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Jones v. Hancock County School District

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

December 19, 2018

SUSIE JONES, Plaintiff,
v.
HANCOCK COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT, et al., Defendants.

          ORDER

          MARC T. TREADWELL, JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Susie Jones' complaint alleges Georgia Whistleblower Statute and First Amendment retaliation claims against Hancock County School District and Charles Culver, in his official and individual capacity as Hancock County School District Superintendent. Doc. 1. In response to the Defendants' motion for summary judgment (Doc. 13), Jones stated that she did “not oppose summary judgment as to Culver's qualified immunity claim, and Plaintiff does not oppose dismissal of her claim under O.C.G.A. § 45-1-4.” Doc. 22 at 15. That leaves only Jones' First Amendment retaliation claim against the School District. For the reasons discussed, the School District is entitled to summary judgment on that claim.

         I. BACKGROUND[1]

         Jones began her employment with the School District in 1979 as a custodian and held several positions with the School District throughout her tenure. Doc. 17 at 17:2- 18; 19:13-24:19. In 2008, she was promoted to curriculum director and testing coordinator. Id. at 24:20-25:2. In February 2015, Charles Culver became the interim superintendent of the School District after discussing the position with Board of Education Member Anthony Gilchrist. Id. at 40:13-19, 43:15; Doc. 21 at 10:15-11:11:21.

         As the curriculum director and testing coordinator, Jones was responsible for ensuring compliance with Georgia Department of Education guidelines for mandated testing, including computer-based tests. Doc. 17 at 30:2-19, 31:2-32:10. This responsibility required Jones to work closely with the School District's technology coordinator, Earnest Warren, and report to her supervisor, Culver, to keep him apprised of testing dates and technology requirements. Id. at 29:22-23, 34:3-5, 42:17-23, 43:1-44:14, 46:18-23. Jones kept Culver fully informed of all testing dates and technology requirements and issues while in this position. Id. According to Jones, she never had any issues with Warren and never told Culver she had issues with Warren. Id. at 46:18-23, 47:8-48:16, 50:9-20.

         Culver's recollection of Jones' relationship with Warren is quite different. According to Culver, Jones called Culver multiple times about issues she was having with Warren and asked Culver to intervene. Doc. 21 at 92:1-93:10. Culver told Jones that he did not have time to mediate Jones' issues with Warren and to contact Warren directly to resolve their problems. Id. at 93:16-95:11. Culver states that Jones did not do this and continued to request him to resolve their issues. Id. at 116:9-12.[2]

         In May 2014, AdvancED interviewed Hancock County citizens and school district employees individually in response to “complaints and allegations that Hancock County Schools may be in violation of the AdvancED Accreditation Standards and/or policies.” Docs. 17 at 57:19-58:25, 62:4-9, 63:18-20; 13-2 ¶ 21; 21 at 53:18-54:9, 120-23; 22-1 ¶ 21. AdvancED is a non-profit organization that inspects and accredits public and private schools and colleges and is in no way affiliated with the School District. Doc. 21 at 53:18-53:23. If a school fails to adhere to AdvancED's standards, the school will be put under review and can lose its accreditation. Id. at 53:23-54:9. Losing AdvancED accreditation causes a community to lose confidence in the school and may result in students being denied admission to colleges that are accredited by AdvancED. Id. at 54:2-15.

         The allegations reported to AdvancED specifically related to conduct violations by School District Board members. Id. at 120-23. Jones was told by Miranda Wilson, “a representative of the Hancock County School District[, ]” that Jones was on the list of people that AdvancED wanted to interview. Docs. 17 at 63:24-64:1, 73:1-74:20, 155; 21 at 124-26. According to Jones, Culver saw that list and thus knew that Jones would be interviewed. Doc. 17 at 74:1-16. The allegations and notice of AdvancED's upcoming investigation were published in the local newspaper. Doc. 21 at 48:17-49:6.

         During her interview with AdvancED, Jones expressed concerns about Gilchrist's behavior. Id. at 52:4-21, 53:18-54:7. She alleged Gilchrist asked school employees for money to pay his personal bills, interrupted classroom instruction, and yelled at students in the hallways. Id. Such behavior, Jones believed, violated the Board's Code of Ethics. Id. at 155; Doc. 1-2. Jones never reported this behavior to anyone in the School District before “because everyone knew[.]” Doc. 17 at 56:12-25. Jones believes Gilchrist's unethical behavior ceased in 2015 due to AdvancED's investigation. Id. at 55:20-56:1, 78:7-9.

         On May 14, 2015, the day after her interview, AdvancED reported its findings to Culver but did not tell Culver who shared what information. Id. at 80:8-81:22; Doc. 21 at 86:10-90:4. That same day, Jones, along with two other School District employees who were interviewed by AdvancED, received letters from Culver informing them that their contracts would not be renewed for the upcoming school year. Docs. 17 at 92:6-93:4; 21 at 90:22-91:4, 108:6-9. The next day, Culver gave Jones another letter stating that, while her contract as the curriculum director and testing director would not be renewed, the School District would be offering her a contract as a teacher for the upcoming school year, which paid over $10, 000 less per year. Doc. 17 at 93:5-16, 165-66. Apparently, Culver had failed to take into account Jones' tenured status before sending her the first letter. Doc. 21103:3-7. Culver admitted that he “made an error and a mistake” by sending Jones the first letter because as a tenured teacher, she had “a right to a hearing, ” and he had to provide her with her “due process rights.” Id. at 102:6-20, 103:8-15.

         On May 18, Jones complained to the Board at a Board of Education meeting about the letters. Doc. 17 at 94:13-21. After the meeting, Gilchrist told Jones that “he was sorry for what happened to [her]” and that he knew which Board member “told Culver to get rid of [her], ” but he did not tell her which Board member. Id. at 97:17-98:25. Jones completed the 2015-2016 school year as a teacher and retired at the end of the year. Id. at 100:8-104:10.

         Culver maintains that Jones' inability to work compatibly with Warren was why he decided to not renew Jones' contract as the curriculum director and testing coordinator and to offer her a position as a teacher instead. Doc. 21 at 94:18-96:2. According to Jones, Culver terminated her because of the statements she made to AdvancED regarding Gilchrist, even though AdvancED kept the statements made during the interviews anonymous. Doc. 17 at 80:8-81:22.

         II. MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD

         A court shall grant summary judgment “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). “When the nonmoving party has the burden of proof at trial, the moving party is not required to ‘support its motion with affidavits or other similar material negating the opponent's claim.'” United States v. Four Parcels of Real Prop., 941 F.2d 1428, 1437 (11th Cir. 1991) (emphasis in original) (quoting Celotex Corp. v. Cartrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986)). The moving party “simply may show . . . that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case.” Id. at 1438 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). ÔÇťAssuming the moving party has met its burden, the non-movant must then show a ...


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