Daniel v. Huntsville City Board of Education et al
MEMORANDUM OPINION and ORDER that defendants' motion to dismiss is GRANTED and all of plaintiff's claims against defendants, Ferrell, Wilder, Hill, McGinnis, Watkins and Drake are DISMISSED with prejudice as more fully set out in order. Signed by Judge C Lynwood Smith, Jr on 4/6/2017. (AHI)
2017 Apr-06 AM 10:25
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
BRENDA L. DANIEL,
HUNTSVILLE CITY BOARD
OF EDUCATION, et al.,
Civil Action No. 5:16-cv-1919-CLS
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER OF PARTIAL DISMISSAL
Plaintiff, Brenda Daniel, is a former employee of the Huntsville City Board of
Education (“the Board”).1 She asserts that she was subjected to unlawful race
discrimination, retaliation, and a racially hostile work environment, and she seeks
redress for those alleged wrongs pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and 42 U.S.C. § 1983.2
The defendants to her claims are the Board; Elisa Ferrell, the President of the Board,
who is sued in her official capacity; Beth Wilder, Pam Hill, Walker McGinnis, and
Michelle Watkins, all of whom are members of the Board, and each of whom is sued
Doc. no. 1 (Complaint), at ¶ 4.
Id. at 17-22 (Counts One-Three). Plaintiff asserts her § 1981 claims “by and through” 42
U.S.C. § 1983. See, e.g., id. at ¶ 1. See also Butts v. County of Volusia, 222 F.3d 891, 892 (11th Cir.
2000) (holding that “§ 1983 contains the sole cause of action against state actors for violations of
§ 1981”). Plaintiff also asserts a state law claim for tortious interference with her business
relationship with the Board, but that claim is not relevant to the present motion. See doc. no. 1
(Complaint), at 22-24 (Count Four).
in her or his official capacity; B.T. “Tom” Drake, the Interim Superintendent of
Education, who is sued in his official capacity; Eugene C. “Casey” Wardynski, the
former Superintendent, who is sued in his individual capacity; and Presonia Lynette
Alexander, the former Principal of Woodlawn Middle School, who is sued in her
individual capacity.3 Plaintiff seeks compensatory and punitive damages, back pay,
and placement in the position(s) she would have occupied absent defendants’
allegedly discriminatory and retaliatory treatment.4
This case currently is before the court on the motion to dismiss filed by
defendants Ferrell, Wilder, Hill, McGinnis, Watkins, and Drake.5 Federal Rule of
Civil Procedure 12(b) permits a party to move to dismiss a complaint for, among
other reasons, “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Fed. R.
Civ. P. 12(b)(6). This rule must be read together with Rule 8(a), which requires that
a pleading contain only a “short and plain statement of the claim showing that the
pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2). While that pleading standard
does not require “detailed factual allegations,” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550
Id. at 1. Plaintiff’s complaint originally named Laurie McCaulley and Mike Culbreath as
defendants, because they were members of the Board on the date the complaint was filed. Since that
date, Pam Hill and Michelle Watkins replaced McCaulley and Culbreath as members of the Board.
Therefore, Hill and Watkins are automatically substituted as defendants in place of McCaulley and
Culbreath. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 25(d).
Doc. no. 1 (Complaint), at 18-22.
Doc. no. 7.
U.S. 544, 550 (2007), it does demand “more than an unadorned, the-defendantunlawfully-harmed-me accusation.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)
(citations omitted). As the Supreme Court stated in Iqbal:
A pleading that offers “labels and conclusions” or “a formulaic
recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” [Twombly,
550 U.S., at 555]. Nor does a complaint suffice if it tenders “naked
assertion[s]” devoid of “further factual enhancement.” Id., at 557.
To survive a motion to dismiss founded upon Federal Rule of
Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), [for failure to state a claim upon which relief
can be granted], a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter,
accepted as true, to “state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face.”
Id., at 570. A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads
factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference
that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged. Id., at 556. The
plausibility standard is not akin to a “probability requirement,” but it
asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted
unlawfully. Ibid. Where a complaint pleads facts that are “merely
consistent with” a defendant’s liability, it “stops short of the line
between possibility and plausibility of ‘entitlement to relief.’” Id., at
557 (brackets omitted).
Two working principles underlie our decision in Twombly. First,
the tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained
in a complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions. Threadbare recitals
of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory
statements, do not suffice. Id., at 555 (Although for the purposes of a
motion to dismiss we must take all of the factual allegations in the
complaint as true, we “are not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion
couched as a factual allegation” (internal quotation marks omitted)).
Rule 8 marks a notable and generous departure from the hyper-technical,
code-pleading regime of a prior era, but it does not unlock the doors of
discovery for a plaintiff armed with nothing more than conclusions.
Second, only a complaint that states a plausible claim for relief survives
a motion to dismiss. Id., at 556. Determining whether a complaint
states a plausible claim for relief will, as the Court of Appeals observed,
be a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on
its judicial experience and common sense. 490 F.3d, at 157-158. But
where the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than
the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged — but it
has not “show[n]” — “that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed. Rule
Civ. Proc. 8(a)(2).
In keeping with these principles a court considering a motion to
dismiss can choose to begin by identifying pleadings that, because they
are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth.
While legal conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they
must be supported by factual allegations. When there are well-pleaded
factual allegations, a court should assume their veracity and then
determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.
Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678-79 (emphasis supplied, second and fourth alterations in
original, other alterations supplied).
Defendants assert that plaintiff’s claims against them in their respective official
capacities (which are the only claims that plaintiff asserted against them) should be
dismissed as redundant of plaintiff’s claims against the Board. Indeed, defendants are
correct that official-capacity claims
“generally represent only another way of pleading an action against an
entity of which an officer is an agent.” Monell v. New York City Dept. of
Social Services, 436 U.S. 658, 690, n. 55, 98 S .Ct. 2018, 2035, n. 55, 56
L. Ed. 2d 611 (1978). As long as the government entity receives notice
and an opportunity to respond, an official-capacity suit is, in all respects
other than name, to be treated as a suit against the entity. Brandon[ v.
Holt], 469 U.S. , 471-472 [(1985)].
Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 165-66 (1985) (alterations supplied). Other
district courts within this circuit have routinely applied those principles to hold that
official capacity claims against school superintendents and school board members
should be dismissed when the board itself also is named as a defendant. See, e.g.,
Barnett v. Baldwin County Board of Education, 60 F. Supp. 3d 1216, 1235-36 (S.D.
Ala. 2014); Murray v. Birmingham Board of Education, No. 2:13-CV-822-KOB, 2013
WL 5923725, at *1-2 (N.D. Ala. Oct. 31, 2013); M.R. v. Board of School
Commissioners of Mobile County, No. CIV.A. 11-0245-WS-C, 2012 WL 2931263, at
*2 (S.D. Ala. July 18, 2012); May v. Mobile County Public School System, No. CIV.A.
09-00625-WS-C, 2010 WL 3039181, at *2 n.5 (S.D. Ala. July 13, 2010), report and
recommendation adopted, No. CIV.A. 09-00625-WS-C, 2010 WL 3039627 (S.D. Ala.
Aug. 4, 2010); Bean v. Fulton County School System, No. CIV.A.1:07-CV-0484JE,
2008 WL 515007, at *2 (N.D. Ga. Feb. 22, 2008); Walton v. Montgomery County
Board of Education, 371 F. Supp. 2d 1318, 1324 (M.D. Ala. 2005); Nixon v. Autauga
County Board of Education, 273 F. Supp. 2d 1292, 1296-97 (M.D. Ala. 2003).
Plaintiff does not dispute those well-established principles. Instead, she argues
that, because the Board has asserted the affirmative defense of Eleventh Amendment
See doc. no. 12 (Board’s Answer), at 11 (Affirmative Defense No. 26).
may look to the lone exception to Eleventh Amendment immunity found
in the Ex parte Young[, 209 U.S. 123 (1908)] exception. Under Ex parte
Young, individual defendants can be named in their official capacity
provided that there is an ongoing violation of federal law which can be
corrected by injunctive relief. Here, there is an ongoing violation of race
discrimination and retaliation which remains unremedied and which can
be corrected by injunctive relief, i.e., reinstatement.
Doc. no. 14 (Plaintiff’s Response in Opposition to Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss),
at 3 (alteration supplied).
There are two flaws in plaintiff’s argument. First, the doctrine of Eleventh
Amendment immunity and its exceptions are irrelevant, because the Eleventh Circuit
has recently held that “local school boards in Alabama are not arms of the state with
respect to” employment-related decisions, and they consequently are not entitled to
Eleventh Amendment immunity from employment-related claims. Walker v. Jefferson
County Board of Education, 771 F.3d 748, 757 (11th Cir. 2014).
Moreover, even if the Eleventh Amendment were applicable to Alabama school
boards, plaintiff has cited no authority to support the proposition that the Ex parte
Young doctrine should constitute an exception to the well-established principle that
official-capacity claims against government officials are duplicative of claims against
the entity employing the officials. To the contrary, other district courts considering
the issue have reached a contrary conclusion. For example, in an unpublished but
well-reasoned and persuasive opinion, Chief Judge Karon Owen Bowdre of this court
discussed a motion to reconsider her previous order dismissing official capacity claims
against individual members of the Birmingham Board of Education as repetitive of
claims against the Board itself. Chief Judge Bowdre held:
The first reason that the Plaintiffs give for error was the existence
of a request for injunctive relief and, presumably, the need to have the
board members in their official capacities as parties to carry through with
any grant of injunctive relief. As Defendants pointed out in their
response, however, such relief would be due from the Board as an entity
and not from the individual members of the Board, who are powerless to
act except by vote of the Board taken at a meeting compliant with the
Alabama Open Meetings Act. See ALA. CODE §§ 16-1-41.1(b)(2), 1611-9 & 36-25A. Therefore, the existence of a request for injunctive relief
does not require the presence of the individual board members as party
Further, the Eleventh Circuit in Busby v. City of Orlando held that
official capacity suits are, in actuality, suits against the entity that the
officials represent, and, therefore, redundant. 931 F.2d 764, 776 (11th
Cir. 1991). Plaintiffs identify no legal authority declining to apply the
rule in Busby where claims of injunctive relief exist, and the court is
aware of none that would apply to the circumstances of this case. Indeed,
the Supreme Court decision on which Busby relies states that its
reasoning applies to suits for money damages and equitable relief. See
Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 167 n. 14 (1985) (“There is no longer
a need to bring official-capacity actions against local official, for . . .
local government units can be sued directly for damages and injunctive
or declaratory relief.”) (emphasis supplied).
In addition, if the Plaintiffs’ argument were valid, the court would
expect the Eleventh Circuit decisions applying Busby to dismiss only the
official capacity claims requesting monetary damages and to retain those
requesting injunctive and declaratory relief. The Plaintiffs identify no
cases making that distinction, and this court’s research reveals none.
Certainly the cases the Plaintiffs cite in their briefs do not make that
distinction. In the cited district court decision, the district court
addressed this issue and found official capacity claims against individual
school board members requesting injunctive relief to be redundant to the
claims against the school board itself. The court explained:
Repetition neither makes the heart grow fonder nor
the injunction grow stronger, and an entity need not be told
the same thing twice before a court order will stick. This
case is about claims for injunctive relief against the Board,
and plaintiffs cannot repackage these same claims against
the Individual Defendants in their official capacities to
bring them twice, at the cost of unnecessary redundancy,
inefficiency, and the risk of confusion.
M.R. v. Board of School Comm’r, 2012 WL 2931263, at *4 (S.D. Ala.
July 18, 2012). While the district court decision is not controlling, the
court finds it well-reasoned and persuasive. However, far from
supporting the Plaintiffs’ position that this court’s dismissal of the
official capacity claims represents clear error, M.R.’s holding and
reasoning directly support this court’s ruling. In short, the Plaintiffs
provide no controlling or persuasive authorities to support their position
that the dismissal of the official capacity claims was clear error, and this
court is certainly not inclined to reject its own ruling when
well-established case law buttresses it.
Murray v. Birmingham Board of Education, No. 2:13-CV-822-KOB, 2013 WL
5923725, at *1-2 (N.D. Ala. Oct. 31, 2013) (emphasis in original).
This court agrees that there is no case law support for plaintiff’s argument that
the official capacity claims for injunctive relief against the individual members of the
Board should remain pending, even though they are redundant of the claims asserted
against the Board itself. Accordingly, it is ORDERED that defendants’ motion to
dismiss is GRANTED. It is further ORDERED that all of plaintiff’s claims against
defendants Elisa Ferrell, Beth Wilder, Pam Hill, Walker McGinnis, Michelle Watkins,
and B.T. “Tom” Drake are DISMISSED with prejudice.
DONE this 6th day of April, 2017.
United States District Judge
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