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Knox v. Union Township Board of Education

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

February 23, 2015

Jenye Viki KNOX, Plaintiff,
v.
UNION TOWNSHIP BOARD OF EDUCATION et al., Defendants.

OPINION

KEVIN McNULTY, District Judge.

Plaintiff Jenye Viki Knox, a public school teacher, was suspended after making comments on Facebook expressing her religious-based disapproval of a school billboard that contained homosexual content, and of homosexuality in general. The school board brought tenure charges against her before the Commissioner of Education, aimed at obtaining her dismissal. Knox entered into a settlement agreement with the board, under which she voluntarily resigned and refunded the salary paid to her during her suspension. The settlement agreement did not include any more general release of federal or state law claims. Knox has now brought this action, claiming that the school board and its employees discriminated against her on the basis of her race and religion, violated her rights under the First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, and violated her rights under the Free Exercise and Enjoyment of Religion Clauses of the New Jersey Constitution. She seeks monetary damages and injunctive relief, including reinstatement to her teaching position.

Now before the court is Defendants' motion (ECF No. 6) to dismiss the complaint. As grounds for dismissal, they cite Younger abstention, the primary jurisdiction doctrine, and failure to state a claim pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). (ECF No. 1). For the reasons set forth below, the motion to dismiss is granted in part and denied in part.

I. BACKGROUND

A. Allegations of the complaint)[1]

The plaintiff, Jenye Viki Knox, is a New Jersey resident who was employed as a special education teacher at the Union Township High School. (Compl. ¶¶ 7, 14). Knox is African-American, a fact relevant to her claims of discrimination. (Id. ¶ 18).

Defendant Union Township Board of Education (the "Board") is a public entity established, organized, and authorized under the laws of New Jersey, with the authority to sue and be sued. (Id. ¶8). District-wide, the Board develops, adopts, implements, and enforces school policies. As most relevant here, the Board administers, operates Union Township High School (the "School"), and supervises the School's employees. (Id. ¶9).

Defendant Dr. Patrick Martin is the Superintendent of the Union Township High School District ("District"). (Id. ¶ 11). Martin administers the Board's policies regarding teacher activities on and off campus. (Id. ).

Defendant James Damato is the attorney for the Board. (Id. ¶ 13). Defendant Edward Gibbons is the principal of the School. (Id. ¶ 12). Damato and Gibbons have administrative duties in the School, where they oversee the activities of teachers and student clubs. (Id. ¶¶ 12-13).[2]

Knox was first employed as a special education teacher on January 1, 2000. (Id. ¶14). She was granted tenure on January 2, 2003. (Id. ¶ 15). Throughout her employment, Knox has remained in good standing and has received good evaluations. (Id. ¶ 16).

At the School, Knox held two ancillary positions of a religious nature. She was the academic advisor for The Seekers Club, which is a Christian Bible study group, and she was the advisor for the School's Gospel Choir. (Id. ¶ 19). Knox was also an ordained minister. (Id. ). The School Defendants knew she held these positions. (Id. ).

In September 2011, Knox posted a public message on Facebook stating that a school billboard that promoted alternative lifestyles did not accord with her religious beliefs. (Id. ¶ 17). Knox's Facebook posts, discussed herein, were not done using school equipment or during school hours. (Id. ). Facebook users commented on Knox's post, and Knox responded. (Id. ¶ 18). Her responses included an explanation of her religious objections to the billboard; statements about the Bible and homosexuality; characterizations of homosexuality as a sin and disobedience to God; and descriptions of salvation through Jesus Christ. (Id. ). Knox's comments prompted racist posts from other users, who are not identified. (Id. ).

On or about October 11, 2011, the School Defendants became aware of Knox's Facebook posts. (Id. ¶20). Without prior notice, Knox was removed from her classroom. The removal took place during school hours, in front of her students and other teachers. (Id. ). Knox was taken to a small room; present there were Defendant Damato, Assistant Superintendent Greg Tatum, and Vice President of Union Township Education Association ("UTEA")[3] Jim Gross. (Id. ).

Knox was asked about the Facebook posts. (Id. ¶ 21). She alleges that she "was then pressured by these individuals to say that her religious beliefs were wrong, and felt extremely intimidated by them." (Id. ). She alleges that the individuals spoke critically about her religious beliefs and her expression of them. (Id. ). Those individuals did not discuss or express "dismay" about any of the racist third-party comments to her Facebook posts. (Id. ). That silence, says Knox, amounted to "tacit[] approv[al] of the racism she was subject to." (Id. 22).

Apparently Knox returned to the classroom. On October 13, 2011, however, she was again removed from her classroom. (Id. ¶23). UTEA President Ann Margaret Shannon took Knox aside and "told [Knox] privately to do whatever she was told without questioning it." (Id. ¶24). Knox was then questioned, this time by Superintendent Martin, Principal Gibbons, and Shannon. (Id. ) Martin told Knox that she would be suspended with pay because of her Facebook posts. (Id. ).

Knox alleges that no one at this second meeting mentioned the racist comments to her Facebook posts. Instead, they "did precisely what the racists had advocated for on the Facebook posts and removed [Knox] from her position." (Id. ¶25). Knox alleges that her suspension was not accompanied by due process. (Id. ). The suspension, she says, was "part of the ongoing pattern of intimidation the Board leveled against [her] as a result of her religious beliefs and/or race, " and it "represented the Board's attempt to undermine [her] reputation and humiliate her." (Id. )

Following her suspension, Knox was taken back to her classroom. She was told to take her personal belongings and leave the School. (Id. ¶26). This, too, occurred in front of her students and other teachers, causing her "further humiliation and embarrassment." (Id. ).

On October 18, 2011, the Board held a public meeting. The purpose of this meeting, Knox alleges, was to continue the Board's "program of intimidation and humiliation against her." (Id. ¶27).

On December 23, 2011, the Board's attorney, Damato, informed Knox that she would be suspended without pay and that Tenure Charges would be filed against her.[4] (Id. ¶29).

Following these events, Knox's health allegedly deteriorated. On June 30, 2012, she resigned from her teaching position as a result of "the stress of the intimidation, harassment, and emotional distress that resulted from the investigation and the Defendants' actions." (Id. ¶30-31 and Ex. A).

B. Other facts from the moving papers

The parties' moving papers fill in some of the details of the events related in the complaint. Although a Rule 12(b)(6) motion is generally confined to the complaint, these facts provide useful background information; are referred to in both sides' moving papers; do not seem to be seriously in dispute except as noted; and in any event consist largely of public documents appropriate for judicial notice.

On December 21, 2011, the School District filed Tenure Charges of insubordination and "conduct unbecoming" against Knox. (Cohen Cert. Ex. B[5]; see also Pl. Opp. 10, ECF No. 10). Knox filed an Answer to the Tenure Charges, asserting six affirmative defenses, four of which were based on the First Amendment. (Cohen Cert. Ex. C).

On October 26, 2012, some four months after Knox's resignation, the parties settled the Tenure Charges. (Cohen Cert. Ex. D). Pursuant to a Settlement Agreement, Knox agreed to resign and refund the $5, 854.29 she received as pay during her period of suspension. The parties agreed to forgo a formal hearing. (Id. at 2; Pl. Opp. 10). On November 13, 2012, the Board approved the settlement. (Cohen Cert. Ex. D, attachment).

On November 29, 2012, Administrative Law Judge JoAnn LaSala Candido (the "ALJ") approved and so-ordered the Settlement. (Cohen Cert. Ex. D at 3). On December 14, 2012, the Commissioner of Education filed a final decision that approved the settlement and dismissed the Tenure Charge matter, subject to the parties' compliance with the terms of the Settlement. (Cohen Cert. Ex. E).

As a teacher, Knox was represented by the Union Township Education Association ("UTEA"). (Cohen Cert. ¶2)). Her employment was subject to the terms of a Collective Bargaining Agreement ("CBA") between the UTEA and the Board. (A copy of the CBA is at Cohen Cert. Ex. A)). The CBA provides for resolution of disputes through a grievance procedure that culminates in binding arbitration. (Id. (citing CBA, Cohen Cert. Ex. A, Art. 3)).

C. This Action

On October 2, 2013, Knox filed the complaint in this action. The complaint alleges ten causes of action: (1) constructive discharge; (2) violation of Due Process; (3) violation of the Free Speech Clause; (4) violation of the Free Exercise Clause; (5) violation of the Establishment Clause; (6) violation of the Equal Protection Clause; (7) breach of contract; (8) violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981; (9) intentional infliction of emotional distress against the School Defendants in their official and individual capacities; and (10) violation of the Free Exercise and Enjoyment of Religion Clauses of the New Jersey Constitution. Knox seeks declaratory and injunctive relief as well as compensatory and punitive damages. Specifically, Knox seeks "back pay, front pay, reinstatement of tenure, compensation for emotional pain and suffering, reimbursement of costs, attorney fees, " and any other equitable relief this Court may award. (Compl. ¶2).

The complaint asserts that the Court has federal-question jurisdiction over the claims involving the First and Fourteenth Amendments, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e et seq. See 28 U.S.C. § 1331. Knox invokes the Court's supplemental jurisdiction over the state law claims, which are related to the federal claims and arise from the same facts. See 28 U.S.C. § 1367.

The School Defendants move to dismiss based on Younger abstention, the primary jurisdiction doctrine, failure to exhaust contractual remedies, failure to timely file a Tort Claims Act notice, and failure to state a claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6).

II. DISCUSSION

A. Rule 12(b)(6) standard

Rule 12(b)(6) provides for the dismissal of a complaint, in whole or in part, if it fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. The defendant, as the moving party, bears the burden of showing that no claim has been stated. Animal Science Products, Inc. v. China Minmetals Corp., 654 F.3d 462, 469 n. 9 (3d Cir. 2011). For the purposes of a motion to dismiss, the facts alleged in the complaint are accepted as true and all reasonable inferences are drawn in favor of the plaintiff. N.J. Carpenters & the Trustees Thereof v. Tishman Const. Corp. of N.J., 760 F.3d 297, 302 (3d Cir. 2014).[6]

Federal Rule of Procedure 8(a) does not require that a complaint contain detailed factual allegations. Nevertheless, "a plaintiff's obligation to provide the grounds' of his entitlement to relief' requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). Thus, the complaint's factual allegations must be sufficient to raise a plaintiff's right to relief above a speculative level, so that a claim is "plausible on its face." Id. at 570; see also Umland v. PLANCO Fin. Serv., Inc., 542 F.3d 59, 64 (3d Cir. 2008). That facial-plausibility standard is met "when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). While "[t]he plausibility standard is not akin to a probability requirement'... it asks for more than a sheer possibility." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.

B. Motion to dismiss based on Younger abstention (Counts II, III, IV, V, VI, VIII)

The School Defendants' motion to dismiss rests in part on the federalism-based abstention doctrine of Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971).[7] Younger, they say, bars Knox's Free Speech claim, Free Exercise claim, Establishment claim, and religion-based Equal Protection claim (Counts III, IV, V, and VI) because they were presented as defenses in the Tenure Charge proceeding, which was settled. (Def. Mot. 8). Although Knox did not present her due process claim (Count II), the race-portion of her Equal Protection claim (Count VI), and her Section 1981 claim (Count VIII) as ...


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