Brookins v. Lawrence County School District et al
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER granting in part and denying in part 12 Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings. The Court grants the motion as to Plaintiff's Title VII claims against Defendants Fairburn and Turner in their individual capacities, but the Court denies the motion as to Plaintiff's claims of racial discrimination under Sections 1981 & 1983, and claim of First Amendment retaliation. Signed by District Judge Keith Starrett on 10/19/17. (cb)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF MISSISSIPPI
CIVIL ACTION NO. 2:17-CV-60-KS-MTP
LAWRENCE COUNTY SCHOOL
DISTRICT, et al.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
For the reasons below, the Court grants in part and denies in part
Defendants’ Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings . Specifically, the Court grants
the motion as to Plaintiff’s Title VII claims against Defendants Turner and Fairburn
in their individual capacities, but the Court denies the motion as to Plaintiff’s claims
of racial discrimination under Sections 1981 and 1983, and claim of First Amendment
retaliation under Section 1983.
This is an employment discrimination case. Plaintiff was a teacher employed by
Defendant, the Lawrence County School District. Defendant Darrell Turner is the
principal of Lawrence County High School, and Defendant Tammy Fairburn is the
Superintendent of the District.
Plaintiff alleges that Defendants engaged in a series of discriminatory and
retaliatory actions against him because he complained about racial discrimination
against African-American teachers and students. Among other things, he alleges that
Defendants suspended him without pay, formally reprimanded him, instituted false
charges against him, threatened him when he asserted his due process rights,
prevented him from traveling for work, refused to accept his office referrals for
disruptive student behavior, permitted students to sexually harass him, restricted his
classroom internet access, refused to address his concerns regarding another teacher’s
discriminatory treatment of his son, threatened to follow him and his wife home, and
generally treated him more harshly than they did similarly situated white teachers.
Plaintiff claims that he was constructively discharged, having resigned because of
Plaintiff asserted claims of racial discrimination and retaliation under Title VII,
racial discrimination under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981 and 1983, and First Amendment
retaliation under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. He also asserted the following state-law claims:
breach of contract, libel, and slander. Defendants Fairburn and Turner filed a Motion
for Judgment on the Pleadings , which the Court now addresses.
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
A “motion for judgment on the pleadings under Rule 12(c) is subject to the same
standard as a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6).” Doe v. MySpace, Inc., 528 F.3d
413, 418 (5th Cir. 2008). To survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), “a
complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to
relief that is plausible on its face.” Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co. LLC v. La. State,
624 F.3d 201, 210 (5th Cir. 2010) (punctuation omitted). “To be plausible, the
complaint’s factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the
speculative level.” Id. (punctuation omitted). The Court must “accept all well-pleaded
facts as true and construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.”
Id. But the Court will not accept as true “conclusory allegations, unwarranted factual
inferences, or legal conclusions.” Id. Likewise, “a formulaic recitation of the elements
of a cause of action will not do.” PSKS, Inc. v. Leegin Creative Leather Prods., Inc., 615
F.3d 412, 417 (5th Cir. 2010) (punctuation omitted). “While legal conclusions can
provide the framework of a complaint, they must be supported by factual allegations.”
Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 679, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1950, 173 L. Ed. 2d 868 (2009).
Title VII Discrimination and Retaliation
First, Defendants argue that the Court should dismiss the Title VII claims
against them because they were not Plaintiff’s employer. Plaintiff did not respond to
“An ‘employer’ under Title VII is a ‘person in an industry affecting commerce
who has fifteen or more employees . . . .” Oden v. Oktibbeha County, 246 F.3d 458, 465
(5th Cir. 2001) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(b)). This definition “includes one or more
individuals, governments, governmental agencies, [or] political subdivisions . . . .” 42
U.S.C. § 2000e(a). Accordingly, a supervisor may be “considered an ‘employer’ under
Title VII if he wields the employer’s traditional rights, such as hiring and firing.”
Huckabay v. Moore, 142 F.3d 233, 241 (5th Cir. 1998). But if the supervisor exercises
such power in their official – rather than individual – capacity, it “is necessarily
exercised . . . by a person who acts as an agent of the corporate or municipal body he
represents. Because the wrongful acts are performed in his official capacity, any
recovery . . . must be against him in that capacity, not individually.” Id.1 Therefore,
Defendants Turner and Fairburn can not be liable in their individual capacities under
Section 1981 – Discrimination
Next, Defendants argue that they are entitled to qualified immunity from
liability for Plaintiff’s claim of racial discrimination under Section 1981, and that
Plaintiff did not plead sufficient facts to satisfy the heightened pleading standard
applicable in qualified immunity cases.
Section 1981 provides:
All persons within the jurisdiction of the United States shall have the
same right in every State and Territory to make and enforce contracts, to
sue, be parties, give evidence, and to the full and equal benefit of all laws
and proceedings for the security of persons and property as is enjoyed by
white citizens, and shall be subject to like punishment, pains, penalties,
taxes, licenses, and exactions of every kind, and to no other.
42 U.S.C. § 1981(a). “[T]he term ‘make and enforce contracts’ includes the making,
performance, modification, and termination of contracts, and the enjoyment of all
benefits, privileges, terms, and conditions of the contractual relationship.” 42 U.S.C.
See also Oden, 246 F.3d at 464-65; Lewis v. Hardy, 248 F. App’x 589, 592-93
(5th Cir. 2007); Cutrer v. McMillin, No. 3:07-CV-701-TSL-JCS, 2008 U.S. Dist.
LEXIS 53393, at *3-*4 (S.D. Miss. July 14, 2008); Jordan v. Miss. Dep’t of Health,
No. 3:06-CV-233-WHB-LRA, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 60317, at *9-*11 (S.D Miss.
Aug. 16, 2007); Broussard v. Lafayette Consol. Gov’t, 45 F. Supp. 3d 553, 579 (W.D.
La. 2014); Gallentine v. Hous. Auth., 919 F. Supp. 2d 787, 796 (E.D. Tex. 2013).
§ 1981(b). To state a claim of racial discrimination under 42 U.S.C. § 1981, Plaintiff
must allege “(1) that he is a racial minority; (2) that the defendant intended to
discriminate against him on the basis of race; and (3) that the discrimination concerns
one or more of the activities enumerated in the statute.” Wesley v. Gen. Drivers,
Warehousemen & Helpers Local 745, 660 F.3d 211, 213 (5th Cir. 2011).
“The doctrine of qualified immunity protects government officials from liability
for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory
or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Pearson v.
Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231, 129 S. Ct. 808, 172 L. Ed. 2d 565 (2009). “Although
nominally a defense, the plaintiff has the burden to negate the defense once properly
raised.” Poole v. Shreveport, 691 F.3d 624, 627 (5th Cir. 2012).
Qualified immunity can be raised at either the pleading or summary judgment
stage of litigation. When it is raised at the pleading stage, “[h]eightened pleading” is
required. Reyes v. Sazan, 168 F.3d 158, 161 (5th Cir. 1999). The plaintiff must provide
“allegations of fact focusing specifically on the conduct of the individual who caused the
plaintiffs’ injury.” Id. Plaintiffs must “rest their complaint on more than conclusions
alone and plead their case with precision and factual specificity.” Nunez v. Simms, 341
F.3d 385, 388 (5th Cir. 2003). In other words, a “plaintiff seeking to overcome qualified
immunity must plead specific facts that both allow the court to draw the reasonable
inference that the defendant is liable for the harm he has alleged and that defeat a
qualified immunity defense with equal specificity.” Backe v. Leblanc, 691 F.3d 645, 648
(5th Cir. 2012). The plaintiff must “speak to the factual particulars of the alleged
actions, at least when those facts are known to the plaintiff and are not peculiarly
within the knowledge of defendants.” Schultea v. Wood, 47 F.3d 1427, 1432 (5th Cir.
There are two steps in the Court’s analysis. First, the Court determines whether
the plaintiff alleged sufficient facts to state a claim that the defendant’s “conduct
violates an actual constitutional right.” Brumfield v. Hollins, 551 F.3d 322, 326 (5th
Cir. 2008). Second, the Court must “consider whether [the defendant’s] actions were
objectively unreasonable in the light of clearly established law at the time of the
conduct in question.” Id.
Defendants Fairburn and Turner argue that Plaintiff did not plead sufficient
facts to satisfy the heightened pleading standards applicable when qualified immunity
is invoked. Accordingly, Defendants contend that Plaintiff should be required to file a
Rule 7(a) reply, as instructed by Schultea, 47 F.3d at 1432. See also FED. R. CIV. P.
7(a)(7). Alternatively, Defendants argue that the Court should only permit immunityrelated discovery until the specifics of Plaintiff’s Section 1981 claim have been
Plaintiff made the following specific factual allegations against Defendants
Turner and Fairburn in his Complaint :
Plaintiff alleged that when he complained about the District’s
failure to comply with a federal consent decree regarding its hiring
practices, Turner and Fairburn – final policy makers with regard
to the District’s employment practices – ignored his complaints and
continued the District’s discriminatory hiring practices. Complaint
at 5, Brookins v. Lawrence County Sch. Dist., No. 2:17-CV-60-KSMTP (S.D. Miss. Apr. 27, 2017), ECF No. 1.
Plaintiff alleged that Turner and Fairburn ignored his complaints
about discriminatory administration of discipline toward his son,
a student in the District. Id.
Plaintiff alleged that Turner and Fairburn responded to his
complaints with a “campaign of racial harassment, retaliation, and
discrimination . . . .” Id. at 6.
Plaintiff alleged that Turner and Fairburn suspended him without
pay and formally reprimanded him based on false charges that he
provided students a computer that contained pornographic images.
Plaintiff alleged that Turner and Fairburn falsely charged him
with failing to report rumors, despite there being no such policy.
Plaintiff alleged that Turner and Fairburn falsely charged him
with verbally intimidating students. Id.
Plaintiff alleged that Turner and Fairburn suspended him without
pay and formally reprimanded him without hearing his version of
events. Id. at 7.
Plaintiff alleged that Turner responded to his stated intention to
expose the District’s discriminatory practices with threats. Id.
Plaintiff alleged that Turner and Fairburn disallowed him from
attending conferences or traveling within the district. Id.
Plaintiff alleged that Turner refused to accept his office referrals
for disruptive classroom behavior. Id. at 8.
Plaintiff alleged that Turner “openly allowed” students to refer to
him as “Mrs. Brookins” and to disrupt the classroom. Id.
Plaintiff alleged that Fairburn restricted his internet access. Id.
Plaintiff alleged that Fairburn harassed his wife by refusing to
respond to her inquiries or train her in her job duties. Id. at 8-9.
Plaintiff alleged that Fairburn and Turner directed a member of
the District to threaten to follow him and his wife home as part of
the District’s investigation of Plaintiff. Id. at 9.
Plaintiff alleged that Turner and Fairburn interrogated him about
his legal representation, required him to pay for his own workrelated travel, encouraged students to harass him, refused access
to his employment records, and induced colleagues to testify falsely
against him regarding allegations of “indecency to a child.” Id.
Plaintiff alleged that Turner responded to complaints about his
son’s teacher’s performance by threatening his wife’s employment.
Plaintiff alleged that a District employee admitted at a due process
hearing that Fairburn had tasked her with finding Plaintiff guilty
of a violation of District policy, rather than determining whether
he was guilty of a violation. Id. at 10.
Plaintiff alleged that Fairburn admitted at the due process hearing
that there was actually no investigation during his suspension
without pay, and that similarly situated white teachers had
engaged in more severe misconduct without any form of discipline.
Plaintiff alleged that all of these actions were because of his race,
and that he was treated less favorably than similarly situated
white employees. Id. at 12.
Plaintiff alleged that he was constructively discharged, and
replaced by a white teacher. Id. at 11.
Plaintiff alleged that Turner falsely charged him with policy
violations but ignored credible allegations of wrongdoing by white
teachers. Id. at 13.
Plaintiff alleged that Fairburn and Turner “admitted that they had
engaged in an unnecessarily protracted ‘investigation’ . . . that
ultimately served as a reminder of their intention to fire [him] if
he did not resign voluntarily.” Id. at 13-14.
In the Court’s opinion, these allegations are sufficient to state a claim of racial
discrimination under Section 1981. Plaintiff alleged specific events and discriminatory
conduct relevant to each Defendant, providing them with sufficient notice of the nature
of Plaintiff’s claims against them. The facts, as alleged, state a claim of racial
discrimination under Section 1981 against each individual Defendant – even under the
heightened pleading standard applicable in qualified immunity cases.
Section 1983 – Discrimination
Defendants also argue that they are entitled to qualified immunity against
liability for Plaintiff’s claim of racial discrimination under Section 1983, that Plaintiff
did not plead sufficient facts to satisfy the heightened pleading standard applicable in
qualified immunity cases, and that Plaintiff alleged no “direct evidence” of
discriminatory intent by either Defendant.
“Section 1983 provides a cause of action against any person who deprives an
individual of federally guaranteed rights ‘under color’ of state law.” Fennell v. Marion
Indep. Sch. Dist., 804 F.3d 398, 411 (5th Cir. 2015). “One such federal right is conferred
by the Equal Protection Clause, which prohibits a state from ‘denying to any person
within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.’” Id. at 412 (quoting U.S. Const.
amend. XIV, § 1). Therefore, “to state a claim of racial discrimination under the Equal
Protection Clause and section 1983, the plaintiff must allege . . . that he or she received
treatment different from that received by similarly situated individuals and that (2)
the unequal treatment stemmed from a discriminatory intent.” Id. (quoting Priester v.
Lowndes County, 354 F.3d 414, 424 (5th Cir. 2004)).
To establish discriminatory intent, a plaintiff must show that the decision
maker singled out a particular group for disparate treatment and selected
his course of action at least in part for the purpose of causing its adverse
effect on an identifiable group. Allegations of discriminatory intent that
are merely conclusory, without reference to specific facts, will not suffice.
In the Court’s opinion, the allegations listed above are sufficient to state a claim
of racial discrimination under Section 1983, even under the heightened pleading
standard applicable in qualified immunity cases. Plaintiff alleged specific conduct and
events relevant to each individual Defendant. He also specifically alleged that their
actions were because of his race, that they treated similarly situated white teachers
more favorably, and that Plaintiff was replaced by a white teacher after his
constructive discharge. Even if Plaintiff has not pleaded facts which, if proven to be
true, would provide direct evidence of discriminatory intent, he has certainly pleaded
facts from which one could reasonably infer discriminatory intent.
Section 1983 – First Amendment
Finally, Defendants argue that they are entitled to qualified immunity against
liability for Plaintiff’s claim that they violated his First Amendment rights by
retaliating against him because of his protected speech. “The First Amendment
prohibits not only direct limits on individual speech but also adverse governmental
action against an individual in retaliation for the exercise of protected speech
activities.” McLin v. Ard, 866 F.3d 682, 696 (5th Cir. 2017). To state a claim of First
Amendment retaliation under Section 1983, Plaintiff must allege facts that
demonstrate: “(1) he suffered an adverse employment action; (2) he spoke as a citizen
on a matter of public concern; (3) his interest in the speech outweighs the government’s
interest in the efficient provision of public services; and (4) the speech precipitated the
adverse employment action.” Anderson v. Valdez, 845 F.3d 580, 590 (5th Cir. 2016).
First, Defendants argue that Plaintiff did not plead any specific facts
demonstrating that their alleged actions were because of his speech. The Court
disagrees. In Anderson, the Fifth Circuit held that a plaintiff sufficiently pleaded a
First Amendment retaliation claim when he alleged that a public official knew of the
speech at issue, and that the alleged adverse employment actions were because of the
speech. Id. at 590-92. Here, Plaintiff alleged that he directly complained to Defendants
about their alleged discriminatory practices and failure to comply with a federal
consent decree, that Defendants then began the campaign of harassment detailed in
the allegations listed above, and that Defendants’ actions were because of his
Next, Defendants argue that Plaintiff did not plead facts demonstrating that
they personally participated in the alleged constitutional violations. The Court rejects
this argument for the same reasons listed above. The list of allegations above contains
numerous allegations regarding the personal involvement of each Defendant.
Finally, Defendants argue that Plaintiff did not plead facts demonstrating that
he spoke as a private citizen on a matter of public concern, rather than as an employee
in an internal employment dispute. Indeed, “speech made pursuant to a public
employee’s official duties” is not protected by the First Amendment. Id. at 593 (citing
Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410, 419, 126 S. Ct. 1951, 164 L. Ed. 2d (2006)). But “a
public employee does not speak pursuant to his official duties merely because he
speaks while at work. Likewise, a public employee does not speak pursuant to his
official duties because he speaks about work.” Id. Rather, “[t]he First Amendment
protects some expressions related to the speaker’s job,” Garcetti, 547 U.S. at 421, and
“a public employee does not speak pursuant to his official duties when his speech is
analogous to that of a citizen’s speech.” Anderson, 845 F.3d at 594.
Plaintiff alleged that he complained to Defendants Turner and Fairburn about
racial discrimination against African-American teachers and their refusal to comply
with a federal consent decree. Complaint , at 4-5. These are matters of public
concern. Charles v. Grief, 522 F.3d 508, 515 (5th Cir. 2008); Victor v. McElveen, 150
F.3d 451, 455-56 (5th Cir. 1989). Moreover, it does not appear, based on the allegations
of the Complaint , that the speech was pursuant to Plaintiff’s official duties.
Therefore, Plaintiff alleged that he spoke as a private citizen on a matter of public
For these reasons, the Court grants in part and denies in part Defendants’
Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings . Specifically, the Court grants the motion
as to Plaintiff’s Title VII claims against Defendants Turner and Fairburn in their
individual capacities, but the Court denies the motion as to Plaintiff’s claims of racial
discrimination under Sections 1981 and 1983, and claim of First Amendment
retaliation under Section 1983. The Court directs the parties to contact the chambers
of the Magistrate Judge to schedule a case management conference.
SO ORDERED AND ADJUDGED this 19th day of October, 2017.
____/s/ Keith Starrett__________
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?