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Salmon v. Lang

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

December 3, 2019

JENNIFER SALMON
v.
ROGER LANG, et al.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER ON DEFENDANTS' PARTIAL MOTION TO DISMISS

          RICHARD G. STEARNS UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Jennifer Salmon brought this lawsuit against the Chelmsford School Committee, an elected body which appoints the Chelmsford Public Schools Superintendent; Roger Lang, Superintendent of Schools for Chelmsford Public Schools; Linda Hirsch, Assistant Superintendent for Chelmsford Public Schools; John Moses, member of the Chelmsford School Committee; Jason Fredette, Principal of Byam Elementary School within the Chelmsford Public Schools; Kurt McPhee, Principal of McCarthy Middle School within the Chelmsford Public Schools; and Patricia Tobin, Principal of Harrington Elementary School within the Chelmsford Public Schools for the 2017-2018 school year.[1] Salmon alleges violation of her First Amendment rights (Count I), defamation (Count II), violation of the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act (MCRA) (Count III), and intentional infliction of emotional distress (Count IV), against defendants in various combinations. Pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), defendants Lang, Hirsch, and Tobin move dismiss Counts I, III, and IV, and the School Committee moves to dismiss Count I.[2]

         BACKGROUND

         The essential facts, viewed in the light most favorable to Salmon as the nonmoving party, are as follows. Salmon began as a teacher in the Chelmsford Public Schools in 2002. Subsequently, she joined the Chelmsford chapter (CFT) of the American Federation of Teachers union (AFT). While working at Parker Middle School in May of 2016, Salmon was elected president of the CFT. In that role, she advocated for improved working and environmental conditions in the school. Thereafter in 2016, Salmon received a lower performance rating than she had in any of her ten previous years as a Chelmsford teacher. After Salmon appealed the low performance rating, it was elevated to “exemplary.” Notwithstanding, she requested a transfer to another school. She began teaching at Harrington Elementary School in the 2017-2018 academic year, during which time Tobin served as the Interim Principal.

         Salmon heard complaints from other Harrington teachers that “that they did not have sufficient support for students with special needs in their classrooms, and this resulted on occasions with children being left unsafe. Salmon also personally observed this.” Compl. ¶ 23. Her colleagues requested that as their union representative, Salmon raise these issues with school leadership. Thereafter, Salmon “advocated for increased staffing and improved monitoring of students to improve the working conditions of her union members as well as to improve the educational environment of students.” Compl. ¶ 24. She met at least once with Principal Tobin and Assistant Superintendent Hirsch in October of 2017.

         On November 21, 2017, Tobin abruptly canceled a meeting that Salmon had scheduled with her for the following day. On November 22, 2017, Salmon and another union representative went to Tobin's office before the school day began, to reschedule the meeting. The union representative spoke with Tobin while Salmon sat at a nearby table. Tobin declined to reschedule the meeting, and instead instructed the union representative to speak with “her boss.” Shortly thereafter, Superintendent Lang - accompanied by police officers - arrived and instructed Salmon to leave the office. Salmon returned to her classroom. A police officer then met Salmon in her classroom and escorted her out of the school building. Later that day, in a meeting with other faculty members at the school, Lang expressed “that he was ‘shocked and disappointed with the actions of some individuals'” and informed those present “that ‘there was a right way and a wrong way to get help within the school.'” Compl. ¶ 33.

         Late on November 22nd, Salmon received a letter notifying her that she was being placed on administrative leave. The letter informed Salmon that she was forbidden from talking directly to students or staff members. Lang separately informed parents and students in the Chelmsford Public Schools that Salmon was “placed on paid administrative leave pending an investigation into an incident at the school.” Compl. ¶ 39. The “incident” does not appear to have been specified. Salmon was prevented from attending a parent-teacher conference for her son, who was a student at the school; she also alleges that she was precluded from taking her sons to and from the school.

         Over the following weeks, parents, teachers, and other individuals called for Salmon's reinstatement. More than 100 of them appeared at a December 5, 2017 Chelmsford School Committee meeting to support Salmon, however, only some of Salmon's supporters were able to gain admission. The following day, Lang and Hirsch informed Salmon that she would be reinstated. On December 12, 2017, Lang reprimanded Salmon in writing for insubordination, referencing the November 22nd incident as well as a prior incident involving Salmon's alleged review of a binder containing confidential student information in the school's main office.

         Several days later, a School Committee member voiced his belief that Salmon had been placed on administrative leave because of a physical altercation that had taken place on November 22, 2017. In response, Salmon arranged two meetings open to interested members of the union in order to clarify what had happened on November 22nd. At the second of these two meetings, a teacher accused Salmon of lying, and held up printouts of emails that Lang and/or members of the School Committee had allegedly provided to union members “for the express purpose of interfering with Salmon's relationship with her union members.” Compl. ¶ 54.

         After that meeting, hate mail began to arrive at Salmon's home. Salmon's work environment became increasingly hostile. Neither Tobin nor Lang took steps to address Salmon's growing concerns. In March of 2018, Salmon took a leave of absence from the school because she had begun to suffer from persistent panic attacks. She was diagnosed with an autoimmune condition in April of 2018, attributable to anxiety and stress.

         Salmon requested to transfer to any of three open positions at Byam Elementary School and McCarthy Middle School. The requests were denied, even though Salmon contends that she had the requisite training and experience. Salmon alleges that “McPhee and Fredette [the school principals] denied Salmon's transfer requests because of her past public advocacy on behalf of the union.” Compl. ¶ 70. Her later requests to transfer elsewhere were also denied. One school principal rescinded an offer that had been extended to Salmon after learning of the November 22, 2017 incident.

         DISCUSSION

         “To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009), quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). Two basic principles guide the court's analysis. “First, the tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. “Second, only a complaint that states a plausible claim for relief survives a motion to dismiss.” Id. at 679. A claim is facially plausible if its factual content “allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. at 678.

         Count I: First Amendment - 42 U.S.C. § 1983 as to defendants Lang, Hirsch, and Tobin in their individual capacities, and the Chelmsford School Committee in its official capacity.

         To state a claim under section 1983, Salmon must plead a prima facie case showing that a person acting “under color of state law” deprived her of a “right[] secured by the Constitution or by federal law.” Santiago v. Puerto Rico, 655 F.3d 61, 68 (1st Cir. 2011), quoting Redondo-Borges v. U.S. Dep't of HUD, 421 F.3d 1, 7 (1st Cir.2005). Proceeding under the federal Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Salmon's Complaint alleges that defendants retaliated against her for engaging in First Amendment activity “by attempting to intimidate her into silence.” ¶¶ 82, 83, 85.

         Lang, Hirsch, and Tobin.

         Public school employees cannot be “compelled to relinquish the First Amendment rights they would otherwise enjoy as citizens to comment on matters of public interest in connection with the operation of the public schools in which they work.” Pickering v. Bd. of Educ. of Twp. High Sch. Dist. 205, Will City., Illinois, 391 U.S. 563, 568 (1968). At the same time, “in recognition of the government's interest in running an effective workplace, the protection that public employees enjoy against speech-based reprisals is qualified.” Mercado-Berrios v. Cancel-Alegria, 611 F.3d 18, 26 (1st Cir. 2010).

         Here, Salmon alleges that she lost her job, as well as future employment opportunities that would have otherwise been available to her, as a result of retaliatory actions taken in response to her constitutionally protected speech. Compl. ¶ 86. ...


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