Louisiana nurse loses case at 5th Circuit

We can learn five legal “nuggets” from a recent 5th Circuit decision involving a nurse, frustrated with the way her district treated a diabetic student who ultimately committed suicide.  The nurse had recommended that the student should have a 504 plan.  That didn’t happen.  The nurse was diligent in making sure all of the teachers understood how to accommodate the student’s health issues in the classroom.  After the suicide, the parents sued the district, and the nurse’s extensive notes were subpoenaed.

According to the nurse, that’s when trouble began.  She alleged that administrators started treated her badly.  This culminated in her involuntary transfer to another school.  There was no cut in pay, but she was no longer on the same campus as her children, and felt humiliated by the transfer.  She eventually resigned, and then sued the district and some top administrators.  Five nuggets:

1. An involuntary transfer is not an “adverse employment action” unless it is a “demotion.” This wasn’t. The court noted that her pay, benefits and job duties remained the same.  Key Quote:

Although her office facilities at the new school were subjectively less desirable, and she no longer worked at the school her children attended, these differences do not amount to a demotion.

2. It has to be really, really bad before you can claim “constructive discharge.”  Quote:

Cold stares, rude conduct, and a transfer to a subjectively less desirable location simply do not meet this high standard.

3. School districts face liability under the First Amendment only when district policy or custom caused the plaintiff’s injuries. Isolated actions taken by administrators are not sufficient to show that there was a district policy. There was no improper policy here.

4. School employees are protected by the First Amendment only when they are “speaking as a citizen,” rather than as an employee. The nurse was never “speaking as a citizen” here.  She was speaking pursuant to her official job duties.  If a school employee is not “speaking as a citizen,” but rather, communicating in conjunction with job duties “the employee has no First Amendment cause of action based on his or her employer’s reaction to the speech.”

5.  A public employee’s reputation is not a constitutionally protected interest.  Damage to one’s reputation may be actionable, but only when it is done with “stigmatizing” and false charges in the process of discharging the employee.  This nurse was never discharged.

Case dismissed.  It’s Rayborn v. Bossier Parish School Board, decided by the 5th Circuit on February 2, 2018.  We found it at 2018 WL 670489 and 881 F.3d 409.


 Tomorrow: Have you heard of Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity Syndrome?  It’s an allergy to WiFi.