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Lightfoot v. Henry County School District

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

November 10, 2014

ZANETA (JOI) RAINEY LIGHTFOOT, Plaintiff - Appellant,
v.
HENRY COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendant - Appellee

Page 765

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. D.C. Docket No. 1:12-cv-00694-CAP.

For Zaneta (Joi) Rainey Lightfoot, Plaintiff - Appellant: Cheryl Barnes Legare, The Buckley Law Firm, LLC, Atlanta, GA.

For Henry County School District, Defendant - Appellee: William A. White, Lindsay Marie Hodgson, Grant McBride, A. J. Welch Jr., Smith Welch Webb & White, LLC, Mcdonough, GA.

For National Education Association, Amicus Curiae: Alice O'Brien, Jason Walta, National Education Association, Office of General Counsel, Washington, DC.

Before WILSON and ROSENBAUM, Circuit Judges, and HUCK,[*] District Judge.

OPINION

Page 766

PAUL C. HUCK, District Judge

Appellant Zaneta Lightfoot sued her former employer, Appellee Henry County School District (the " School District" ), in the Northern District of Georgia for alleged violations of the Family and Medical Leave Act (" FMLA" ), 29 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq., and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, as amended (" ADA" ), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq. The primary issue presented on appeal is whether the School District is an " arm of the State" of Georgia, such that it is immune from suit in federal court under the Eleventh Amendment. We hold that the School District is not an " arm of the State," and instead operates more like a county or similar political subdivision to which Eleventh Amendment immunity does not extend. The district court's judgment on this ground is, therefore, reversed. Its dismissal, on separate grounds, of Lightfoot's ADA retaliation claim is affirmed.

I. Facts and Procedural History

Lightfoot was hired by the School District in August 2007 and began teaching English and drama at Woodland High School (" Woodland" ) in 2008. [Appellant's Br. 4]. Lightfoot suffers from sickle cell anemia, a blood disorder that causes sporadic pain crises, making standing and walking difficult. In March 2010, Lightfoot applied for intermittent leave under the FMLA, which would allow her to take leave on days when the pain from her medical condition became overwhelming. Lightfoot's application was approved in October 2010, and she took leave throughout the 2010-2011 school year. On February 14, 2011, Lightfoot was approved for an additional period of intermittent FMLA leave. [ Id. at 4-5].

On February 23, 2011, Woodland Principal Bret Cook and Assistant Principals Shannon Ellis and Molly Schmidt met with Lightfoot to give her a disciplinary document called a letter of redirection. [ Id. at 5]. The letter stated that Lightfoot had neglected her duties under the " Georgia Teacher Duties and Responsibilities Instrument" (GTDRI) and violated specific requirements contained in the School District's " Annual Teacher Evaluation Addendum," including the requirements that teachers " interact[] in a professional manner with students, parents, and colleagues" and " provide[] adequate information, plans and materials for substitute teachers." [Doc. 54-4 at 1]. The letter described instances in which Lightfoot had violated these requirements by, among other things, " fail[ing] to work cooperatively with co-workers" and " fail[ing] to provide five days of substitute lesson plans." [ Id.]. Lightfoot claims that at the meeting, Cook, Ellis, and Schmidt revealed that their true reason for issuing the letter was Lightfoot's use of FMLA leave. Cook stated that Lightfoot's medical absences had caused many of the problems described in the letter, and Ellis suggested that Lightfoot transfer to a middle school because the high school's schedule was not

Page 767

compatible with her medical condition.[1] [Appellant's Br. 6].

On March 28, 2011, Schmidt administered Lightfoot's performance evaluation. Lightfoot received an overall evaluation of " unsatisfactory" for allegedly failing to correct the GTDRI deficiencies outlined in her letter of redirection. [ Id. at 6-7]. Because of her negative evaluation, Lightfoot was placed on a Professional Development Plan (" PDP" ). A PDP is an " individually tailored educational and professional plan" containing specific objectives for improvement and criteria for measuring progress. [Doc. 54-2 at 3; Doc. 71 at 3]. However, it is also the most severe form of discipline a teacher can receive short of being terminated. [Appellant's Br. 8]. Lightfoot's PDP was in effect for the remainder of the 2010-2011 school year and for the following school year. Around this time, Cook removed Lightfoot from her position as the school's cheerleading coach, a position she had held since 2009 and for which she received additional compensation. On April 4, 2011, Lightfoot filed charges of disability discrimination and retaliation with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (" EEOC" ). [ Id. at 8-9].

When Lightfoot returned to school for the 2011-2012 school year, she found that her English classroom, previously located across the hall from her drama classroom, had been moved to the other side of the building. This required Lightfoot to take a painful walk between the distant classrooms. Lightfoot requested an accommodation to reduce her walking, which Cook denied because Lightfoot did not appear to him to be in pain. [ Id. at 10-11].

After exhausting administrative remedies with the EEOC, Lightfoot brought the instant suit in March 2012, alleging discrimination and retaliation under the ADA and retaliation under the FMLA. [ Id. at 11; Doc. 71 at 5]. Shortly after filing suit, Lightfoot successfully completed her PDP. However, several months later, she received a second letter of redirection based on allegations that she had falsified a student's grades.[2] In March 2013, Cook informed Lightfoot that the School District would not be renewing her contract and that her employment was terminated. [Appellant's Br. 13-14].

In July 2013, the district court granted the School District's motion for summary judgment on Lightfoot's ADA claims but denied it on her FMLA claim. [Doc. 71 at 22-23]. The School District moved for reconsideration of the FMLA claim, raising for the first time the defense of Eleventh Amendment immunity. Lightfoot moved for reconsideration of her ADA retaliation claim, and also moved to amend her complaint to add claims based on her termination. On September 17, 2013, the district court granted the School District's motion for reconsideration and found that the School District was entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity. [Doc. 80 at 3-11]. The court therefore granted the School District summary judgment on Lightfoot's FMLA claim and denied Lightfoot's motion to amend her complaint. [ Id. at 18]. On separate grounds, the district court also denied Lightfoot's motion for reconsideration of her ADA retaliation claim. [ Id. at 12-13].

On appeal, Lightfoot argues that the School District is not an " arm of the State"

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of Georgia, and is therefore not entitled to immunity under the Eleventh Amendment. Lightfoot further argues that the district court erred in granting the School District summary judgment on her ADA retaliation claim.

II. Standard of Review

" [W]hether an entity constitutes an arm of the state under Eleventh Amendment immunity analysis is a question of law subject to de novo review." United States ex rel. Lesinski v. S. Fla. Water Mgmt. Dist., 739 F.3d 598, 602 (11th Cir. 2014). Lightfoot frames her second issue on appeal as whether the district court erred in granting the School District summary judgment on her ADA retaliation claim, which we would normally review de novo. Hickson Corp. v. N. Crossarm Co., Inc., 357 F.3d 1256, 1259 (11th Cir. 2004). However, Lightfoot's argument that the district court should have liberally construed her ADA retaliation claim as being based on facts pled elsewhere in her complaint was raised in her motion for reconsideration. We review the district court's disposition of that motion for abuse of discretion. See Farris v. United States, 333 F.3d 1211, 1216 (11th Cir. 2003); Sanderlin v. Seminole Tribe of Fla., 243 F.3d 1282, 1285 (11th Cir. 2001).

III. Analysis

A. Eleventh Amendment Immunity

" The Eleventh Amendment largely shields States from suit in federal courts without their consent . . . ." Hess v. Port Auth. Trans-Hudson Corp., 513 U.S. 30, 39, 115 S.Ct. 394, 400, 130 L.Ed.2d 245 (1994).[3] Eleventh Amendment immunity " extends not only to the state itself, but also to state officers and entities when they act as an 'arm of the state.'" Lesinski, 739 F.3d at 601. It does not, however, extend to counties, municipal corporations, or similar political subdivisions of the state. Stewart v. Baldwin Cnty. Bd. of Educ., 908 F.2d 1499, 1509 (11th Cir. 1990) (citing Mt. Healthy City Sch. Dist. Bd. of Educ. v. Doyle, 429 U.S. 274, 280, 97 S.Ct. 568, 572, 50 L.Ed.2d 471 (1977)). Thus, the School District's immunity under the Eleventh Amendment turns on whether it should be treated as an " arm of the State" of Georgia, or as a county or similar political subdivision. Mt. Healthy, 429 U.S. at 280, 97 S.Ct. at 572. This assessment is made " in light of the particular function in which [the School District] was engaged when taking the actions out of which liability is asserted to arise." Manders v. Lee, 338 F.3d 1304, 1308 (11th Cir. 2003) (en banc). Here, the relevant functions pertain to the School District's employment of teachers, and specifically, to its discipline, evaluation, and termination of teachers.

To determine whether an entity is an " arm of the state," we evaluate the following four factors: " 1) how state law defines the entity; (2) what degree of control the State maintains over the entity; (3) where the entity derives its funds; and (4) who is responsible for judgments against the entity." Manders, 338 F.3d at 1309. The resolution of these factors depends, in part, on state law, id., which differs from state to state. Still, we note that the Supreme Court and the vast majority of appellate courts that have considered

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the issue have found that school districts and school boards are not entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity.[4] This includes the Eleventh Circuit.[5] By contrast, the School District identifies only one appellate case in which a school board was deemed an " arm of the state." See Belanger v. Madera Unified Sch. Dist., 963 F.2d 248 (9th Cir. 1992) (California).[6] Comparisons to these cases are provided when useful to our analysis.

1. How State Law Defines the Entity

The first Manders factor considers how Georgia defines its school districts. Georgia school districts are established by Georgia's Code, which provides that " [e]ach county of this state . . . shall compose one school district and shall be confined to the control and management of a county board of education . . . ." Ga. Code Ann. § 20-2-50. Georgia's Constitution vests authority in " county and area boards of education to establish and maintain public schools within their limits; provided, however, that [this] authority . . . shall not diminish any authority of the General Assembly otherwise granted under this article . . . ." Ga. Const. art. VIII, § V, ¶ I. School districts are not explicitly defined as being either part of, or distinct from, the State. This case is therefore unlike Mt. Healthy, where the Supreme Court found that Ohio school boards were not " arms of the state" in part because " [u]nder Ohio law the 'State' does not include 'political subdivisions,' and 'political subdivisions' do include local school districts." Mt. Healthy, 429 U.S. at 280, 97 S.Ct. at 572.

Nevertheless, it is telling that Georgia courts have held that " [a] county board of education . . . is merely the agency through which the county, as a subdivision of ...


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