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The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently confirmed that a school employee’s open endorsement of a school board candidate is protected speech under the First Amendment. In Mooney v. Lafayette County Sch. Dist., __ Fed.Appx. __, 2013 WL 4018662 (5th Cir. 2013), Lisa Mooney worked for the Lafayette County School District (LCSD) as an assistant principal when she openly supported a candidate for superintendent who was running against the incumbent superintendent. The school principal, who was Mooney’s supervisor, and the assistant superintendent openly supported the incumbent superintendent and made a number of statements regarding Mooney’s allegiance to the opposing candidate.

Following the election, Mooney’s work performance was questioned and she was recommended for a demotion to her former position of speech pathologist. The demotion did not occur, but Mooney was placed on a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP). Mooney was later investigated for conducting a strip search of a student in violation of district policy. She was formally reprimanded by the principal for her conduct. Ultimately, LCSD eliminated Mooney’s position as part of a reduction in force (RIF), resulting in the nonrenewal of her employment contract.

Mooney brought this suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and Title VII against the school district, alleging the nonrenewal was retaliation (1) for engaging in political speech protected by the First Amendment and (2) for opposing unlawful gender discrimination. The trial court granted judgment in favor of LCSD and dismissed Mooney’s complaint. Mooney appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Fifth Circuit held that Mooney produced sufficient evidence to overcome summary judgment on her First Amendment claim that her political speech was a motivating factor in LCSD’s decision to not renew her contract; but she failed to introduce sufficient evidence to support her Title VII retaliation claim based on gender discrimination. To prevail on her First Amendment retaliation claim, Mooney had to show that (1) she suffered an adverse employment action; (2) her speech involved a matter of public concern; (3) her interest in speaking outweighed the employer’s interest in promoting efficiency in the workplace; and (4) the speech motivated the employer’s adverse employment action.

Given the events leading up to her nonrenewal, the appeals court held that the evidence was sufficient for a “reasonable juror to infer retaliatory causation, especially considering that the ‘causal link’ need only be that her protected activity was one reason motivating LCSD’s decision.” Mooney also raised doubt concerning the district’s stated reasons for its employment decisions. Thus, genuine issues of material fact existed on whether the district’s stated reasons were a pretext for retaliation. The appeals court returned the case to the trial court for further proceedings on the First Amendment claim. Significantly, the court stated that to prove retaliation, the protected activity only has to be one of the reasons motivating the adverse employment decision. This case serves as an important reminder that, with elections coming up in November, school administrators must be cautious in how they manage employees who have been politically active and vocal in their communities. Thorough documentation showing legitimate, nonretaliatory reasons for an adverse employment action will go a long way in fighting any First Amendment retaliation claims.

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