Plaintiff owes attorneys’ fees to defendants….

Joann Compton sued the Port Arthur ISD and two school administrators for allegedly punishing her for the exercise of free speech. Ms. Compton, a speech therapist, complained that her speech therapy reports were being printed on a printer in an open school hallway in another school building. Ms. Compton expressed concern over violations of student privacy. She alleged in her suit that the district responded to this complaint by giving her an “exhausting and rigorous schedule of meetings” and then initiating an investigation of her for Medicaid fraud.

Before going any further, we should point out that all speech therapists have “an exhausting and rigorous schedule of meetings.”

As to the lawsuit, the court dismissed it. On top of that, the court ordered Ms. Compton to reimburse the school administrators for the attorneys’ fees they incurred. How does this happen?

The court ruled that the free speech claim was negated by the pleadings Ms. Compton’s attorney filed. Those pleadings conclusively showed that the “free speech” alleged here was a private communication to her supervisors about work-related matters. Public employees enjoy free speech protection when they speak “as a citizen” on “matters of public concern.” That’s not what was alleged here. As the court noted “speech made pursuant to a speaker’s official duties is not constitutionally protected.” Also:

Speech that is made privately between the speaker and her employer or its employees, rather than “against the backdrop of public debate” is generally not deemed of “public concern.”

So the case lacked merit and was tossed out, despite the effort of the attorney to persuade the court that the Texas Constitution provides greater protection than the U.S. Constitution. The court disagreed with that.

The two administrator/defendants then sought to recover their attorneys’ fees pursuant to Section 22.0517 of the Education Code:

In an action against a professional employee of a school district involving an act that is incidental to or within the scope of duties of the employee’s position of employment and brought against the employee in the employee’s individual capacity, the employee is entitled to recover attorney’s fees and court costs from the plaintiff is the employee is found immune from liability under this subchapter.

That’s exactly what happened here. The administrators were acting within the scope of their employment, and they were found to be immune from liability. They get to recover court costs and attorneys’ fees.

The case is Compton v. Port Arthur ISD, decided by the Court of Appeals in Beaumont on July 20, 2017. We found it at 2017 WL 3081092.


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