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Toney v. Lee County School District

Court of Appeals of South Carolina

February 1, 2017

Laura Toney, Respondent,
v.
Lee County School District, Appellant.

          Heard November 17, 2016

         Appeal From Lee County Maité Murphy, Circuit Court Judge. Appellate Case No. 2015-000558

         AFFIRMED

          Charles Boykin, Shawn David Eubanks, and Deidre D. Laws, all of Boykin Davis & Smiley, LLC, of Columbia, for Appellant.

          W. Allen Nickles, III and Susan M. Fittipaldi, both of Nickles Law Firm, LLC, of Columbia, for Respondent.

          LOCKEMY, C.J.

         The Lee County School District Board of Trustees (the Board) appeals the circuit court's reversal of its decision to terminate the employment of teacher Laura Toney. We affirm.

         FACTS/PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Laura Toney was employed as a social studies teacher at Lee Central High School (the School) in the Lee County School District (the District).[1] On September 27, 2013, Toney attended a social studies departmental meeting at the School along with five other teachers, including Teacher B. During the meeting, Toney commented to Teacher B that she knew he could relate to her sadness over losing her husband because Teacher B had also recently lost a spouse. Several days after the meeting, Teacher B filed a grievance alleging Toney revealed private information regarding his sexual orientation to his coworkers during the September 27 meeting. Teacher B asserted Toney's sharing of private details of his life was an attack on his character and could have resulted in him losing his job and his positive relationships with his coworkers and students.

         Upon receipt of the grievance, the School's principal-Ron Webb-and another School administrator-Bernard McDaniel-met with Toney to advise her of the grievance. Webb informed Toney he would handle the grievance upon his return from a conference and instructed Toney not to pursue the matter until his return. Several days later, Toney contends she found a packet left in her classroom containing copies of Facebook posts written by Teacher B.[2] Toney reported her receipt of the packet to McDaniel, and he refused to discuss it with her. McDaniel subsequently told Toney that if she had something to tell him regarding the matter, she should put it in writing. Toney then gave McDaniel a copy of the Facebook posts. Toney also left a sealed envelope containing a copy of the posts at the office of the District's Superintendent, Dr. Wanda Andrews. According to Toney, she provided a copy to the Superintendent because she was concerned a child might be in danger.

          Upon Webb's return to the School, he learned Toney had taken the Facebook posts to the Superintendent. Thereafter, the Superintendent met with Webb, McDaniel, and Toney at the School. According to the Superintendent, Toney was uncooperative during the meeting and did not give direct answers to any of the questions she was asked.

         In an October 4, 2013 letter, the District notified Toney she was being placed on administrative leave with pay while the District investigated an incident in which she "violated district policy by creating a disruption to [her] assigned school by sharing personal information on another staff member to other staff and students at [the School]." The letter instructed Toney not to "visit any Lee County facility, utilize any school equipment to communicate (including access to computers or e-mail), [or] . . . contact fellow employees of the [District]."

         During her investigation, the Superintendent reviewed Toney's personnel file and discussed Toney's employment record with Webb. The Superintendent's investigation revealed other instances of misconduct including challenging administrators, becoming irate with a parent, failing to follow School protocol, insubordination, and other unprofessional conduct. The Superintendent also learned that while on leave, Toney contacted a Board member to discuss her concerns regarding the substitute teacher assigned to teach her classes.

         On December 18, 2013, the Superintendent notified Toney of her intent to recommend the termination of Toney's 2013-14 employment contract to the Board. The recommendation was based on Toney's conduct with regard to discussing another faculty member's personal information with other employees and her failure to adhere to the directives of an administrator. The Superintendent's recommendation was further based upon a review of Toney's personnel file, which revealed she had engaged in other incidents of unprofessional conduct. The notice stated Toney displayed "unacceptable behavior" and "lack of candor" during the investigation into her conduct.

         The Board held hearings on April 28, June 7, and July 1, 8, and 29, 2014. In her testimony, Toney denied the allegation she caused a disruption by sharing personal information about Teacher B. According to Toney, she only repeated information she learned from another School employee that Teacher B had lost his spouse. Toney testified she was not aware Teacher B's spouse was a man. On July 29, 2014, the Board voted to accept the Superintendent's recommendation to terminate Toney's employment. Thereafter, on August 8, 2014, the Board issued its written decision. The Board found Toney had engaged in a pattern of unprofessional conduct evidenced by repeated resistance to following the directives of supervisors and administrators. Toney subsequently appealed the Board's decision to the circuit court.[3]

         Following a hearing, the circuit court reversed the Board's decision and ordered the reinstatement of Toney's employment contract with back pay and benefits. The court held (1) delivering the packet of Facebook posts to the Superintendent, even if inconsistent with the principal's directive, did not reflect upon Toney's fitness to teach; (2) Toney's communication with a Board member did not support termination; and (3) the record did not support the Board's finding that Toney had a pattern of unprofessional conduct amounting to evident unfitness to teach. The circuit court subsequently denied the Board's motion to reconsider. This appeal followed.

         LAW/ANALYSIS

         I. ...


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