Coomes v. Edmonds Sch. Dist. No. 15., No. 13-35747 (9th Cir. Mar. 23, 2016)
Abstract: A U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit three judge panel has ruled that a former teacher failed to state a valid claim for First Amendment retaliation after she alleged that she was terminated after raising concerns about her school’s special education program to her supervisors and her students’ parents. The panel concluded, based on Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410 (2006), that the teacher’s speech was not protected by the First Amendment because it was made pursuant to her duties as an employee, even though it involved a matter of public concern.
The issues related to the state law claims will not be discussed in this summary.
Facts/Issues: Tristan Coomes was employed by Edmonds School District (ESD) as the manager of the Meadowdale Middle School’s (MMS) new Emotional/Behavioral Disorders (EBD) program and the primary teacher for students in the program. Although Coomes initially enjoyed a good working relationship with MMS’s administration and received good performance evaluations, her relationship with the school administration later deteriorated, arising from her disagreement with the schools administration over the “mainstreaming” of her students. Coomes believed that some of her students who were ready for mainstreaming were not being allowed access to such classes for impermissible financial reasons.
In March 2010, Coomes sent Andi Nofziger, her union representative, and Debby Carter, ESD human resources manager, an email complaining about treatment by Meadowdale administrators, including MMS Principal Christine Avery. The email noted she had expressed concerns that EBD students who were ready to move to mainstream classes were not moved or had moves delayed based on improper financial considerations. Coomes forwarded the email to a group of other MMS teachers, and the email chain was then forwarded to Avery in April 2010.
Avery forwarded the email chain to ESD administrators, stating that it contained false accusations and that she hoped the District would “take a very strong position in stopping this behavior.” A few weeks later, Avery emailed Carter and ESD Assistant Superintendent Ken Limon to express her disagreement with a proposal to reassign Coomes to another school because Avery believed that the reassignment would publicly validate Coomes’s complaints about Avery.
During the next school year, the EBD program experienced a significant change. EBD students were placed in more “mainstream” academic classes than in past years as part of “a concerted effort to move the EBD program from a self-contained model to a more inclusive . . . model.” Coomes objected to this change when it was originally proposed. She sent MMS Assistant Principal Joe Webster an email stating that she thought that new students who had been in self-contained classrooms for sixth grade should start the year in her EBD classroom full time so she could get to know their needs and help them adjust to the new school setting.
Coomes continued to express concerns about changes to the EBD program. Meanwhile, her evaluations began to worsen, and Webster and Avery wrote Coomes a number of letters criticizing her performance or reiterating their expectations regarding the curriculum and the EBD program.
After Coomes complained to ESD Superintendent Nick Brossoit in the spring of 2011, ESD agreed to transfer Coomes to a position at Lynnwood High School for the 2011–2012 school year. However, prior to the start of the academic calendar she requested and was granted medical leave. She was on leave from September 1 to December 31, 2011.
However, on the advice of her therapist, Coomes decided not to return to work, and on September 9, 2011, her attorney sent the District a letter stating that it was “impossible for her to continue working” and that she had been constructively discharged. After the ESD’s counsel contacted Coomes’s counsel to confirm that Coomes would not be returning to work, the ESD processed her employment separation.
Coomes filed suit against ESD in Washington state court, alleging that she had been wrongfully discharged under Washington law, that her First Amendment rights had been infringed, that the district retaliated against for exercising such rights, and that she was entitled to recovery under a variety of other state law claims. Her case was removed to the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington, where she added Avery and Webster as defendants. After discovery, ESD and the administrators moved for summary judgment on the federal and state claims. The district court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment on the First Amendment claim.
Ruling/Rationale: The Ninth Circuit panel affirmed the district court’s decision granting the defendants summary judgment on the First Amendment retaliation claim. Relying on Ninth Circuit precedent, it stated courts employ a five-factor inquiry to evaluate First Amendment retaliation claims:
(1) that plaintiff spoke on a matter of public concern; (2) that she spoke as a private citizen rather than a public employee; and (3) that the relevant speech was “a substantial or motivating factor in the adverse employment action.” If the plaintiff establishes such a prima facie case, the burden of proof shifts to the government to show that (4) “the state had an adequate justification for treating the employee differently from other members of the general public;”or (5) “the state would have taken the adverse employment action even absent the protected speech.”
The panel focused on the second factor, i.e., whether Coomes spoke as a private citizen or as a public employee. Its analysis was guided by the controlling precedent in Garcetti that states that the “First Amendment does not protect speech by public employees that is made pursuant to their employment responsibilities—no matter how much a matter of public concern it might be.”
The panel stated the “critical question under Garcetti is whether the speech at issue is itself ordinarily within the scope of an employee’s duties, not whether it merely concerns those duties.” As a result, it found “to the extent that Coomes’s speech was within the scope of her employment duties, such speech is not protected by the First Amendment.”
They indicated that Coomes had not argued that ESD had failed to meet its initial burden of presenting sufficient evidence to establish Coomes spoke as a public employee. As a result the burden of demonstrating the existence of genuine issues of material fact shifted to Coomes. It concluded, “Coomes’s conclusory statements about her duties and her lone citation to the factual record were insufficient to meet her burden to show that genuine issues of material fact exist.”
Even though Coomes failed to meet her burden in demonstrating that genuine issues of material fact existed, the court indicated that where a case turns on mixed questions of fact and law and the only disputes relate to the legal significance of undisputed facts, the controversy is a question of law suitable for disposition on summary judgment. Coomes failed to establish that there were any genuine issues of material fact, but focused her argument on relevant case law, which would have made summary judgment appropriate if supported legally.
After reviewing the record, the panel concluded that “Coomes ha[d] failed to raise a genuine issue of material fact with respect to the scope of her duties, and the evidence indicates that her communication with District staff about the implementation of IEPs and management of the EBD program fell within her job duties as manager of the EBD program.” It, therefore, concluded her speech “was made in her role as a public employee and is not protected by the First Amendment.”
While concluding that Coomes’ speech to parents was “clearly outside of her chain of command,” the panel found that the communication, which included speaking with parents about students’ IEPs and their progress in the EBD program, “was part and parcel of Coomes’s job.” It, therefore, concluded her speech to parents fell within the scope of her duties and was not protected First Amendment speech.
Coomes v. Edmonds Sch. Dist. No. 15., No. 13-35747 (9th Cir. Mar. 23, 2016)
[Editor’s Note: In July 2014, Legal Clips summarized A U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit three-judge panel decision in Mpoy v. Rhee holding that even assuming the portion of a teacher’s email to the chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) accusing his principal of falsifying the assessments of students was protected speech under the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause, the individual school administrators named as defendants were entitled to qualified immunity from the teacher’s First Amendment retaliation suit. The panel assumed, without deciding, that the part of the email reporting that the principal had allegedly altered the students’ records was protected under the First Amendment. However, the panel still concluded that the individual defendants were entitled to qualified immunity because it was not clearly established law, at the time the teacher was terminated, that such speech is protected.]