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Sensabaugh v. Halliburton

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

August 27, 2019

Gerald Sensabaugh, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
Kimber Halliburton, Individually and in her official capacity as Director of Schools; Washington County Board of Education, Defendants-Appellees.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee at Greeneville. No. 2:18-cv-00011-Pamela Lynn Reeves, Chief District Judge.

         ON BRIEF:

          M.E. Buck Dougherty, DUNCAN, HATCHER, HOLLAND & FLEENOR, P.C., Chattanooga, Tennessee, for Appellant.

          Jeffrey M. Ward, MILLIGAN & COLEMAN PLLP, Greeneville, Tennessee, for Kimber Halliburton in her individual capacity.

          Samuel K. McPeak, HERRIN, MCPEAK & ASSOCIATES, Johnson City, Tennessee, for Appellees Washington County Board of Education and Kimber Halliburton in her official capacity.

          Before: ROGERS, BUSH, and LARSEN, Circuit Judges.

          OPINION

          LARSEN, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         Gerald Sensabaugh, the former head football coach at David Crockett High School in Washington County, Tennessee, made two Facebook posts expressing his concerns about the conditions and practices of schools within the Washington County School District. He claims that he was fired as a result. He sued School Director Kimber Halliburton, raising a First Amendment retaliation claim, and the Washington County Board of Education (the Board), raising a municipal liability claim. The district court granted summary judgment to Halliburton because Sensabaugh had failed to show that Halliburton had violated his constitutional rights. And because Sensabaugh had failed to establish an underlying constitutional violation, his municipal liability claim against the Board also failed. For the reasons stated, we AFFIRM.

         I.

         Sensabaugh became head football coach at David Crockett High School in 2017. The school is within the Washington County School District and is overseen by the Board. Halliburton is the Director of Schools for the Washington County School District. Sensabaugh's immediate supervisor was Athletic Director Josh Kite, and his ultimate supervisor was Principal Peggy Wright.

         On September 22, 2017, Sensabaugh visited an elementary school within the district. The visit was unrelated to his job. After the visit, Sensabaugh posted on Facebook, decrying the conditions of the elementary school. His post included photos of the classroom, and one photo showed the faces of several students. Upon seeing the post, the elementary school principal contacted the district's Director of Human Resources, Susan Kiernan; the principal relayed his concern that the posts might violate the law or school policy because the school might not have obtained parental consent to show the students' faces. Kiernan relayed these concerns to Wright and Halliburton.

         Halliburton, believing "that the public posting of a photo showing a child's face could be violative of both the [Board's] policy and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act," contacted the Board's attorney, Thomas Seeley. Wright and Halliburton tried to call Sensabaugh to "instruct him to immediately remove any photo showing a child's face-but not any posts or other content." But Sensabaugh did not answer the calls. Halliburton did briefly communicate with Sensabaugh by text message that evening. So did Wright, whose text told Sensabaugh to remove the photos from Facebook. Sensabaugh did not comply.

         Two days later, Sensabaugh again posted on Facebook; this post discussed his concerns with prisoners working at the high school. Halliburton texted Sensabaugh after reading the post, telling him: "I see you've posted something else before knowing all the facts. Uncertain why you are not taking my calls. I really would like to speak to you." Later that day, Wright and Halliburton spoke with Sensabaugh on the phone. According to Halliburton:

Wright and I spoke to Sensabaugh by phone, and attempted to address the safety concerns that Sensabaugh raised and again requested that he remove any photo(s) of the Jonesborough Elementary School children from Facebook; we advised Sensabaugh that he did not need to take down the post, just the photo(s) of the students . . . . During this phone conversation, Sensabaugh yelled at us and told us that he was not taking the photo down. Then, he hung up on us.

         Wright recounted the telephone call similarly, noting that Sensabaugh "repeatedly interrupted us and he yelled at us" and that "Halliburton and I could not believe that Sensabaugh would speak to his supervisors in this manner." Halliburton also explained, "During my more than fifteen years as a supervisor[] in the education field, I have never had an employee speak to me the way that Sensabaugh spoke to Wright and me in ...


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