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Thomas v. Beaumont ISD, __ Fed. Appx. __, 2015 WL 5780934 (5th Cir. 2015).

Facts: The school district recommended the nonrenewal of the second grade teacher citing problems with (1) tardiness and attendance; (2) following the school’s grading policy; and (3) insubordination. Additionally, parents and staff had concerns about the teacher’s conduct and his classroom instruction.

The teacher sued the district asserting a number of claims, including contract nonrenewal under state law, retaliation and hostile work environment under Title VII, disability discrimination under the American with Disabilities Act (the “ADA”), and violations of his Weingarten and First, Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The trial court granted pretrial judgment in favor of the district.  The teacher appealed, arguing that the trial judge was biased against him, that fact issues existed on his hostile work environment claim, and that the district withheld exculpatory evidence and violated the court’s scheduling order.

Holding:  The Fifth Circuit upheld the judgment in favor of the district.  The teacher’s claims of bias by the trial judge were not timely raised, because one seeking disqualification of a judge must do so as soon as the basis for disqualification is apparent. The record showed that, although the teacher had knowledge of a possible reason for disqualification as soon as the case was assigned to the judge, he waited until he received an adverse ruling to raise the recusal issue.  In addition, the teacher presented no evidence of bias.  Thus, the bias claim was without merit.

The teacher’s suit also failed because the teacher did not exhaust administrative remedies.  In Texas, a plaintiff must exhaust all remedies under the applicable administrative scheme if the party’s claim concerns the administration of school laws and involves a question of fact.  Under the Term Contract Nonrenewal Act, a teacher who is aggrieved by the nonrenewal of a term contract must exhaust administrative remedies before seeking judicial redress. “[T]he last step in the administrative process is an appeal to the Commissioner of Education.”  The teacher here did not exhaust administrative remedies by appealing his nonrenewal to the Commissioner of Education. The district court properly dismissed the nonrenewal claim.

The teacher also failed to raise sufficient evidence of a hostile environment to support a Title VII discrimination claim.  The teacher simply failed to allege, or identify any evidence, that the alleged adverse treatment occurred because he was a member of a protected class, thus, defeating his discrimination claim.  The teacher’s retaliation claim likewise failed because the district proved a lawful reason for taking adverse employment action against the teacher – he was frequently absent, did not comply with the school’s grading, attendance, and cell phone use policies, refused to meet with his superior, left his classroom unattended, and was the subject of several parent complaints.  When the burden shifted back to the teacher, he could not identify any evidence that the district’s reasons were false and based upon a retaliatory motive.  The teacher’s ADA claim failed because he did not exhaust administrative remedies on a disability claim through a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

The appeals court also determined that insufficient evidence existed to support claims for violations of the teacher’s rights under the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments.  He did not identify any First Amendment speech at issue or how the unidentified speech involved a matter of public concern. The teacher’s Fourth Amendment claim, premised on an incident where the school’s principal called the police to have him removed from the school premises, did not identify an unconstitutional policy or custom of the district.  In addition, the teacher did not offer evidence indicating that the school’s principal was a policy maker.  Thus, he did not state a valid claim against the District.

The Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment claims required a showing that the challenged conduct affected a life, liberty, or property interest protected by the Constitution.  However, the teacher failed to indicate which liberty or property interest he was deprived of by the district.  The constitutional claims failed as a matter of law.  The Fifth Circuit upheld dismissal of the teacher’s suit.

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