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Price v. Saugerties Central School Dist.

February 9, 2006

LINDA M. PRICE, PLAINTIFF,
v.
SAUGERTIES CENTRAL SCHOOL DISTRICT, RICHARD RHAU, SUPERINTENDENT OF SCHOOLS, SUED IN HIS INDIVIDUAL AND OFFICIAL CAPACITY, AND TIMOTHY PRICE, SUED IN HIS INDIVIDUAL AND OFFICIAL CAPACITY, DEFENDANTS.



MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER

I. FACTS

Plaintiff Linda Price ("Plaintiff") is an English teacher employed by the Defendant Saugerties Central School District ("SCSD" or "Defendant"). On September 7, 2004, Defendant Superintendent of Schools Richard Rhau ("Rhau") instructed all school district staff to follow a communication protocol (the "communication protocol" or "communication policy") for reporting concerns about the SCSD. Plntf's Decl. (Dkt. No. 3, Attach. 3) at ¶ 2. Under the policy, employees are to address concerns with their supervisors first. If they are not satisfied with the response or resolution at that level (step one), they are to bring their concerns to the district supervisor (Superintendent Rhau) (step two). If they still feel their concerns were not addressed, they may then contact the Board of Education (step three). Plntf's Decl. (Dkt. No. 3, Attach. 3) at ¶ 4.

On November 3, 2004, Plaintiff sent an e-mail to her colleagues using the SCSD e-mail system complaining about, inter alia, the teachers' union, harassment of teachers, and the scheduling of parent-teacher conferences. Plntf's Decl. (Dkt. No. 3, Attach. 3) at ¶ 7 & Ex. 3. The next day, Rhau wrote a memorandum to Plaintiff stating that he wanted to meet with her "to discuss [her] e-mail memo to colleagues." Plntf's Decl. (Dkt. No. 3, Attach. 3) at Ex. 4. At the November 9, 2004 meeting, Rhau expressed his disappointment at Plaintiff's failure to follow the communication protocol with respect to the presentation of employee complaints in her e-mail. Id. Rhau also expressed his disappointment concerning a letter Plaintiff sent to the Board of Education in October 2004 wherein she complained that, among other things, the "Saugerties school system fails new administrators and new teachers in not giving them adequate training, guidance and support." Id. Rhau also discussed Plaintiff's inappropriate use of the SCSD's computer network.

On December 9, 2004, a plastic soda bottle exploded inside a student locker. The SCSD investigated and determined that the cause of the explosion was a leftover classroom experiment involving students making root beer. The SCSD concluded that a student placed the bottle in a locker and "the fermentation process exceeded the limits of the plastic bottle." Plntf's Decl. (Dkt. No. 3, Attach. 3) at Ex. 1. Plaintiff disapproved of the SCSD's investigation and conclusion. She believed that the soda bottle was intended as an explosive device that should have been investigated more seriously. Accordingly, Plaintiff contacted the Town of Saugerties Police Department to report the matter. Plntf's Decl. (Dkt. No. 3, Attach. 3) at ¶ 3. Plaintiff spoke with Sergeant Donald Tucker, who also was a member of the Board of Education. Plntf's Decl. (Dkt. No. 3, Attach. 3) at Ex. 2.

On December 13, 2004, Defendant Saugerties Senior High School Principal Timothy Price wrote Plaintiff a letter reminding her of her obligation to comply with the communication protocol. Plaintiff was directed to follow the communication protocol, and "[f]ailure to do so will result in the administration recommending disciplinary action be taken against you." Plntf's Decl. (Dkt. No. 3, Attach. 3) at Ex. 2. After determining that Plaintiff contacted Tucker in his capacity as a police officer, rather than as a member of the Board of Education, Defendants removed the December 13, 2004 letter from Plaintiff's file. Plntf's Decl. (Dkt. No. 3, Attach. 3) at Ex. 2. On March 3, 2005, however, Defendants placed an almost identical warning letter in Plaintiff's file. In that letter, Price wrote that:

Your contacting a member of the Town of Saugerties Police Department regarding the December 9, 2004 incident was both unprofessional and exceeded your authority. You were aware that both the Assistant Principal (Mr. Fred Hirsch) and the School Resource Officer (Policeman Jorge Castagnola,) were at the site of the incident and were handling the matter. . . . You also chose to go outside the protocol process. . . . Because of your actions of December 9, 2004, you have. . . shown disregard for proper protocol. With this letter, I am directing you to follow the communication protocol outlined above. Failure to do so will result in the administration recommending disciplinary action be taken against you.

Plntf's Decl. (Dkt. No. 3, Attach. 3) at Ex. 2.

Based on the foregoing allegations, Plaintiff commenced the instant action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 & 1988, claiming a violation of her First Amendment rights. Complaint (Dkt. No. 1). Presently before the Court is Plaintiff's motion for a preliminary injunction enjoining Defendants from enforcing the communication protocol. Plntf's Motion (Dkt. No. 3).

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

To obtain a preliminary injunction, Plaintiff must demonstrate: "(1) that. . . she will suffer irreparable harm absent injunctive relief, and (2) either (a) that. . . she is likely to succeed on the merits, or (b) '"that there are sufficiently serious questions going to the merits to make them a fair ground for litigation, and that the balance of hardships tips decidedly in favor of the moving party."'" Moore v. Consolidated Edison Co. of New York, Inc., 409 F.3d 506, 510 (2d Cir. 2005) (citing and quoting cases). "[W]here a First Amendment right has been violated, the irreparable harm requirement for the issuance of a preliminary injunction has been satisfied." Green Party of New York State v. New York State Bd. of Elections, 389 F.3d 411, 418 (2d Cir. 2004) (citing Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347, 373 (1976)). "When the injunction alters the status quo, as does this one, plaintiffs must show a substantial likelihood of success." Id. (internal quotations and citation omitted).

II. DISCUSSION

Government employees do not give up their free speech rights by virtue of their employment with the government. See Harman v. City of New York, 140 F.3d 111, 117 (2d Cir. 1998). That speech is not, however, absolute. In certain circumstances, the government may impose restraints on speech that are necessary for the government employer to promote the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees. See id.; Pickering v. Bd. of Educ., 391 U.S. 563, 568 (1968). Whether speech may be restricted in a particular circumstance requires a balancing of the government's interests in avoiding a disruptive workplace against the interests of the citizen employee in commenting upon matters of public concern. Id. The government has considerable leeway in restricting speech "upon matters only of personal interest." Connick v. Myers, 461 U.S. 138, 147 (1983). When an employee seeks to speak on a matter of public concern, however, "the government bears the burden of justifying any adverse employment action." Harman, 140 F.3d at 117 (citing Rankin v. McPherson, 483 U.S. 378, 388 (1987)).

Another significant consideration is whether there is an ex post disciplinary action or an ex ante speech restriction. In this case, Defendants' policy regulates speech concerning school matters. Specifically, the policy restricts school employees' avenues of communication. Although a violation of the policy could result in discipline, the policy acts as a prior restraint. As such, the policy is an ex ante restriction on expression, rather than an ex post punishment for speech. Latino Officers Ass'n v. City of New York, 196 F.3d 458, 463 (2d Cir. 1999). Accordingly, the Government must show that the interests of both potential audiences and a vast group of present and future employees in a broad range of present and future expression are outweighed by that expression's necessary impact on the actual operation of the Government. . . . Further, the government must do more than simply ...


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