A federal appeals court has revived the speech-retaliation lawsuit of a Mississippi school administrator who was dismissed after she declined to support the district superintendent in his successful re-election bid.
Calling it a “close question,” a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, in New Orleans, ruled unanimously that assistant principal Lisa Carpenter Mooney’s suit should be allowed to proceed despite evidence that the Lafayette County school district had other, potentially legitimate reasons for not renewing her position and that it came nearly three years after the election.
“We hold that Mooney has introduced sufficient evidence to overcome summary judgment on her First Amendment claim that her political choice was a motivating factor in [the school district]'s decision to not renew her contract,” the 5th Circuit said in its Aug. 8 decision in Mooney v. Lafayette County School District.
In 2007, Mooney decided to voice her support a challenger to Lafayette County Superintendent Mike Foster in his re-election bid. Her suit alleges that an assistant superintendent approached her to donate money for newspaper ads in support of the incumbent superintendent. Mooney declined, telling the assistant superintendent that she did not believe Foster “was best suited for the position.”
Mooney supported Carolyn Davis, a special education teacher who was challenging Foster. At another point, Mooney’s suit alleges, the same assistant superintendent loyal to the incumbent approached her for potential adverse information about Davis. Mooney refused to provide any.
After the election, in which Foster won re-election, Mooney alleges that her superiors found problems with her job performance, such as with her punctuality and in dealing with parents.
In early 2010, Mooney was informed her contract would not be renewed as part of a reduction in force. She contends it was a pretext, though evidence described in the district court’s opinion indicates that 23 or 24 other positions were eliminated for a cost savings of $400,000.
Mooney sued, alleging First Amendment retaliation and gender discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. A federal district judge issued summary judgment to the school district on both counts.
The 5th Circuit court affirmed the ruling on the gender-bias claim, but revived Mooney’s First Amendment claim. The court said it was clear Mooney’s support for the challenger to the superintendent was protected speech on a matter of public concern.
Whether the protected speech was a motivating factor in her nonrenewal was a more difficult question, the court said. Although three years passed between the election and Mooney’s nonrenewal, there is a plausible case that the district began its retaliation against her soon after the election, the court said.
Finally, the court said the district’s reasons that Mooney would have been dismissed anyway may have been pretextual.
“In sum, we hold that Mooney has put forth sufficient evidence that her
political views were a motivating factor in [the district’s] decision to non-renew her employment contract to survive summary judgment,” the court said.
The decision allows Mooney’s First Amendment claim to proceed to trial.
A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.