in the Letter of Understanding, and she did not write a rebuttal to it or discuss it with board members. (District's SMF, ¶ ¶ 101, 103-07).

During Plaintiff's tenure as superintendent, the Thomas County School District grappled with a number of changes. Some parents and teachers struggled to understand and adapt to the new standards-based report card that had been introduced under Plaintiff's predecessor, and the school district eventually returned to the traditional grading system. A student management system, known as " TEMS," that had been implemented during Plaintiff's tenure was eventually abandoned because of technical deficiencies. Plaintiff also decided to end the school district's Air Force Junior ROTC program because she believed that the small number of students who participated in the program did not justify its costs. (Members' SMF, ¶ ¶ 8f,

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18y-z; District's SMF, ¶ 136; Deposition of Plaintiff, Doc. 67-68, pp. 153-55, 163). While Plaintiff was superintendent, the County School District lost 544 students and $3,000,041 in state funds relating to those full-time equivalent (" FTE" ) students, while the City School District gained 210 students and $1,169,695 in funding during that same time. (Members' SMF, ¶ 3).

While Plaintiff was superintendent, the county school system also structured courses in a way that implicated student transcripts and FTE funding. Under a dual enrollment program, high school students in the county district were allowed to take courses at local colleges with the classes counting toward the students' FTE status for funding purposes. In the 2009-2010 school year, one of Plaintiff's daughters earned a D and a B in college classes through the dual enrollment program, which would have lowered her high school grade point average. Over the objections of some school administrators, including Ken Harper (" Harper" ), the assistant principal at the Thomas County High School, Plaintiff re-interpreted the dual enrollment policy and directed that grades from such college courses would not be reflected on the high school transcripts even though the classes would still be counted for FTE funding. The following year, the school district resumed listing the grades from the college classes on high school transcripts. (District's SMF, ¶ ¶ 317-23; Deposition of Garry Kornegay, Doc. 80, pp. 191-98).

Ken Harper was also troubled by the school district's mentorship program. Students received course credits for participating in the program, which would also be used for calculating FTE status and funding, even though in some instances they were only serving as teachers' aides. Harper believed that, because the mentorship program was not providing students with academic instruction, it should not count for course credits or FTE status. Harper did not share his concerns with Plaintiff, because he was not confident that she would address the issue. However, during the 2009-2010 school year, he did disclose his doubts to Streets and convey information about the program to her. (District's SMF, ¶ ¶ 282-85, 309-11; Deposition of Ken Harper, Doc. 79, pp. 68-71).

B. Plaintiff's Relationship with the Board

Beginning in approximately 2009, Plaintiff became increasingly frustrated in her attempts to work with some members of the Board of Education. Plaintiff believed that she was better qualified than the board members to make decisions concerning educational policies. Admittedly, while Plaintiff was superintendent, reports on the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (" SPLOST" ) were not always provided to the Board in a timely manner, and her last-minute changes to the agenda for several board meetings elicited complaints from board members. (Members' SMF, ¶ 18x; District's SMF, ¶ 134; Plaintiff Depo., pp. 157-58). Nevertheless, " in 2009 and 2010...the Board constantly micro-managed [her] personnel decisions and recommendations." (Plaintiff Declar., ¶ 204). Evans, Hiers, Morgan, and Streets, for instance, protested Plaintiff's refusal to alter the school district's policy for which students could walk in the graduation ceremonies. Because of conflicts such as this, Plaintiff thought that some board members were pursuing " personal agendas" rather than seeking the good of the school district. (District's SMF, ¶ ¶ 77, 91-92).

Plaintiff's relationships with specific board members became acrimonious over the course of her tenure as superintendent.

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Kay Streets is a registered nurse who also serves on the Board of Education. Although initially supportive of Plaintiff, Streets came to disagree with several of the superintendent's decisions, including the refusal to deviate from the graduation policy and the elimination of the ROTC program. She also heard rumors that Plaintiff had referred to her as " uneducated," " rude," and " unprofessional," and she resented such disparaging comments. (Members' SMF, ¶ ¶ 8a, 8c). Streets perceived Plaintiff as being arrogant and untruthful in her interactions with the Board of Education. (Id. at ¶ 8d; District's SMF, ¶ ¶ 129-30).

Plaintiff admittedly has a low opinion of Streets. She considers Streets to be " crazy" and " not real rational" and believes that she, Plaintiff, is more qualified to make decisions regarding the administration of the schools. (Members' SMF, ¶ ¶ 18m-n, 18p).[2] She has also described Streets as rude and unprofessional, which is understandable given Streets's behavior in board meetings after 2009. During board meetings, Streets was hostile and belligerent to Plaintiff, and she would hum, roll her eyes, text, and make snide remarks. Plaintiff's husband actively campaigned for Streets's defeat in the board election in November 2010, and Plaintiff was disappointed when Streets prevailed. (Id. at ¶ ¶ 18k-l, 18o, 18u; District's SMF, ¶ ¶ 79, 84).

Plaintiff's relationship with Charles Evans also soured. Evans, a retired conservation ranger and member of the Board of Education, supported extending Plaintiff's contract in 2008, but he eventually ceased to like or trust her. He thought that she was an arrogant bully who tried to intimidate people. Evans opposed, among other things, Plaintiff's recommendation in her second year as superintendent to off-set a loss of funding by reducing the number of teachers. He began treating Plaintiff disrespectfully during board meetings. (Id. at ¶ ¶ 36, 126, 133, 194; Members' SMF, ¶ ¶ 9a-c, 9f-g, 18o, 18t).

Plaintiff reciprocated by losing confidence in Evans. She thought that Evans, like Streets, was crazy and irrational. No longer able to trust Evans, Plaintiff refused to meet with him unless there was a witness, and she began secretly recording her conversations with him. Plaintiff's husband actively campaigned for Evans's defeat in the November 2010 election for the Board of Education by recruiting candidates to run against him. Plaintiff hoped Evans would lose, and she attended a prayer vigil for the election at the request of Evans's opponent, Liz Owens. (Id. at ¶ ¶ 18m-w; District's SMF, ¶ ¶ 80-84, 87).

Even though Nancy Hiers voted in 2008 to extend Plaintiff's contract, she also came to dislike and mistrust the superintendent. She felt that Plaintiff had little respect for her and was not always truthful with the board members. Plaintiff's response to an incident with Jeanna Mayhall (" Mayhall" ) particularly troubled Hiers. Mayhall, a principal in the school district, had emailed a student's parent using the email account belonging to one of the teachers in her school. The Board of Education asked Plaintiff to place a letter of reprimand in Mayhall's personnel file, but when Hiers subsequently requested to see Mayhall's file, Plaintiff never provided it to her. Hiers believed that Plaintiff refused to provide the file because she had

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never inserted the letter of reprimand. Hiers came to think that the school district and the Board had become divided between Plaintiff's supporters and opponents, which damaged morale. After voting not to renew Plaintiff's contract, Hiers apologized to the administrator for having publicly stated earlier that one of her purposes in running for re-election was to remove Plaintiff from office. (Id. at ¶ ¶ 128, 189-90; Members' SMF, ¶ ¶ 10a-e; Plaintiff Depo., pp. 88-89).

Plaintiff's relationship with Scott Morgan also worsened. Morgan first joined the Board of Education in January 2009, and he was its chairman in February 2011 when it decided not to renew Plaintiff's contract as superintendent. Cecil Stewart had been Morgan's opponent during the board election, and Plaintiff had assisted Stewart's campaign by verifying facts listed on a campaign postcard. During board meetings, Morgan regularly referred to Plaintiff as " management," which was perceived as insulting by Plaintiff. Over time he lost trust in her ability to be truthful with the Board and effectively administer the school system. Morgan read a SPLOST audit in which Plaintiff claimed to have made timely reports to the Board, which he knew to be untrue. He also believed that she micro-managed details of the school system that could have been delegated to an assistant. He became concerned by the loss of students in the county school system during Plaintiff's tenure and felt that the TEMS program should have been discarded more quickly than it was. (Id. at ¶ ¶ 13a-e; District's SMF, ¶ ¶ 85-86, 90, 197a-e; Deposition of Scott Morgan, Doc. 64, pp. 21-23).

Board member Mark NeSmith had also lost confidence in Plaintiff by February 2011 when the Board voted on renewing her contract. Like Morgan, NeSmith was concerned by the drop in student enrollment for the County School District. He was also displeased that the historical separation in student test scores between the county and city school systems had narrowed. NeSmith thought that Joe Sharp (" Sharp" ), the principal at the county high school, was weak and needed to be replaced. Furthermore, NeSmith felt that there was poor communication between the superintendent's office and the school principals and that Plaintiff's hiring an effective assistant superintendent would improve matters. ...

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