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Scannell v. Pitt

May 28, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hayes, Judge


The matter before the Court is the Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings filed by Defendants Tina Pitt, Steve Baker, and Sunita Cooke. (Doc. # 13).


Plaintiff Christina Scannell initiated this action by filing her Complaint on January 7, 2010. (Doc. # 1). On February 24, 2010, Defendants filed their answer. (Doc. # 9). On March 12, 2010, Defendants filed their Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings. (Doc. # 13).


Plaintiff was employed by the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District ("the District") as an adjunct professor in the Media Communications Department of Grossmont College, which is located in San Diego County. (Doc. # 1 at ¶¶ 4-5, 15). Defendants are also employed by the District. Id. at ¶ ¶ 7-9. Baker is the Acting Dean of Communication and Fine Arts at Grossmont College. Id. at ¶ 7. Cooke is the President of Grossmont College. Id. at ¶ 8. Pitt is the Vice President for Academic Affairs of Grossmont College. Id. at ¶ 9.

Plaintiff began working at Grossmont College in January of 2008. Id. at ¶ 15. Plaintiff taught a course called Media Communications 132 ("MCOM 132"), which produced the Grossmont College student newspaper, The Summit. Id. at ¶ 16. Plaintiff's contract was renewed to teach the Fall 2008 and Spring 2009 semesters. Id. at ¶ 17. In November of 2008, Plaintiff received a forwarded email from Pitt which stated that any class with fewer than 15 registered students would be cancelled one week prior to the Spring 2009 semester. Id. at ¶ 18. Prior to the Spring 2009 semester, MCOM 132 had never had 15 or more students. Id. at ¶19. On December 5, 2008, Plaintiff wrote an editorial for The Summit which was critical of the decision to cancel classes which did not enroll a minimum of 15 students. Id. at ¶ 22. On January 7, 2009, Plaintiff emailed fellow board members of the San Diego Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists asking them to spread the word that if additional students did not register for MCOM 132, the class and The Summit newspaper might be cancelled. Id. at ¶30. Plaintiff submitted an edited version of her editorial from the December 5, 2008 edition of The Summit for publication in the Society of Professional Journalists' quarterly newsletter. Id. The editor of the quarterly newsletter asked Plaintiff for contact information for Pitt and Cooke to allow readers to contact them with comments or concerns on the possible cancellation of classes. Id. Plaintiff provided the contact information and informed Baker that she had done so. Id. at ¶¶ 21, 31. Baker responded on January 9, 2009, warning Plaintiff that involving "'upper administrators in a controversy . . . will not help gain support for your class.'" Id. at ¶ 32. Baker sent a second email on the same day to advise her that Pitt stated she would allow the class and newspaper to continue if there was enough "energy" behind the program. Id.

On January 21, 2009, Plaintiff met with Cooke, Baker, and Pitt. Id. at ¶ 43. Cooke told Plaintiff that the article in the quarterly newsletter was not "journalistic" and that "Plaintiff should have consulted district administrators for 'the facts' as a way of showing students how to be good journalists." Id. at ¶ 43. Cooke "accused Plaintiff of not having good intentions with Plaintiff's editorial in The Summit . . . ." Id. Baker "suggested that The Summit should be a beacon for the district, covering district news positively as a political move." Id. at ¶ 44. In response, "Plaintiff attempted to explain that student press law and the California Education Code prevent Plaintiff, as a staff advisor, from dictating the content of a student newspaper." Id.

On January 27, 2009, MCOM 132 met for the first time for the spring semester. Id. at ¶ 52. "Baker attended the class and informed students that if one more student does not enroll, the class would be canceled. Baker also undermined Plaintiff's authority as an instructor by suggesting ways to conduct the class in front of Plaintiff's students." Id. By the end of the first week of classes, fifteen students were enrolled in MCOM 132. Id. at ¶ 53. Plaintiff discovered, however, that a number of other classes with fewer than fifteen students had not been canceled, despite the stated policy of canceling all classes with fewer than fifteen students. Id. at ¶ 55.

On March 12, 2009, Baker emailed Plaintiff about a student editorial which had run in the March 10, 2009 edition of The Summit. Id. at ¶ 68. Baker stated the editorial was "'inflammatory'" and "'possibly racist'" and stated that he "'expected'" space in the next edition of The Summit for a two-page centerpiece rebuttal article which would be referenced on the front page. Id. Baker also instructed Plaintiff to meet with him to discuss "'instructional issues relative to MCOM 132 and Grossmont college.'" Id. Plaintiff sent Baker and Pitt an email with an attached handout on student press law, an excerpt of the California Education Code, and The Summit's policies. Id. at ¶ 71. On March 16, 2009, Baker replied that the laws were "surprising" and stated that "Plaintiff 'and her students' . . . don't 'believe' there 'is such a thing as journalistic ethics.'" Id. at ¶ 72. On March 17, 2009 Plaintiff replied that the student editorial was protected by the First Amendment, the California Constitution, and the California Education Code. Id. at ¶ 73.

Plaintiff's employment contract with the District ended on May 26, 2009. Id. at ¶ 75. Plaintiff and The Summit received awards for Excellence in Journalism from the San Diego Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Id. at ¶¶ 76-77. Plaintiff's contract with the District was not renewed and the District hired a less qualified person to teach MCOM 132 for the Fall 2009 semester. Id. at ¶¶ 78-79.

Plaintiff alleges three causes of action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983: (1) violation of her First Amendment rights; (2) conspiracy to interfere with her First Amendment rights; and (3) a request for injunctive relief under federal and state law. Id. at ¶¶ 80-100.

In support of her first cause of action, Plaintiff alleges her editorial in The Summit and her article in the newsletter of the San Diego Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists are First Amendment protected speech. Id. at ¶¶ 81-83. Defendants failed to renew Plaintiff's contract in retaliation for Plaintiff's speech. Id. at ¶¶ 84-87. Defendants acted under color of state law in denying Plaintiff her free speech rights. Id. at ¶ 89. Plaintiff has suffered economic damages, including lost wages, and pain and suffering as a result of Defendants' actions taken in violation of the First Amendment. Id. at ¶¶ 90-91. Defendants acted "with conscious disregard for [Plaintiff's] rights." Id. at ¶ 92. Plaintiff therefore seeks punitive damages. Id.

In support of her second cause of action, Plaintiff alleges Defendants conspired to deprive her of her constitutional right to free speech and to retaliate against her for the editorial and article she wrote. Id. at ¶¶ 95-96. Plaintiff alleges she was deprived of her constitutional right to free speech as a result of this conspiracy, and that she suffered damages including "humiliation . . . loss of personal and professional reputation . . . . [and] lost wages and benefits." Id. at ¶¶ ...

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