The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed the district court’s summary judgment in an action brought by a public school teacher who alleged she was wrongfully terminated in violation of her First Amendment rights after voicing concerns about her school’s special education program. (Coomes v. Edmonds Sch. Dist. No. 15, No. 15, 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 5372 (9th Cir. Wash., Mar. 23, 2016)). Plaintiff contended that her First Amendment rights were violated when the school district took adverse employment actions against her for expressing her views about the treatment of students in a program she managed. The panel affirmed the portion of the decision regarding Plaintiff’s First Amendment claim.
Plaintiff worked at a middle school managing and teaching in the Emotional/Behavioral Disorders (“EBD”) program. In the course of managing the EBD program, Plaintiff expressed various concerns about students’ transitions into mainstream classes. Her complaints were circulated among teachers and administrators. Plaintiff also spoke to her students’ parents, but focused on test results and their progress in these communications.
As Plaintiff continued to express concerns about the EBD program to employees of the school district, her performance evaluations began to worsen. Plaintiff requested a transfer, which was granted. However, before starting on her new assignment, Plaintiff sent a letter to the school district claiming that she had been constructively discharged because the district’s conduct made it impossible for her to return to work.
Plaintiff filed suit in state court alleging that her First Amendment rights had been infringed, along with other causes of action. The case was removed to federal court, where the defendants moved for summary judgment.
The District Court granted summary judgment. On appeal, as to the claim that Plaintiff’s First Amendment rights were violated, Plaintiff argued that her speech to supervisors and parents was a matter of public concern and therefore protected. The Ninth Circuit applied a five-factor test to evaluate whether the defendants retaliated against Plaintiff for exercising her First Amendment rights. Plaintiff bears the burden of proof at trial to demonstrate the first three steps of the five-factor test: (1) that she communicated on a matter of public concern; (2) that she spoke as a citizen rather than a public employee; and (3) that the relevant speech was a substantial motivating factor in the adverse employment action.
The Ninth Circuit chose to focus on the second factor: whether Plaintiff was acting as a private citizen or public employee when she spoke. Critical to this inquiry was whether Plaintiff’s speech fell into the scope of her duties. The Court found that it did. Plaintiff cited to her formal job description to demonstrate that her duties did not include wrangling with district representatives over the rights of her students and about bullying behavior. However, the Court found that Plaintiff’s statements about her duties and her reference to her job description insufficient to meet her burden that there were genuine issues of material fact.
The Court also found that Plaintiff’s communications with her students’ parents was within the scope of her duties. Plaintiff admitted that her job responsibilities included collaborating and communicating with parents regarding the students’ testing, placement and development at school. Plaintiff was unable to demonstrate that she spoke with the parents about any issues that went outside the scope of her duties. Thus, the Court found that Plaintiff’s speech to parents was also not protected by the First Amendment.
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