Appeals Court Hears Oral Argument In Administrators’ First Amendment And Whistleblower Suit

The Fifth Circuit recently heard oral argument in a First Amendment and Texas Whistleblower suit brought by former elementary school administrators against the Northside Independent School District and its superintendent. This case arises from the termination of two elementary school administrators, who alleged that they were fired in retaliation for reporting to the Texas Education Agency the administration’s alleged failure to reasonably accommodate a disabled student for state-mandated testing.

The plaintiffs claimed that the superintendent was subject to liability because he influenced the decision to terminate them, even though the Board was the final decision-maker in the termination.  The District maintained that administrators were fired for STAAR testing irregularities.

The trial court entered a pretrial judgment against the plaintiffs on their First Amendment suit for both the district and the superintendent, but the Whistleblower claim went to trial. Following trial, the jury answered unanimously in the district’s favor, finding that plaintiffs’ conversations with the Texas Education Agency about the alleged denial of a student’s state test-taking accommodations were not reports of a violation of law made in good faith.  Judgment was entered in favor of the district on the Whistleblower claim.

With respect to the First Amendment claims, the trial court granted qualified immunity to the superintendent on the grounds that the law was not clearly established that liability would result against the superintendent when he was not the final decision-maker, but rather only recommended termination to the school board, which was not shown to have retaliatory animus.

According to the district, findings by an independent hearing examiner in plaintiffs’ administrative appeal that good cause existed for termination, had preclusive effect and negated a finding of retaliation.

The trial court also determined that the First Amendment free speech claims lacked merit because the employees were speaking pursuant to their official duties in making their complaints to the Texas Education Agency, which bars a First Amendment suit.

The plaintiffs appealed the jury verdict on the Whistleblower claims, as well as the pretrial judgment in favor of the defendants on the First Amendment claims.  The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral argument on December 4, 2019. The case is Powers v. Northside Indep. Sch. Dist. and it remains on appeal.  This is one to watch and Ed311 will provide updates as the case proceeds.

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