Appeals Court Affirms Dismissal Of First Amendment Suit By School Nurse

Lori Rayborn was a high school nurse when a student committed suicide due to alleged school bullying.  The student was diabetic and Rayborn had worked closely with the student to provide medical care.  Rayborn documented fluctuations in the student’s glucose levels in the months before her suicide.  According to Rayborn, a recommendation she made that the child receive 504 accommodations was ignored.  She also intervened when the school yearbook wanted to run a feature about students with disabilities that would have included the student’s profile.  That same year, the student told Rayborn that a substitute teacher would not let her check her glucose levels in class and Rayborn took action to correct the problem.

After the student’s suicide, the parents sued the school board and Rayborn’s notes were subpoenaed.  Rayborn met with her supervisor, Ginger Hughes, and the school principal, Nichole Bourgeois, to discuss the notes and the subpoena.  During those discussions, Rayborn was critical of the school’s handling of the student’s health needs.  Following this, Rayborn claims Hughes’ and Bourgeois’ demeanor changed toward her.  Rayborn also began having conflicts with a school secretary, including a heated confrontation in front of students and parents.  Hughes issued Rayborn a reprimand for her conduct and, among other things, allegedly stated that Rayborn’s practice of voicing her concerns was becoming a problem and that she needed to be professional.

On another occasion, Rayborn was critical of the principal’s handling of an incident in which a student passed out in the cafeteria.  Although Rayborn was on campus at the time, she was not called and, instead, 911 was called.  Principal Bourgeois had previously made the decision that, whether a nurse was present or not, any emergency would be referred to 911.  Rayborn accused the principal of jeopardizing student safety.  Rayborn exited the office, stating “unbelievable.”  In response, Hughes reprimanded Rayborn again and transferred her to another school immediately for insubordination.  While Rayborn’s pay, benefits and general work duties remained the same, Rayborn complained about the facilities at her new school.  She filed two grievances and later claimed that Hughes issued false negative performance evaluations to her.  Rayborn eventually resigned and sued the school board, Hughes, and Bourgeois.

Rayborn’s lawsuit alleged First Amendment retaliation for expressing her views about the administration’s handling of medical emergencies and the student who committed suicide.  She also claimed violations of the Fourteenth Amendment for impugning her liberty and reputational interests.  The trial court granted a motion by the defendants dismissing all of the claims and Rayborn appealed.

The Fifth Circuit affirmed dismissal of the suit in Rayborn v. Bossier Parish School Board, Dkt. No. 16-30903 (5th Cir. Feb. 2, 2018).  Her constitutional claims against the school district were not valid because she failed to identify a school board policy, custom, or practice giving rise to any constitutional violation.

The First Amendment claims against Hughes and Bourgeois individually were also properly dismissed.  The Fifth Circuit observed that the First Amendment protects a public employee’s right, in certain circumstances, to speak as a citizen addressing matters of public concern.  However, in this case, Rayborn was not speaking as a citizen.  Instead, she was speaking in her role as a school nurse and in the scope of her ordinary job duties.  Therefore, the First Amendment claims were properly dismissed.

Under the Fourteenth Amendment, discharging an employee under circumstances that put the employee’s reputation, honor or integrity at stake gives rise to a liberty interest entitling the employee an opportunity to clear their name.  To establish such a liberty interest, the employee must prove (1) she was discharged; (2) stigmatizing charges were made against her in connection with the discharge; (3) the charges were false; (4) she was not provided notice or an opportunity to be heard prior to the discharge; (5) the charges were made public; (6) she requested a hearing to clear her name; and (7) the employer denied the request.  Rayborn’s claim failed because she was never discharged from the district, but instead, resigned.  The Fourteenth Amendment claim was properly dismissed.  The Fifth Circuit affirmed dismissal of the suit.

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