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Reaves v. Marion County School District

United States District Court, D. South Carolina

October 24, 2019

Kathy Reaves, Plaintiff,
Marion County School District, Marion County Board of Directors, Kandace Bethea, Paula Grant, Stacy Wilbanks, Creek Bridge Stem Academy, Rachel Caulder, Latonya Yates Ford, Waymon Edmunds, and Adrienne Johnson, Defendants.



         Kathy Reeves (“Plaintiff”), proceeding pro se and in forma pauperis, filed this complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the above-named Defendants (collectively “Defendants”), alleging violations of her civil rights, as well as other violations under federal and state law. Pursuant to the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and Local Civ. Rule 73.02(B)(2)(e) (D.S.C.), the undersigned is authorized to review such complaints for relief and submit findings and recommendations to the district judge.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         Plaintiff states she is employed by the Marion County School District (“District”) as a computer/business education teacher at Creek Bridge STEM Academy (“School”). [ECF No. 1 at 1]. She states District and Marion County Board of Directors (“Board”) are the governing bodies for District; Kandace Bethea (“Superintendent”) is District's Superintendent; Paula Grant (“HR Director”) is District's Director of Human Resources; Stacy Wilbanks (“Principal”) is School's Principal; Rachel Caulder (“Lead Teacher”) is the lead teacher at School; LaTonya Yates Ford (“Assistant Principal”) is the Assistant Principal at School; and Waymon Edmunds (“Classroom Teacher”) is a classroom teacher at School. Id. at 1-2.

         Plaintiff alleges she was offered a position as a teacher[1] in District by School's former principal Darryl Woodberry (“Former Principal”), an African American male, in May 2019 and signed a contract in or around June 2019. Id. at 2. She claims that upon reporting for duty on August 14, 2019, she learned Former Principal had been replaced by Principal, a white female. Id. She maintains Principal changed her job description from teacher to elementary support and middle school interventionist. Id. She states she questioned whether Principal could change her job without renegotiating the contract. Id.

         Plaintiff alleges that on August 19, 2019, she attended a meeting with HR Director, Principal, Assistant Principal, and Assistant Superintendent (not a defendant). Id. at 3. She claims HR Director questioned her about a conversation she had on a cell phone at a restaurant that was overheard by another School employee. Id. Plaintiff states she complained of the change in her job description during the meeting and Principal indicated she would meet with her separately to discuss her job duties and expectations. Id.

         Plaintiff indicates Lead Teacher issued user names and passwords for state math assessments to Classroom Teacher's students on September 13, 2019.[2] Id. Classroom Teacher's students reported to Plaintiff's work area[3] to participate in the testing. Id. The students' passwords did not work, and they were unable to engage in testing. Id. Plaintiff claims Classroom Teacher expressed his frustration that the process had not been perfected prior to the date of testing. Id. She states Classroom Teacher sought out Lead Teacher and Assistant Principal, but was unable to find them. Id. She indicates Classroom Teacher returned to the classroom and reported his frustration to the students, stating he did not appreciate his class being used as “guinea pigs” and was angry because no one had confirmed the passwords or ensured that the proper software was installed.[4] Id.

         Plaintiff claims she was placed on administrative leave with pay on September 16, 2019.[5] Id. Plaintiff indicates that on September 26, 2019, Lead Teacher removed her from the professional development team. Id. at 4. She states she emailed Lead Teacher to question why she was removed, but Lead Teacher failed to respond. Id. She claims that on October 7, 2019, Assistant Principal removed her from the duty schedule for the period from October 7, 2019, through June 30, 2020. Id.

         Plaintiff states she filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) on August 25, 2019, alleging discriminatory treatment in the workplace and harassment. Id. at 3. She indicates the EEOC received her formal charge of discrimination, 410-2019-01583, on or about October 2, 2019. Id. at 4. She states she filed a formal grievance with District on October 10, 2019, as well as two additional charges with the EEOC for retaliation. Id.

         Plaintiff alleges that on October 14, 2019, Superintendent informed her that she was recommending she be terminated based on emails she sent to Lead Teacher, as well as false information she had provided on her application for employment. Id. She states Superintendent indicated District and HR Director were unaware she lived and worked in Georgia. Id. Plaintiff maintains Former Principal was aware she was living and working in Georgia when she interviewed with him, and she informed Assistant Principal she was living in Georgia when discussing a professional development conference in Florence, South Carolina, in July 2019. Id. She further maintains she provided a Georgia address for pay and benefits. Id.

         Plaintiff sets forth 17 alleged causes of action in the complaint and claims many of these alleged causes of action fall under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.[6] She alleges District and Superintendent violated her due process rights under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments by withholding exculpatory evidence, fabricating false reports, and placing her on administrative leave without following grievance procedures outlined in School's faculty handbook and Board bylaws. Id. at 5-6. She also generally alleges all other defendants violated her due process rights under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. Id. at 5. She states defendants conspired to violate her constitutional rights. Id. at 6. She claims defendants denied her access to evidence, failed to intervene to protect her rights, and were negligent in violation of § 1983. Id. at 7, 9-10. She maintains defendants retaliated against her for expressing her right to free speech under the First Amendment. Id. at 11. She claims Principal, HR Director, and Superintendent violated her rights under § 1983 by breaching her contract. Id. at 11-12. She states defendants engaged in workplace harassment and defamation. Id. at 12. She indicates District and School engaged in fraud in violation of § 1983. Id. at 13.

         Plaintiff further alleges defendants conspired to interfere with her civil rights in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3). Id. at 6. She claims defendants violated the Whistleblower Protection Act. Id. at 12. She alleges causes of action against defendants for malicious prosecution, civil conspiracy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress under South Carolina law. [ECF No. 1 at 8-9].[7]

         Plaintiff requests compensatory damages, costs, and attorney fees in excess of $75, 000 and an injunction preventing District, Superintendent, and Board from engaging in discrimination, workplace harassment, and retaliatory termination pending resolution of the EEOC charges against them. Id. at 13- 14.

         II. Discussion

         A. Standard of Review

         Plaintiff filed her complaint pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915, which permits an indigent litigant to commence an action in federal court without prepaying the administrative costs of proceeding with the lawsuit. To protect against possible abuses of this privilege, the statute allows a district court to dismiss a case upon a finding that the action fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted or is frivolous or malicious. 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(i), (ii). A finding of frivolity can be made where the complaint lacks an arguable basis either in law or in fact. Denton v. Hernandez, 504 U.S. 25, 31 (1992). A claim based on a meritless legal theory may be dismissed sua sponte under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B). See Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 327 (1989).

         A complaint must contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). Pro se complaints are held to a less stringent standard than those drafted by attorneys. Gordon v. Leeke, 574 F.2d 1147, 1151 (4th Cir. 1978). In evaluating a pro se complaint, the plaintiff's allegations are assumed to be true. Fine v. City of N.Y., 529 F.2d 70, 74 (2d Cir. 1975). The mandated liberal construction afforded to pro se pleadings means that if the court can reasonably read the pleadings to state a valid claim on which the plaintiff could prevail, it should do so. A federal court is charged with liberally construing a complaint filed by a pro se litigant to allow the development of a potentially meritorious case. Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007).

         The requirement of liberal construction does not mean that the court can ignore a clear failure in the pleading to allege facts that set forth a claim currently cognizable in a federal district court. Weller v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 901 F.2d 387, 390-91 (4th Cir. 1990). Although the court must liberally construe a pro se complaint, the United States Supreme Court has made it clear a plaintiff must do more than make conclusory statements to state a claim. See Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 677‒78 (2009); Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). Rather, the complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim that is plausible on its face, and the reviewing court need only accept as true the complaint's factual allegations, not its legal conclusions. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678‒79.

         B. Analysis

         1. District and School Not Subject to Suit Under § 1983

         To state a plausible claim for relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, [8] an aggrieved party must sufficiently allege she was injured by “the deprivation of any [of his or her] rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the [United States] Constitution and laws” by a “person” acting “under color of state law.” See 42 U.S.C. § 1983; see generally 5 Charles Alan Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 1230 (3d ed. 2014).

         Only “persons” may act under color of state law; therefore, a defendant in a § 1983 action must qualify as a “person.” For example, inanimate objects such as buildings, facilities, and grounds are not “persons” and cannot act under color of state law. See Preval v. Reno, 57 F.Supp.2d 307, 310 (E.D. Va. 1999) (“[T]he Piedmont Regional Jail is not a ‘person,' and therefore not amenable to suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.”); Brooks v. Pembroke City Jail, 722 F.Supp. 1294, ...

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