Monday, September 16, 2013
Special Education Teacher Who Objected to School’s Inclusion Plan Failed to State Valid Retaliation Claim Under § 504 or First Amendment
The Tenth Circuit has rejected a former special education teacher’s § 504 and First Amendment retaliation claims based on her reassignment to a general education classroom in Duvall v. Putnam City Sch. Dist. No. 1. The federal circuit court found that the teacher’s reassignment, after she protested her school’s special education policies, was supported by a legitimate reason and that her statements were made as part of her official duties, for which she was subject to employer discipline under the Garcetti/Pickering test. The teacher, Louise M. Duvall, was a special education teacher in Oklahoma when she protested her school’s decision to adopt a “full inclusion” model for providing special education services in the 2007-2008 school year. The full inclusion model integrates special education students into general classrooms by having special education teachers co-teach in those classrooms. Duvall was concerned that this inclusion model would not allow her to provide special education services such as “pull-out services”– one-on-one or small group instruction for special education students away from general education classrooms. She voiced her concerns that the inclusion model did not comply with federal disability education laws. Duvall also dissented to most of the IEPs with which she was involved during the school year and asked state agencies for information about “services for children.” She believed that those acts got her into trouble with school administrators. The next school year, the principal reassigned Duvall to a first-grade classroom, because he “believed she would be happier and more comfortable in that position and that such a move would greatly benefit her, her students, and the school.” Duvall protested the move, saying that she did not want to lose the extra five percent of pay that she received as a special education teacher. Duvall then resigned and sued the Putnam City School District and the school’s administrators under the Rehabilitation Act and the First Amendment, claiming that her reassignment to teaching first-grade was in retaliation for her opposition to the inclusion model. The Western District of Oklahoma granted summary judgment in favor of the school district on all of Duvall’s claims.
On appeal, the Tenth Circuit agreed that while Duvall’s reassignment was an adverse employment action, Duvall did not prove that the district’s stated reason for reassigning her was illegitimate or pretextual under McDonnell Douglas. Given that the school district was committed to a special education model to which Duvall was strongly opposed, the district’s stated reason for reassigning her—because the move would benefit her and the school—was not unworthy of belief, the circuit court found. The Tenth Circuit also found that Duvall’s letters and IEP dissents were not protected speech that was insulated from employer discipline under the First Amendment. The circuit court, applying Garcetti/Pickering, found that Duvall’s duties as a special education teacher included ensuring compliance with state and federal law, and thus her speech about the district’s meeting those obligations was undertaken in the course of her official duties. The Tenth Circuit further found that Duvall could not show that her statements to the State Department of Education about the full inclusion model caused her reassignment, because she failed to show that her direct employers were aware of the content of her views about the full inclusion model. Read the full opinion in Duvall v. Putnam City Sch. Dist. No. 1, No. 11-6250 (10th Cir. Aug. 5, 2013) here.