You might be the Big Cheese, but that doesn’t make you a “policymaker.”

It’s very hard for a plaintiff to pin liability on a school district for a violation of federal law unless the board was directly involved.  A recent decision from the 5th Circuit provides a good example.  Here are some of the things that Elsa Rodriguez alleged:

*She was an active member of the Houston Federation of Teachers and filed several grievances against her principal.

*The principal recommended nonrenewal of her contract, which the board approved.  The parties then entered a settlement agreement whereby Ms. Rodriguez was given a new contract but transferred to a new school.  In exchange, Ms. Rodriguez promised not to sue the district or its employees over the nonrenewal.

*The principal at the new school instructed custodial staff not to assist Ms. Rodriguez with a move of her materials to a new classroom, despite knowing that Ms. Rodriguez had physical limitations.

*The district suspended Ms. Rodriguez in connection with an investigation of possible STAAR irregularities. She was not cleared of this for over a year, despite the fact that the district knew that she had been on medical leave for several weeks before and many months after the alleged cheating took place.

Ms. Rodriguez sued the district, alleging violations of her constitutional rights under the 1st and 14th Amendments. The district court dismissed the case, and the 5th Circuit affirmed that decision.  The court did not determine if the allegations in the suit were true or not. The court held that even if all of them were true, there was no basis for liability of the school district.

How can that be?  The problem Ms. Rodriguez ran into is that federal law imposes liability on a school district for a constitutional violation only if the violation was caused by the official policy of the district, or the decisions of a “policymaker.”  Ms. Rodriguez blamed most of what happened to her on the superintendent.

But case law is clear that under Texas law, the superintendent of schools is not a “policymaker.”  The Big Cheese? The Head Honcho?  Yes. But not the school’s “policymaker.” That designation belongs exclusively to the school board.

So go back over Ms. Rodriguez’s allegations. You will notice that the only thing the school board did was to approve the nonrenewal of her contract, and Ms. Rodriguez had already entered into a settlement agreement over that decision.  Her lawsuit mostly involved incidents that occurred after that, and the board was involved in none of it.  Case dismissed.

The case is Rodriguez v. Houston ISD, decided by the 5th Circuit on January 23, 2018. We found it at 2018 WL 526996.


Tomorrow: Schools can get embroiled in trademark disputes too!