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Leslie v. Hancock County Sch. Dist.

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

February 5, 2015

DR. AWANNA LESLIE and BETTYE RICHARDSON, Plaintiffs,
v.
HANCOCK COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendant

For DOCTOR AWANNA LESLIE, BETTYE RICHARDSON, Plaintiffs: RUSSELL EDWARDS, ATHENS, GA.

For HANCOCK COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT, GWENDOLYN REEVES, in her individual and official capacity as Superintendent of Hancock County Schools, ANTHONY GILCHRIST, in his individual and official capacity as a member of the Hancock County Board of Education, DENISE RANSOM, in her individual and official capacity as a member of the Hancock County Board of Education, ANNIE INGRAM, in her individual and official capacity as a member of the Hancock County Board of Education, AZZALEE WILLIAMS-ASKEW, in her individual and official capacity as a member of the Hancock County Board of Education, PAMELA LAWRENCE-INGRAM, in her individual and official capacity as a member of the Hancock County Board of Education, Defendants: Hieu M Nguyen, MARTHA M PEARSON, Phillip L. Hartley, GAINESVILLE, GA.

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ORDER

MARC T. TREADWELL, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

Plaintiffs Dr. Awanna Leslie and Bettye Richardson assert claims against the Hancock County School District pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § § 1983 and 1988. They allege the School District fired them in retaliation for their exercise of their First Amendment rights of free speech. Specifically, the Plaintiffs allege they were fired because they criticized the Hancock County Tax Commissioner, even though they spoke " in forums outside of the workplace" and their criticisms " did not concern the subject matter of their job." (Doc. 42 at 3). The School District has moved for summary judgment, contending that Plaintiffs " were acting and speaking explicitly (1) pursuant to the responsibilities imposed on them by law and job description to manage the fiscal affairs of the School District and (2) at the direction of their employer -- the Board of Education -- and in furtherance of the business and governance of the School District." (Doc. 33-1 at 5). Relying on Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410, 126 S.Ct. 1951, 164 L.Ed.2d 689 (2006), the School District argues that because the Plaintiffs' speech was not made as citizens but rather as part of their official responsibilities, their speech is not protected by the First Amendment. The Court agrees.

I. BACKGROUND

Leslie and Richardson both held numerous teaching and administrative positions with the School District before applying for the position of superintendent for the 2006-2007 school year. (Docs. 38 at 12:17-24:15; 39 at 9:1-17:14). The Hancock County Board of Education offered Leslie the superintendent position and Richardson the position of assistant superintendent. (Docs. 33-4 at 2; 39 at 19:11-21). According to Leslie's contract, her responsibilities as superintendent included " assum[ing] responsibility for the overall financial planning of the school system" and acting as " a liaison between the school system and the community." (Doc. 33-7 at 3). Richardson testified her role as assistant superintendent " was to assist

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[Leslie] in her duties as needed." (Doc. 39 at 20:14-24).

Leslie and Richardson both testified the School District had financial challenges during their tenure. (Docs. 38 at 47:17-24; 39 at 24:25-26:20). Both thought a major cause of the problem was that the School District received too little money from local tax revenue, a problem they blamed on the Hancock County Tax Commissioner. (Docs. 38 at 47:20-48:23; 39 at 24:25-26:20). Leslie asked the Board's attorney to write a letter to the Tax Commissioner addressing the fact that the " collection rate was very low ... [a]nd that we needed our money to fund schools' activities and obligations." (Doc. 38 at 75:14-20). Leslie also believed that the Tax Commissioner distributed tax revenue in a " suspicious pattern," and she testified that this pattern was first identified by the School District's finance director. (Doc. 38 at 66:18-69:13). On August 14, 2009, Leslie reported to the Board[1] that she was " in the process of obtaining a county audit to look for any improprieties in the tax office." (Doc. 38-1 at 10).

One of Leslie's duties was to prepare an annual budget for the School District and make recommendations to the Board regarding the tax digest and the millage rate necessary to produce the revenue the School District needed to operate within the proposed budget. (Docs. 38 at 86:15-87:20, 114:5-16; 34 at ¶ 26; 43 at ¶ 26). Because the " effective" millage rate necessary to produce adequate revenue would have to increase to fund Leslie's 2009 proposed budget, Georgia law required the School District to hold three public hearings. (Docs. 34 at ¶ 27; 43 at ¶ 27). This proved controversial and Leslie made presentations at some of these hearings to explain to the community the reasons for her budget and millage rate recommendations. (Docs. 34 at ¶ 28; 43 at ¶ 28; 38 at 87:9-88:8). The Tax Commissioner attended some of these meetings, and according to Leslie, he defended his tax collection efforts in one by stating that " not only had he given us the correct amount, he gave us more than we should have received." (Docs. 34 at ¶ 30; 43 at ¶ 30; 38 at 88:9-17). Also, Leslie questioned the Tax Commissioner in an effort to dispel rumors that she personally was accepting tax distribution checks from the Tax Commissioner's office. (Docs. 34 at ¶ 29; 43 at ¶ 29; 38 at 90:18-93:14).

At the direction of the Board, Leslie wrote a letter to Rev. Samuel Duggan, the chairman of the Hancock County Commission, to set up a meeting with the Tax Commissioner. (Docs. 38 at 95:24-96:17; 38-1 at 40). The October 29, 2009 letter reads:

As directed by the Chair of the Hancock County Board of Education, we will be very grateful to meet with you, the Commissioners and [the Tax Commissioner] on Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday of next week. ... For you to be properly prepared for this meeting, we are asking that [the Tax Commissioner] will [sic] present to us documentation of all monies given to the Hancock County Board of Education from July 1, 2006 - June 30, 2007, July 1, 2007 - June 30, 2008, July 1, 2008 - June 30, 2009, and June 30, 2009 - Present. We are only trying to determine a solution to the obvious discrepancies in the accounting of funds between agencies.

( Doc. 38-1 at 40). Leslie testified she had " about three or four meetings" with the commissioners, and had " [m]aybe two or three" meetings with the Tax Commissioner

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in his office or in her office. (Doc. 38 at 77:12-78:22). Leslie admitted she attended these meetings in her capacity as superintendent. (Docs. 34 at ¶ 32; 43 at ¶ 32; 38 at 69:16-21). During these meetings, Leslie was accompanied by members of the Board and other School District employees, many of whom were a part of what Leslie referred to as her " leadership team." [2] (Doc. 38 at 49:4-24).

Both Leslie and Richardson reported to the Board about their meetings with the Tax Commissioner. On November 6, 2009, Richardson informed the Board:

Mr. Monroe, Dr. Leslie, Mrs. Behne, Ms. Davis, Mr. M. Jones, Mrs. Lester,[3] and I met with [the Tax Commissioner] to compare documentation to find the discrepancies between his figures and ours for the amount of tax monies he has given to the Hancock County Board of Education. The matter was not resolved. [The Tax Commissioner] will have this information to ...

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