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Fernandez v. School Board of Miami-Dade County

United States District Court, S.D. Florida

June 12, 2017

ALBERTO T. FERNANDEZ, HENNY CRISTOBOL, and PATRICIA RAMIREZ, Plaintiffs,
v.
THE SCHOOL BOARD OF MIAMI-DADE COUNTY, FLORIDA, Defendant.

          ORDER

          DARRIN P. GAYLES UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         THIS CAUSE comes before the Court on the Motion for Summary Judgment filed by the Defendant, the School Board of Miami-Dade County (the “School Board”) [ECF No. 54]. The Court has carefully considered the parties' briefs, the record in this case, and the applicable law and is otherwise fully advised in the premises. For the reasons that follow, the School Board's motion shall be granted as to Plaintiffs Alberto T. Fernandez and Henny Cristobol and denied as to Plaintiff Patricia Ramirez.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In this First Amendment action, the Plaintiffs (all current or former employees of Miami-Dade County Public Schools (the “School District” or the “District”)) allege that the School Board unlawfully took adverse employment action against them in retaliation for their attempt (which ultimately failed) to convert Neva King Cooper Educational Center (“Neva King”)-a Miami-Dade County public school at which the Plaintiffs all formerly held positions-into a charter school. In the fall of 2011, Dr. Fernandez, who was then principal at Neva King, directed members of his staff, including Cristobol (who was then assistant principal) and Ramirez (who was then a Placement Specialist), to research how they could convert Neva King from a public school into a charter school. The three devoted countless hours to conducting research, drafting proposed budgets, communicating via the School District's email system, and contacting third parties to discuss the topic. On February 2, 2012, at a meeting of Neva King's Educational Excellence School Advisory Council (“EESAC”), Dr. Fernandez recommended that the EESAC consider conducting a vote to submit an application for charter conversion. The EESAC voted in favor of the proposal to explore a possible charter school conversion and voted to hold a charter school vote. Dr. Fernandez held a faculty meeting that day, as well, where he discussed the idea of conversion with the staff. The Plaintiffs scheduled a date to take a vote of the school's parents and teachers.

         Dr. Fernandez subsequently informed his superiors of the events and the intention to conduct a charter school vote. From that point, the School District dispatched personnel to be stationed at Neva King. District officials were present at all meetings to discuss the charter conversion, and these officials would not permit Dr. Fernandez to address the parents.

         The conversion attempt was terminated two months later. Dr. Fernandez and Cristobol were notified in writing that they was being investigated for allegations that they, inter alia, had used their positions as principal and assistant principal at Neva King to influence the outcome of the proposed charter school conversion and that they had inappropriately used school time and resources in furtherance of the conversion. Fernandez Aff. [ECF No. 59-3] Ex. G; Cristobol Aff. [ECF No. 59-2] Ex. C. Ramirez was notified that she was being investigated for allegations that she inappropriately used school time and resources to conduct non-school-related business. Ramirez Aff. [ECF No. 59-1] Ex. C. Each of the Plaintiffs was placed on alternative assignment during the pendency of the investigations and was informed that he or she was forbidden to “contact, visit, or engage in any type of communication with staff, parents, or community members from” Neva King or to “contact or engage in any type of communications with the subject of, or witness(es)” to the pending investigations. Fernandez Aff. Ex. H; Cristobol Aff. Ex. D; Ramirez Aff. Ex. D.

         The investigations revealed that Dr. Fernandez and Cristobol had met with faculty and staff during school hours to discuss the proposed charter school conversion; Dr. Fernandez admitted that he worked on the attempt during school hours. The investigation also revealed that Ramirez had also used work time and resources in researching the charter school conversion. And on June 22 and July 13, 2012, the final investigative reports of the CIU investigation into the allegations against the Plaintiffs were released, which concluded that there was probable cause that the Plaintiffs had violated School Board policies dealing with standards of ethical conduct, code of ethics, staff network and internet acceptable use and safety, and staff electronic mail. As a result of these findings, conferences for the record were held with Dr. Fernandez, Cristobol, and Ramirez on July 19, July 20, and August 2, 2012, respectively. The probable cause findings were reviewed with the respective Plaintiffs, and they were informed that they could be subject to disciplinary action.

         During the course of the investigations, the Plaintiffs initiated an unlawful reprisal proceeding against the School Board, contending that the reassignments and gag orders during the investigation violated Florida law. The Department of Administrative Hearings held a final administrative hearing in early 2014. At the conclusion of the hearing, the administrative law judge issued a recommended order finding that the School Board had committed an unlawful reprisal against the Plaintiffs in violation of Fla. Stat. § 1002.33(4). The Florida Department of Education adopted the ALJ's recommended order in a final order dated November 6, 2014.

         In their Second Amended Complaint, filed on January 25, 2016, the Plaintiffs bring a single claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the School Board infringed on their freedoms of speech and association and subjected them to adverse employment actions, in violation of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Court denied the School Board's motion to dismiss, and now, following discovery, the School Board has moved for summary judgment on the Plaintiffs' claim. The Plaintiffs oppose the motion.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         Summary judgment, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a), “is appropriate only if the movant shows that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Tolan v. Cotton, 572 U.S. __, __, 134 S.Ct. 1861, 1866 (2014) (per curiam) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a)) (internal quotation marks omitted); see also Alabama v. North Carolina, 560 U.S. 330, 344 (2010). “By its very terms, this standard provides that the mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986).

         An issue is “genuine” when a reasonable trier of fact, viewing all of the record evidence, could rationally find in favor of the nonmoving party in light of his burden of proof. Harrison v. Culliver, 746 F.3d 1288, 1298 (11th Cir. 2014). And a fact is “material” if, “under the applicable substantive law, it might affect the outcome of the case.” Hickson Corp. v. N. Crossarm Co., 357 F.3d 1256, 1259-60 (11th Cir. 2004) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). “Where the material facts are undisputed and all that remains are questions of law, summary judgment may be granted.” Eternal Word Television Network, Inc. v. Sec'y of U.S. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 818 F.3d 1122, 1138 (11th Cir. 2016).

         The Court must construe the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and draw all reasonable inferences in that party's favor. SEC v. Monterosso, 756 F.3d 1326, 1333 (11th Cir. 2014). However, to prevail on a motion for summary judgment, “the nonmoving party must offer more than a mere scintilla of evidence for its position; indeed, the nonmoving party must make a showing sufficient to permit the jury to reasonably find on its behalf.” Urquilla-Diaz v. Kaplan Univ., 780 F.3d 1039, 1050 (11th Cir. 2015).

         III. ...


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