Appeals Court Reinstates Teacher’s Free Speech Suit

By Mark Walsh — December 13, 2011 2 min read
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A federal appeals court has reinstated the lawsuit of a New York State teacher who claims she was denied tenure in retaliation for speaking out about alleged school misconduct.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, in New York City, held unanimously that one incident involved speech protected by the First Amendment, while a second one did not. The court reinstated the suit and denied qualified immunity to two school administrators.

The facts are somewhat lengthy and messy, so I’ll keep them simple here. Nancy L. Nagle was a special education teacher in the Mamaroneck, N.Y., school district in 2007 when she was denied tenure and effectively dismissed.

In one incident, in 2007,Nagle complained that a school administrator allegedly forged her signature on a classroom observation report. Handwriting experts confirmed the forgery, court papers say, and the administrator resigned.

In an earlier incident, while she worked in a Virginia school district during the 2002-03 school year, Nagle reported to her principal that she had heard another teacher verbally abusing children in the classroom. That teacher eventually lost her job and was charged with assault of a student, court papers say.

Nagle contends that when she was recommended for a denial of tenure in Mamaroneck in 2007, school administrators had just learned of the 2002-03 incident, and that, combined with the forged signature incident, resulted in a desire by them to retaliate against her.

The administrators claim another reason for the adverse employment action: That Nagle had violated school protocols several times.

Nagle sued the district and various administrators, but a federal district court ruled against her. It said she did not have First Amendment protection for the two incidents. The forgery incident was not on a matter of public concern, and the earlier report about a fellow teacher’s abusive behavior was not protected speech because it violated “reasonable protocols.”

In its Dec. 12 opinion in Nagle v. Marron, the 2nd Circuit agreed with the district court on one issue but reversed it on several others.

The panel agreed with the district court that the forgery incident did not implicate a matter of public concern and thus was not protected speech for a public employee such as Nagle.

“The forgery of Nagle’s signature, even if such conduct were criminal, had no practical significance to the general public,” the court said.

However, Nagle’s reporting of alleged abuse by a fellow teacher was protected speech, the court said, and that protection remained in force even several years after the incident. No case law requires public employees to follow employer protocols with respect to protected speech, the panel said. And the speech did not lose its protection because several years had passed, the court said.

The court rejected qualified immunity for two school administrators involved in the denial of tenure to Nagle. They “knew or should have known that retaliation for protected spech would violate an employee’s First Amendment rights,” the court said.

The 2nd Circuit court remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.