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Knott County Bd. of Educ. v. Patton

Supreme Court of Kentucky

December 19, 2013

KNOTT COUNTY BOARD OF EDUCATION, Robert Pollard, Harold Combs, Kimberly King, Lantre Combs, Rex Slone, Dennis Jacobs, Randy Combs, Anna Dixon, Patricia Slone Hackworth, Charles Jones, Sharon Smith, and Diane Hall, Appellants,
v.
Grace PATTON, Appellee.

Page 52

Michael J. Schmitt, Jonathan C. Shaw, Porter, Schmitt, Banks & Baldwin, for appellants.

Adam Peter Collins, Collins & Collins, PSC, Nicholas C.A. Vaughn, Law Office of Nick Vaughn, for appellee.

OPINION

VENTERS, Justice.

Appellants, Robert Pollard, Harold Combs, Kimberly King, Lantre Combs, Rex Slone, Dennis Jacobs, Randy Combs, Anna Dixon, Patricia Slone Hackworth, Charles Jones, Sharon Smith, Diane Hall and the Knott County Board of Education, petitioned this Court for discretionary review, arguing that the Court of Appeals improperly reversed the summary judgment entered in their favor in the Knott Circuit Court. The controversy we now address arose when the foreign language taught at Knott County Central High School was switched from French to Spanish. As a consequence of that curriculum change, Appellee, Grace Patton, who served as the high school's French teacher, lost her job. She then brought suit against the Appellants in the Knott Circuit Court.

Appellants argue that the Court of Appeals erred when it invoked, sua sponte, KRS 61.102, Kentucky's whistleblower act, as the rationale supporting Patton's claim that her job had been improperly terminated. Appellants also claim that the Court of Appeals erred in its conclusion that the individually-named Appellants were not entitled to qualified official immunity.

We reverse the Court of Appeals and reinstate the summary judgment entered by Knott Circuit Court because we conclude that Appellee did not state a claim under the whistleblower act and that, under the facts as alleged, she had no claim under the whistleblower act. We also conclude that the individual Appellants were engaged in the performance of discretionary duties covered by the qualified official immunity doctrine. Having determined that the trial court properly granted summary judgment in this matter, we need not address Appellants' argument that Appellee failed to exhaust her administrative remedies.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

During her sixth year of teaching French at Knott County Central High

Page 53

School, Patton received a letter of reprimand from Appellant Robert Pollard, the high school's principal. The letter asserted that Patton had committed the following acts of misconduct: 1) before a classroom full of high school students she referred to Pollard as a " twit" ; 2) she missed work using three days of sick leave when she was not actually ill; and 3) she gave a final examination that was not sufficiently rigorous and was not in the proper format. A copy of the written reprimand was placed in Patton's personnel file.

About two months later, Patton protested the letter of reprimand by sending Pollard a letter demanding its removal from her personnel records. She asserted in her demand that the reprimand was " null and void" because it violated the collective bargaining agreement between the Knott County Education Association and the Knott County Board of Education (Board), conflicted with " directives" from the Kentucky Department of Education, and incorrectly interpreted the sick-leave-for-teachers provision of KRS 161.155. Patton sent a copy of the letter to Appellant Harold Combs, superintendent of the Knott County school system. Shortly thereafter, Pollard informed Patton that he would ask the school's Site-Based Decision-Making Council (SBDMC) [1] to change the foreign language component of the school curriculum from French to Spanish. Patton was a member of the SBDMC, and later that day she received notice of a special SBDMC meeting.

At a special SBDMC meeting, Pollard offered his recommendation that the school teach Spanish instead of French. Pollard noted that his recommendation was based, in part, upon a survey of student preferences. The council deferred action on the issue until its next regular meeting, which was scheduled for the following week. At that meeting, a majority of the SBDMC members voted in favor of Pollard's recommendation to eliminate the French classes and to teach Spanish instead.

In due course, Patton received a letter from Superintendent Combs informing her that because of the curriculum change, her teaching position was no longer available and that she was " suspended" from her employment. The letter also advised that she would be called back to work if a position meeting her certifications became available in the Knott County School District. Although she was certified to teach social studies in addition to French, Patton complains that she was not contacted when a position for a social studies teacher in the school district later became available.

Patton, with the assistance of her attorney, complained to the Knott County Board of Education [2] that the SBDMC had not followed the proper procedures for changing the curriculum from French to Spanish and that the decision to quit teaching French was actually done as a means of retaliation against her. She also asked the SBDMC to reconsider its decision. When her request was denied, she appealed the decision to the school board without success.

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Patton then brought suit in the Knott Circuit Court against Pollard, Combs, the Board and its individual members, and the' individual members of the SBDMC. She alleged in her complaint that " each of the Defendants' acts and failure to act were grossly negligence [sic], wanton, reckless and done in other [sic] disregard for the rights of the Plaintiff." Without specifically identifying any particular claim or cause of action, Patton alleged in her complaint that each defendant had " violated duties arising by and under constitution, statute, common law, policy, procedure, construction and practice" and ...


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