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Toney v. Young

United States District Court, E.D. California

February 28, 2017

NEIL YOUNG, BILL ATTERBERRY, and DOES 1 through 100, Defendants.



         Plaintiff Shenetta Toney brought this action against defendants Neil Young and Bill Atterberry, alleging that defendants violated her First Amendment rights by recommending that she be terminated from her position as a high school supervisor after she told students to video-record alleged police brutality during a school incident. (Compl. (Docket No. 1).) Defendants now move for summary judgment against plaintiff. (Defs.' Mot. (Docket No. 10).)

         I. Factual and Procedural History[1]

         Plaintiff was employed as a “campus supervisor” at Bear Creek High School, a public high school, from 1999 to 2014. (See Decl. of Shenetta Toney (“Toney Decl.”) ¶ 1 (Docket No. 20-3).) As a campus supervisor, plaintiff was responsible for: (1) “maintain[ing] order, safety and security” on campus; (2) “[p]revent[ing] student conflicts and fights”; and (3) “[r]espond[ing] to . . . calls of disturbance” and “interven[ing] as necessary” in such disturbances. (Pl.'s Opp'n Ex. 1, Campus Supervisor Job Description at 1 (Docket No. 20-6).)

         On April 24, 2014, a “large” fight broke out in the parking lot of Bear Creek High shortly after the school day had ended. (Toney Decl. ¶ 4; Decl. of Bill Atterberry (“Atterberry Decl.”) ¶ 6 (Docket No. 13).) Plaintiff, who was on duty at the time, was present at the scene of the fight. (Toney Decl. ¶ 4.) She testifies that she “was involved in trying to break up [the] fights.” (Id.)

         Because the fight involved “numerous students and numerous non-students, ” “[l]aw enforcement was summoned” to assist with the situation. (Atterberry Decl. ¶ 6.) Upon arrival, the police began to arrest a number of students. (See Toney Decl. ¶ 6; Pl.'s Opp'n Ex. 3, Incident Video (Docket No. 20-8).) At that time, plaintiff witnessed the police placing a female African-American student, E.T., under arrest and taking her “to the ground.” (Toney Decl. ¶ 6.) Believing the force used in E.T.'s arrest to be excessive, plaintiff “yelled” that the arrest “was police brutality” and “bullshit, ” and told students “to get out their phones and record it.” (Id.; Dep. of Shenetta Toney (“Toney Dep.”) at 209-10 (Docket No. 20-10).) Some students then pulled out their cell phones and began to record the arrest. (Dep. of Don Tirapelle (“Tirapelle Dep.”) at 58 (Docket No. 20-12).)

         Plaintiff testifies that the fight “was pretty much under control” after she told students to take out their cell phones, so she “decided . . . to go home” shortly thereafter. (Toney Dep. at 211-12.)

         After the fight, defendant Atterberry, Principal of Bear Creek High, commenced an investigation of the incident. (Atterberry Decl. ¶ 8.) Based on his investigation, Atterberry issued a letter of reprimand to plaintiff, accusing plaintiff of: (1) “[i]ncompetency . . . in performance of [her] duties” during the April 24 incident; (2) “discourteous, offensive, or abusive conduct or language toward the public, a pupil, or another officer or employee of the [school] District” during the incident; and (3) “[c]onduct . . . which negatively impact[ed her] ability to render service to the [school] District.” (Id. Ex. A, Letter of Reprimand at 2-3 (Docket No. 13-1).) Atterberry advised plaintiff that her behavior during the incident “will be referred to [the school district's] Personnel Department for disciplinary action, up to and including termination.” (Id.)

         Upon receiving Atterberry's letter, defendant Young, Director of Personnel for the school district, conducted a separate investigation of plaintiff's conduct. (Decl. of Neil Young (“Young Decl.”) ¶ 8 (Docket No. 17).) Based on his investigation, Young found that plaintiff's actions during the incident “significantly escalated a precarious situation” and “were in complete and total contravention of [her] duty” to “maintain order and ensure the safety and security of District students and staff.” (Id. Ex. A, Statement of Charges at 5 (Docket No. 17-1).) Young also found “that [plaintiff] would essentially act in the same manner again if the same situation presented [itself], ” (Young Decl. ¶ 15), as plaintiff informed him during his investigation that her pointing out and telling others to record police brutality “was the right thing to do, ” (Toney Decl. ¶ 11). Based on these findings, Young recommended that plaintiff be terminated from her position as campus supervisor. (See Statement of Charges at 5; Young Decl. ¶ 15.)

         Plaintiff contested Young's recommendation before the school district's Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources (i.e., Skelly hearing) and at a hearing before the California Office of Administrative Hearings. (Atterberry Decl. ¶¶ 15-16.) In both cases, the presiding authority affirmed Young's recommendation. (Id. ¶¶ 15, 17.) The school district board subsequently voted to terminate plaintiff's employment. (Id. ¶ 18.)

         On June 8, 2015, plaintiff filed this action. (Compl.) In her Complaint, plaintiff alleges that defendants violated her First Amendment[2] rights by “set[ting] in motion a series of events that [led] to [her] termination” because she engaged in “Protected Speech” during the April 24 incident. (Id. ¶¶ 10-11, 23.) Based on that allegation, plaintiff brings three claims against defendants under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (“section 1983”): (1) a claim for damages against Young in his individual capacity; (2) a claim for damages against Atterberry in his individual capacity; and (3) a claim to expunge her letter of reprimand against Atterberry in his official capacity. (Id. at 4-6.) Defendants now move for summary judgment on each of plaintiff's claims. (Defs.' Mot.)

         II. Legal Standard

         Summary judgment is proper “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A material fact is one that could affect the outcome of the suit, and a genuine issue is one that could permit a reasonable jury to enter a verdict in the non-moving party's favor. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). The party moving for summary judgment bears the initial burden of establishing the absence of a genuine issue of material fact and can satisfy this burden by presenting evidence that negates an essential element of the non-moving party's case. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). Alternatively, the movant can demonstrate that the non-moving party cannot produce evidence to support an essential element upon which it will bear the burden of proof at trial. Id.

         Once the moving party meets its initial burden, the burden shifts to the non-moving party to “designate ‘specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Id. at 324 (quoting then-Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e)). The non-moving party must “do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). “The mere existence of a scintilla of evidence . . . will be ...

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