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Pope v. Barnwell County School District No. 19

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Aiken Division

March 28, 2017

Teresa Pope, Plaintiff,
v.
Barnwell County School District No. 19; Carroll Priester; Ethel T. Faust; Karen Jowers; Sharon McClary; Yvonne Birt; David C; Rebecca Grubbs; and Shawn Johnson, in their individual and official capacities, Defendants.

          ORDER AND OPINION

         Plaintiff Teresa Pope (“Plaintiff”) filed the instant action against Defendants Barnwell County School District No. 19 (“BCSD” or the “District”), Carroll Priester (“Priester”), Ethel T. Faust (“Faust”), Karen Jowers (“Jowers”), Sharon McClary (“McClary”), Yvonne Birt (“Birt”), David Corder (“Corder”), Rebecca Grubbs (“Grubbs”), and Shawn Johnson (“Johnson”) (collectively “Defendants”) seeking damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for alleged violations of her “liberty interests guaranteed by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.” (ECF No. 1 at 1 ¶ 1 & 23 ¶ 128-26 ¶ 144.) Plaintiff also asserts state law claims for breach of contract, breach of contract accompanied by a fraudulent act, interference with a contractual relationship, civil conspiracy, defamation, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. (ECF No. 1 at 13 ¶ 70-23 ¶ 127.)

         This matter is before the court by way of Defendants' Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings (“MJOP”) pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (ECF No. 20.) Plaintiff opposes Defendants' Motion. (ECF No. 28.) For the reasons set forth below, the court GRANTS IN PART AND DENIES IN PART Defendants' Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings.

         I. RELEVANT BACKGROUND TO PENDING MOTION

         Plaintiff alleges that she began working for the BCSD as superintendent on a three-year contract (the “Contract”) during the 2006-2007 school year.[1] (ECF No. 1 at 4 ¶ 21.) The express term of the Contract was from July 1, 2006, to June 30, 2009. (ECF No. 20-2 at 2 § 1.) During the initial contractual term, the BCSD extended the ending date of Plaintiff's employment by one year to June 30, 2010. (ECF No. 20-2 at 10.) Subsequently, the BCSD made several more amendments to the Contract ultimately pushing the ending date out to June 30, 2016. (Id. at 12, 14, 17 & 19.)

         Starting in April 2013, Plaintiff alleges that Priester, the current chair of the BCSD's board of trustees, “began a campaign to denigrate Plaintiff's character and career in order to remove Plaintiff from her position as superintendent.” (ECF No. 1 at 2 ¶ 5 & 5 ¶ 25.) Specifically, Plaintiff alleges that Priester “filed an ethics complaint against Plaintiff with the South Carolina State Ethics Commission” alleging fraudulent hiring practices and misuse of government funds and also published an editorial “asserting that the District's leadership should be questioned for alleged misconduct.” (Id. at ¶¶ 26-28.) Plaintiff further alleges that Priester at public board meetings questioned the expenses of the BCSD, the financial director's failure to attend every board meeting, and the amounts Plaintiff spent on traveling. (Id. at 6 ¶¶ 31, 35 (referencing ECF Nos. 1-2 & 1-3).) Following Priester's lead, other members of the BCSD's board of trustees also became outspoken concerning Plaintiff's job performance. (Id. at ¶ 34.)

         On November 10, 2015, Plaintiff alleges that the BCSD advised her that it would not renew the Contract. (Id. at 9 ¶ 43.) From this point forward, Plaintiff alleges that Priester with the help of other Individual Defendants[2] undermined Plaintiff's ability to manage the BCSD as superintendent through the end of the Contract. (Id. at 9 ¶ 48-13 ¶68.) Thereafter, on April 26, 2016, Plaintiff alleges that the BCSD placed her on paid administrative leave through the end of the Contract. (Id. at 13 ¶ 69.)

         On May 20, 2016, Plaintiff filed a Complaint in this court alleging claims for breach of contract (“Count 1” against the BCSD), breach of contract accompanied by a fraudulent act (“Count 2” against the BCSD), interference with a contractual relationship (“Count 3” as to Individual Defendants), civil conspiracy (“Count 4” as to Individual Defendants), defamation (“Count 5” against Defendants), negligent infliction of emotional distress (“Count 6” as to Defendants), intentional infliction of emotional distress (“Count 7” against Individual Defendants), deprivation of liberty interest, violation of civil rights and procedural due process (“Count 8” against the BCSD), and deprivation of a property interest without due process (“Count 9” against the BCSD). (ECF No. 1 at 13 ¶ 70-26 ¶ 144.) After answering the Complaint (ECF Nos. 14, 19), Defendants filed the instant MJOP on August 9, 2016, primarily asserting that Plaintiff's claims are barred by Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity. (ECF No. 20.) Thereafter, on September 6, 2016, Plaintiff filed her opposition to the MJOP (ECF No. 28) to which Defendants filed a Reply on September 16, 2016. (ECF No. 30.)

         II. JURISDICTION

         This court has jurisdiction over this matter pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331 based on Plaintiff's claims against the BCSD under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which permits an injured party to bring a civil action against a person who, acting under color of state law, ordinance, regulation, or custom, causes the injured party to be deprived of “any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws.” Id. The court may properly hear Plaintiff's state law claims based on supplemental jurisdiction since these claims “are so related to claims in the action within such original jurisdiction that they form part of the same case or controversy . . . .” 28 U.S.C. § 1367(a).

         III. LEGAL STANDARD

         Rule 12(c) provides that “[a]fter the pleadings are closed-but early enough not to delay trial-a party may move for judgment on the pleadings.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). A MJOP is intended to test the legal sufficiency of the complaint and will operate to dispose of claims “where the material facts are not in dispute and a judgment on the merits can be rendered by looking to the substance of the pleadings and any judicially noted facts.” Cont'l Cleaning Serv. v. UPS, No. 1:98CV1056, 1999 WL 1939249, at *1 (M.D. N.C. Apr. 13, 1999) (citing Herbert Abstract v. Touchstone Props., Inc., 914 F.2d 74, 76 (5th Cir. 1990)). A MJOP “is decided under the same standard as a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6).”[3] Deutsche Bank Nat'l Trust Co. v. IRS, 361 F. App'x 527, 529 (4th Cir. 2010) (citing Independence News, Inc. v. City of Charlotte, 568 F.3d 148, 154 (4th Cir. 2009)); see also Massey v. Ojaniit, 759 F.3d 343, 353 (4th Cir. 2014) (citing Edwards v. City of Goldsboro, 178 F.3d 231, 244 (4th Cir. 1999)).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         A. Sovereign Immunity

         1. The Parties' Arguments

         In their MJOP, Defendants first argue that “Plaintiff's claims are barred by sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment.” (ECF No. 20-1 at 6.) In support of this argument, Defendants assert that “[b]ecause the District is an arm of the State of South Carolina, it is immune from private suit.” (Id. at 7 (citing, e.g., Eldeco, Inc. v. Skanska USA Building, Inc., 447 F.Supp.2d 521, 527 (D.S.C. 2006); Smith v. Sch. Dist. of Greenville Cty., 324 F.Supp.2d 786, 796 (D.S.C. 2004) (“[T]he Court is of the firm opinion that the relationship between the Defendant school districts and the state is so close and the laws of this state are such as to render the Defendant school districts as arms of the state for purposes of Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity.”)).) Defendants further assert that this immunity extends to Plaintiff's claims against Individual Defendants because (1) a suit against them “in their official capacities is in reality a suit against the entity of which they are officials or employees, ” i.e., the BCSD; and (2) a suit against Individual Defendants in their individual capacities fails because their actions “were tied inextricably to their official duties.” (Id. at 8 (citing, e.g., Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 166 (1985); Lizzi v. Alexander, 255 F.3d 128, 136-138 (4th Cir. 2001)).)

         In response to Defendants' Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity assertions, Plaintiff (1) confuses it with qualified immunity[4] (ECF No. 28 at 5) and (2) “concedes that her claims against [I]ndividual [D]efendants, in their official capacity are claims against the District and are barred by the Eleventh Amendment.” (Id. at 6.) Notwithstanding the foregoing, Plaintiff also argues that Individual Defendants are not entitled to Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity in their individual capacities because they “did not always act in their official capacities.” (Id.)

         In Reply, Defendants argue that Plaintiff's representation regarding her individual capacity claims “is contradicted by Plaintiff's Complaint: ‘[a]t all times relevant to the allegations of this Complaint, [the District] acted by and through its agents and employees, [the Individual Defendants], who at all such times used their positions to act within the course and scope of their agency and employment.'” (ECF No. 30 at 3 (quoting ECF No. 1 at 3-4 ¶ 13).)

         2. The Court's Review

         The Eleventh Amendment provides: “The judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by citizens of another state, or by citizens or subjects of any foreign state.” U.S. Const. amend. XI. Though not explicitly stated in the language of the amendment, courts have long held that this guarantee also protects a state from federal suits brought by its own citizens, not only from suits by citizens of other states. Port Auth. Trans-Hudson Corp. v. Feeney, 495 U.S. 299, 304 (1990). “The ultimate guarantee of the Eleventh Amendment is that non-consenting States may not be sued by private individuals in federal court.” Bd. of Trustees of Univ. of Ala. v. Garrett, 531 U.S. 356, 363 (2001). Sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment “is concerned not only with the States' ability to withstand suit, but with their privilege not to be sued” in the first instance. Alabama v. North Carolina, 560 U.S. 330, 362 (2010) (quoting P.R. Aqueduct and Sewer Auth. v. Metcalf & Eddy, Inc., 506 U.S. 139, 147, n.5 (1993)). Accordingly, once the defendant raises the jurisdictional issue of immunity, the court must resolve this threshold matter prior to addressing the merits of the plaintiff's claims. See Steel Co. v. Citizens for a Better Env't, 523 U.S. 83, 94-95 (1998) (extensively discussing the importance of establishing proper jurisdiction before considering the merits of a claim).

         The ultimate question for the purposes of the Eleventh Amendment immunity is whether the state is a real, substantial party in interest. Pennhurst State Sch. and Hosp. v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89, 101 (1984). Therefore, when an instrumentality or agent of the state, named as a defendant in a case, seeks to take advantage of the state's Eleventh Amendment immunity, it becomes necessary to examine the relationship between the state and the entity being sued to determine whether it should be considered an arm of the state. Regents of the Univ. of Cal. v. Doe, 519 U.S. 425, 429 (1997).

         The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit (“Fourth Circuit”) has articulated a non-exclusive list of four (4) factors (the “Immunity Factors”) to be considered when determining whether or not a state-created entity is an arm of the state, and thus protected from suit by the Eleventh Amendment. S.C. Dept. of Disabilities and Special Needs v. Hoover Univ. Inc., 535 F.3d 300, 303 (4th Cir. 2008). The Immunity Factors are: (1) whether any judgment against the entity as defendant will be paid by the State or whether any recovery by the entity as plaintiff will inure to the benefit of the State; (2) the degree of autonomy exercised by the entity, including such circumstances as who appoints the entity's directors or officers, who funds the entity, and whether the State retains a veto over the entity's actions; (3) whether the entity is involved with State concerns as distinct from non-state concerns, including local concerns; and (4) how the entity is treated under state law, such as whether the entity's relationship with the State is sufficiently close to make the entity an arm of the State. Id. (internal citations and alterations omitted). See also U.S. ex rel. Oberg v. Ky. Higher Educ. Student Loan Corp., 681 F.3d 575, 580 (4th Cir. 2012); Md. Stadium Auth. v. Ellerbe Becket Inc., 407 F.3d 255, 260 (4th Cir. 2005); Ram Ditta v. Md. Nat'l Capital Park & Planning Comm'n, 822 F.2d 456 (4th Cir. 1987).

         In considering the merits of Defendants' MJOP on sovereign immunity grounds, the court notes that recent Fourth Circuit case law supports the proposition that a Rule 12 motion may not be the appropriate vehicle through which a defendant should assert Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity. See United States ex rel. Oberg v. Pa. Higher Educ. Assistance Agency, 745 F.3d 131, 147-48 (4th Cir. 2014) (Traxler, C.J., concurring in part and dissenting in part) (“Although this court has not addressed the issue, the circuits that have considered similar assertions of arm-of-state status have uniformly concluded that it is an affirmative defense to be raised and established by the entity claiming to be an arm of the state. See Sung Park v. Ind. Univ. Sch. of Dentistry, 692 F.3d 828, 830 (7th Cir. 2012) (“[S]overeign immunity is a waivable affirmative defense.”); Aholelei v. Dep't of Pub. Safety, 488 F.3d 1144, 1147 (9th Cir. 2007) (“Eleventh Amendment immunity is an affirmative defense . . . .” (internal quotation marks omitted)); Woods v. Rondout Valley Cent. Sch. Dist. Bd. of Educ., 466 F.3d 232, 237-39 (2d Cir. 2006) (treating Eleventh Amendment immunity “as akin to an affirmative defense”); . . . . I believe these decisions were correctly decided and that the arm-of-state issue . . . is an affirmative defense . . . . “[a]n[d such] affirmative defense may provide the basis for a Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal only in the relatively rare circumstances . . . where all facts necessary to the affirmative defense clearly appear on the face of the complaint.”) (emphasis in original) (internal citation and quotation marks omitted).) Notwithstanding the cases cited by Defendants, the court is convinced that United States ex. rel. Oberg offers better guidance as to how the court should adjudicate an Eleventh Amendment inquiry. In this regard, the court finds that there is insufficient evidence in the record to establish the Immunity Factors requisite to grant Defendants' dismissal of the Complaint pursuant to sovereign immunity. Based on this lack of evidence, the court is inclined to deny Defendants' MJOP on sovereign immunity grounds and allow the parties to engage in discovery on all relevant issues.

         B. Applicability of the South Carolina Tort Claims Act

         In addition to the sovereign immunity bar, Defendants argue that the South Carolina Tort Claims Act (the “Act”), SC Code Ann. §§ 15-78-10 to -220 (2014), bars any tort claims alleged against Individual Defendants. (ECF No. 20-1 at 9 (citing Flateau v. Harrelson, 584 S.E.2d 413, 418 (S.C. Ct. App. 2003)).) “Accordingly, Plaintiff's claims for interference with contractual relationship, civil conspiracy, defamation, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and intentional infliction of emotional distress are subject to dismissal.” (Id. at 10.)

         Succinctly, Plaintiff opposes Defendants' argument stating that “[t]he Act is not a complete bar to suit and does not afford the Individual Defendants any protection in their individual capacities.” (ECF No. 28 at 19.)

         The Act is the exclusive remedy for individuals suing a governmental entity, its employees, or its agents for the commission of any tort. See S.C. Code Ann. § 15-78-70(a) (2016); see also Flateau v. Harrelson, 584 S.E.2d 413, 416 (S.C. Ct. App. 2003) (citing S.C. Code Ann. § 15-78-20(b) (partially waiving sovereign immunity and providing for “liability on the part of the State, its political subdivisions, and employees, while acting within the scope of official duty”). The Act provides that a government employee who commits a tort while acting within the scope of his official duty is not personally liable unless the conduct was “not within the scope of his official duties or it constituted actual fraud, actual malice, intent to harm, or a crime involving moral turpitude.” S.C. Code Ann. § 15-78-70(b) (2016). When asserting claims that fall within the provisions of the Act, a plaintiff must sue the governmental entity, not the individual employee. See Flauteu, 584 S.E.2d at 417.

         Upon review, the court observes that Plaintiff specifically alleges behavior outside the scope of employment in support of her civil conspiracy claim. (See ECF No. 1 at 17 ¶ 93 & 18 ¶ 96.) As to the remaining tort claims, the court observes that there are allegations of intent to harm and/or maliciousness apparent in the Complaint. (E.g., ECF No. 1 at 17 ¶ 88, 20 ¶ 110, 22 ¶ 118 & 23 ¶ 125.) Accepting these allegations as true, the court finds that Plaintiff has sufficiently alleged actions by Individual Defendants such that the protections of the Act are inapplicable to Plaintiff's tort claims.

         C. Sufficiency of Allegations to Support ...


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