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Davis v. Shawnee Mission School District No. 512

United States District Court, D. Kansas

April 5, 2018

RUBYE L. DAVIS, Plaintiff,
v.
UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 512 K/A SHAWNEE MISSION SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          KATHRYN H. VRATIL UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Rubye L. Davis brings suit against the Unified School District No. 512, known as Shawnee Mission School District (the “District”).[1] Under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, plaintiff asserts that based on race, the District reassigned her teaching position from Shawnee Mission East High School (“SME”) to Shawnee Mission West High School (“SMW”) in violation of her rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution. The case is set for a five-day jury trial beginning June 4, 2018. Before the Court is Shawnee Mission School District's Motion For Summary Judgment (Doc. #134) filed October 31, 2017. For reasons stated below, the Court reserves ruling on the motion and directs Magistrate Judge James P. O'Hara to revisit the stipulation reflected in the Order (Doc. #119) filed July 14, 2017.

         The District asserts that plaintiff cannot show that it is liable under Section 1983.[2] To prove liability under Section 1983 against the District, plaintiff must show the existence of a District policy or custom which directly caused her alleged injury. See Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378, 385 (1989); Monell, 436 U.S. at 694. A policy or custom includes (1) a formal regulation or policy statement; (2) an informal custom that amounts to widespread practice; (3) decisions of District employees with final policymaking authority; (4) ratification by final policymakers of decisions of subordinates to whom authority was delegated; and (5) deliberately indifferent failure to adequately train or supervise employees. See Pyle v. Woods, 874 F.3d 1257, 1267 (10th Cir. 2017) (citing Brammer-Hoelter v. Twin Peaks Charter Acad., 602 F.3d 1175, 1189 (10th Cir. 2010)).

         The District asserts that plaintiff cannot establish Section 1983 liability because she cannot show that a final policymaker was involved in the reassignment decision. See Shawnee Mission School District's Memorandum In Support Of Its Motion For Summary Judgment (Doc. #138-1) filed November 14, 2017 at 15-18. The parties apparently agree that John McKinney, principal of SME, and/or Ginny Lyon, director of certified professionals for the District, decided to reassign plaintiff from SME to SMW.[3] In response to defendant's motion, plaintiff does not assert that McKinney and/or Lyon acted as final policymakers for the District. Thus, the question is whether the District is otherwise liable for the actions of McKinney and/or Lyon. Plaintiff asserts that even if McKinney and/or Lyon were not final policymakers, [4] the District is liable because it ratified and approved the reassignment decision. See Plaintiff's Response (Doc. #145) at 21-22. Plaintiff also asserts that under equitable estoppel principles, the Court should preclude the District from claiming that McKinney and/or Lyon did not have final authority to make the reassignment decision. See Plaintiff's Response (Doc. #145) at 23-25.

         The Court has spent considerable time evaluating the parties' summary judgment filings.[5]On this record, plaintiff has not demonstrated a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether (1) the Board ratified the reassignment decision[6] or (2) the District should be equitably estopped from claiming that McKinney and/or Lyon did not have final policymaking authority.[7]

         To the extent that McKinney and/or Lyon are not final policymakers and the Board did not ratify the reassignment decision, the District is not liable under Section 1983. Thus, any complaint about discriminatory conduct by McKinney and/or Lyon belongs in a suit against them personally. See Milligan-Hitt, 523 F.3d at 1229.

         On June 2, 2017, Magistrate Judge K. Gary Sebelius entered an order which sustained plaintiff's motion to amend the complaint to include claims against McKinney and Lyon.[8] Thereafter, on July 8, 2017, plaintiff filed an Amended Complaint (Doc. #120) which asserted claims against them in their individual and official capacities. See id. ¶¶ 5-6. Specifically, plaintiff asserted claims against McKinney and Lyon in their official capacities and alternatively - in the event they were “deemed not to have the final authority for the District” to reassign plaintiff - in their individual capacities. Id.

         For reasons not apparent in the record, at a status conference before Judge Sebelius on July 14, 2017, plaintiff agreed to dismiss the individual capacity claims against McKinney and Lyon After the conference, Judge Sebelius entered an order which noted that the District opposed the addition of two new parties in the case.[9] See Order (Doc. #119) filed July 14, 2017 at 1. In the order, he noted the District's position that in granting plaintiff leave to amend, the Court “had not allowed plaintiff to add two individuals as defendants being sued in their individual capacities.” Id. Judge Sebelius then stated as follows:

After some discussion, the parties agreed to a stipulation concerning [McKinney and Lyon]. Plaintiff agreed to dismiss the individual defendants if the [District] agreed that the individual defendants had acted in their official capacities and within the scope of their authority in transferring plaintiff from her employment at [SME] to [SMW]. The [District] agreed to plaintiff's request.

Id. The magistrate ordered that “[i]n light of the stipulation reached by the parties, ” plaintiff shall file a motion to dismiss the individual defendants. Id. at 2. On July 19, 2017, plaintiff dismissed without prejudice all claims against McKinney and Lyon. See Notice Of Voluntary Dismissal (Doc. #121).

         The Court is confused and disturbed by the purported stipulation. It appears to serve no purpose or benefit to plaintiff and in fact contravenes plaintiff's best interests in the case. As noted, a key issue is whether the District is liable for the conduct of McKinney and Lyon. The parties dispute whether they acted as final policymakers and/or whether the Board ratified the reassignment decision. If the District is not liable for their conduct, it is obviously in plaintiff's best interest to assert individual claims against McKinney and Lyon to hold them personally liable for the reassignment decision. According to Judge Sebelius, plaintiff agreed to dismiss the individual claims so long as the District agreed that in reassigning plaintiff, McKinney and Lyon acted in their official capacities and within the scope of their authority. This purported stipulation is irrelevant to the issues at hand. The record reflects no dispute regarding whether McKinney and Lyon acted in their official capacities and within the scope of their authority. Moreover, because the District was already a defendant in the case, plaintiff did not need to add official capacity claims against McKinney and Lyon. See, e.g., Lopez v. LeMaster, 172 F.3d 756, 762 (10th Cir. 1999) (Section 1983 claim against municipal employee in official capacity equivalent of suit against municipality). Because Judge Sebelius was apparently involved in brokering this confusing result, the Court directs Judge O'Hara[10] to revisit the stipulation reflected in the order of July 14, 2017 (Doc. #118) and determine whether the stipulation should be recalled and plaintiff's claims against McKinney and Lyon individually reinstated in this case.[11]

         IT IS THEREFORE ORDERED that Magistrate Judge James P. O'Hara revisit the stipulation reflected in Order (Doc. #119) filed July 14, 2017 and determine whether the stipulation should be recalled and plaintiff's claims against McKinney and Lyon individually reinstated in this case.

         IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Magistrate Judge James P. O'Hara discuss mediation with the parties and if appropriate, order them to mediate plaintiff's claims.

         Appendix 1

         The following facts are uncontroverted, deemed admitted or construed in the light most favorable to plaintiff.[12]

         A. The District

         The District is a public school district in Johnson County, Kansas. Its Board of Education serves as governing body of the District. Board policy states that it “may delegate administrative policy to the superintendent or other employees as specified, but retains the power to alter or veto the acts of any or all employees when such acts are deemed contrary to the legal rights or obligations of the district, inconsistent with board policies or goals, or contrary to the best interest of the district.” Defendant Ex. 31.

         At times relevant to plaintiff's claims, Dr. Jim Hinson served as superintendent of the District. As Superintendent, Hinson was the executive officer and chief administrative officer for the District. As such, he was vested with charge and control of schools within the District, subject to the Board's policies, orders, rules and regulations.

         At times relevant to plaintiff's claims, Ginny Lyon served as director of certified professional staff for the District. As director of certified professional staff, Lyon was vested with authority to approve and authorize reassignment of teachers from particular buildings. Hinson Depo. at 17:17 to 18:11, Plaintiff Ex. 7. Regarding teacher assignments, Lyon exercised final authority - her decisions did not require review or approval by her superiors. Id. at 19:23 to 20:7. As a practical matter, Lyon would defer to a school principal's decision to reassign a teacher so long as it was in accordance with District administrative guidelines. Lyon Depo. at 12:15 to 14:15.

         District administrative guidelines regarding transfer and reassignment of secondary teachers provide, in part, as follows:

It has been the policy of the Board of Education to rely upon attrition, i.e. retirement, resignations, and leaves of absences before transfers are issued. Transfers will be made only when necessary and in the best interest of the school system. The Board of Education has charged administration with the responsibility of staffing all of the programs of the district. The programs of the district include the curricular, co-curricular, and extra-curricular offerings.

         I. When a transfer is necessary, the following factors will be considered:

• Instructional requirements of the building.
• Length of service in [the District]. ***
• Teacher's area of expertise.
• Licensures, major areas of study, additional credit hours, and advanced degrees.
• Present in-building assignments:
(1) Department chairperson/division coordinator.
(2) Head coaching duties.
(3) Sponsor of co-curricular activities.
(4) Assistant coach in one sport.
(5) Leadership on building committees[.] ***
(6) Training that has been conducted to fill specific building roles such as teaching IB or being IB coordinator[.] ***

Plaintiff Ex. 35.

         SMW has a reputation of having more minority students than SME. Muhammad Depo. at 27:19-25, Plaintiff Ex. 15. For the 2015-16 school year, SME enrollment was 87 per cent white, and 13 per cent black, Hispanic and other minority students. For the same school year, SMW was 56 per cent white and 44 per cent black, Hispanic and other minority students comprised the remaining 44 per cent. Students refer to SMW and another District school, Shawnee Mission North (“SMN”), as “ghetto” schools. Id. at 28:1-3. This is primarily based on lower-income apartment housing that is close to those schools, students coming in from neighboring cities, single-parent households and a higher ratio of low socioeconomic students and families. Id. at 28:4-12. SNW and SMN students have reputations of being more disruptive and having more behavior issues than students in other schools in the District. Id. at 28:13-16.

         B. Plaintiff

         Plaintiff is an African American woman. In 1999, she graduated from Middle Tennessee State University (“MTSU”) with a Bachelor of Science degree in biology with concentration in microbiology, and a minor in chemistry. With a grade point average of 3.74 on a four-point scale, she graduated cum laude. Plaintiff graduated in the top five per cent of her class and was a member of Phi Kappa Phi Society.

         In 2006, plaintiff received a Master of Arts degree in Teaching from Central Missouri State University, where she graduated with a 4.0 GPA.

         In June of 2006, the Kansas Board of Education granted plaintiff a license to teach biology in grades 6 ...


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