What Did the Superintendent Know, and When Did She Know It?

Kristi Dearman alleged that she lost her job because she backed the wrong candidate in the superintendent election in Mississippi.  They elect their superintendents in the Magnolia State.  And after Ms. Dearman’s candidate lost, the new superintendent reassigned Ms. Dearman to a different school.  However, her job remained the same—she was a guidance counselor.

Over a year later, the superintendent recommended Ms. Dearman’s termination due to alleged FERPA violations.  Ms. Dearman requested and was granted a hearing before the school board at which she defended herself and argued against the termination.  The board then pulled a switcheroo.  They never voted on the proposed termination, and in fact, they withdrew the recommendation for termination.  They decided to nonrenew the contract instead.

Of course, that still left Ms. Dearman unemployed, so she sued the district alleging that all of this was in retaliation for her exercise of her constitutional rights to back the wrong candidate in the election.  The 5th Circuit ruled against her. The main problem was the lack of evidence that the superintendent even knew that Ms. Dearman had backed the other guy.  Here is the critical Q and A from Ms. Dearman’s deposition:

Q. Do you have any facts to—to make you believe that Gwen Miller [the new superintendent] knew that you supported Jim Nightengale [for superintendent]?

A. No.

In a retaliation case the plaintiff has to show causation.  You have to prove that you exercised your rights and your boss punished you for it.  If your boss did not even know about your exercise of your rights, you will have a very hard time making that causal link.

The case is Dearman v. Stone County School District, decided by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals on August 11, 2016. We found it at 2016 WL 4254373.


 File this one under: RETALIATION