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Qualified Immunity

DID THE TEACHER SUFFER RETALIATION FOR SPEAKING OUT AGAINST THE PRINCIPAL’S GRADING POLICIES?

Case citation:  Goudeau v. East Baton Rouge Parish School Board, __ Fed. Appx. __, 2013 WL 5514548 (5th Cir. 2013).

Summary:   Sheila Goudeau worked as an elementary teacher for Louisiana’s East Baton Rouge Parish School Board, when her principal, Shilonda Shamlin, instructed teachers, verbally and in writing, to artificially inflate students’ grades.  When Goudeau refused to comply with the directives, Shamlin allegedly threatened to discipline and transfer Goudeau.  Later, Shamlin allegedly threatened to have Goudeau fired if she did not agree to transfer to another school, which Goudeau considered less prestigious.

Goudeau filed a grievance against Shamlin and her grading policies.  The Level I hearing was conducted by Shamlin and ended abruptly when Goudeau would not sign a letter drafted by Shamlin.  At Level II, the district’s general counsel determined that Shamlin had violated Louisiana state law that prohibited the exercise of influence regarding the assignment of grades.  The general counsel also believed that Shamlin’s actions violated the district’s Pupil Progression Plan.  At Level III, the interim chief academic officer agreed that Shamlin’s directives violated the Pupil Progression Plan.  Although those officials and the superintendent agreed that Shamlin failed to follow the grading plan, no action was taken against Shamlin.  Goudeau was later transferred.

Goudeau sued under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the district, Shamlin, and the superintendent violated her First Amendment rights.  The Defendants requested a pretrial judgment, arguing that Shamlin and the superintendent were entitled to the defense of qualified immunity and the school board could not be liable under the facts of this case.  The trial court denied the request and the Defendants appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Ruling:  The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the superintendent was entitled to qualified immunity, but Shamlin was not.  The appeals court also held that the claims against the school board were without merit.  Qualified immunity shields a government official from liability when their actions “could reasonably have been believed to be legal.”  A plaintiff seeking to defeat qualified immunity must show (1) that the official violated a statutory or constitutional right, and (2) that the right was clearly established at the time of the challenged conduct.

Here, Goudeau based her § 1983 claim for employment retaliation on the Defendants’ alleged violation of her First Amendment free speech rights.  Goudeau had to show that she spoke as a citizen on a matter of public concern, her interest in the speech outweighed the school board’s interest in the efficient provision of public services, and the speech resulted in an adverse employment action.  The appeals court held that the transfer to another school could constitute an adverse employment action.  Goudeau’s speech concerning Shamlin’s implementation of an illegal grading policy involved a matter of public concern.  According to the appeals court, the school board incorrectly argued that the speech was part of a personal employment grievance.  The defendants waived their argument that Goudeau was speaking as a private citizen when she challenged the grading policy, because the defendants had not raised that issue before the trial court.  The appeals court, thus, held that Shamlin was not entitled to qualified immunity.  The appeals court determined that the superintendent was entitled to qualified immunity, however, because the superintendent had not participated in the alleged adverse employment decision against Goudeau.

The appeals court next considered the school board’s request for judgment in its favor.  To establish liability against the school board, Goudeau had to show that the alleged constitutional violation was due to an official policy or custom of the school board.  Goudeau argued that the school board knew that Shamlin was forcing teachers to alter student grades.  However, the appeals court stated:  “In order to establish the School Board’s liability based on an adverse employment decision in response to her protected speech, Goudeau needed to demonstrate a policy or custom targeting the right that was violated (i.e., the right to engage in protected speech free from retaliation), rather than a policy concerning conduct about which she spoke (i.e., the changing of students’ grades).”  Because Goudeau’s allegations only related to her claims that it did nothing to stop Shamlin’s improper grading policy, Goudeau’s First Amendment claim against the district was without merit.  The Fifth Circuit upheld the denial of qualified immunity to Shamlin but held that the superintendent and the school board were entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

Things to Remember:   The state law at the center of this case provides that no school board member, superintendent or principal shall “attempt, directly or indirectly, to influence, alter, or otherwise affect the grade received by a student from his teacher except as otherwise specifically permitted by this Section.”  La. Rev. Stat. Ann. 17:414.2. The closest parallel in Texas is T.E.C. 28.0214: “An examination or course grade issued by a classroom teacher is final and may not be changed unless the grade is arbitrary, erroneous, or not consistent with the school district grading policy applicable to the grade, as determined by the board of trustees of the school district in which the teacher is employed.”