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Guardiola v. Adams County School District No. 14

United States District Court, D. Colorado

April 22, 2019

JOSE GUARDIOLA, Plaintiff,
v.
ADAMS COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 14, ADAMS COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 14 BOARD OF EDUCATION, and JAVIER ABREGO, individually and in his official capacity, Defendants.

          ORDER

          RAYMOND P. MOORE UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on Defendants' motion to dismiss (ECF No. 16). Plaintiff brought this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging Defendants retaliated against him in violation of his First Amendment rights. Defendants contend the complaint fails to state a claim and that Defendant Abrego is entitled to qualified immunity. In his response (ECF No. 17), Plaintiff abandons part of one of his claims. Defendant has filed a reply. (ECF No. 18.) The Court has reviewed the pleadings, case file, and applicable law. For the reasons stated below, the motion is denied.

         I. LEGAL STANDARDS

         In evaluating a motion to dismiss under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), a court must accept as true all well-pleaded factual allegations in the complaint, view those allegations in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and draw all reasonable inferences in the plaintiff s favor. Brokers > Choree of Am., Ine. v. NBC Universal, Inc., 757 F.3d 1125, 1136 (10th Cir. 2014); Mink v. Knox, 613 F.3d 995, 1000 (10th Cir. 2010). The complaint must allege a "plausible" right to relief. Bell Ail Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 569 n.14 (2007); see also Id. at 555 ("Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level."). Conclusory allegations are insufficient, Cory v. Allstate Ins., 583 F.3d 1240, 1244 (10th Cir. 2009), and courts "are not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation," Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (quotation omitted). To determine whether a claim is plausible, a court considers "the elements of the particular cause of action, keeping in mind that the Rule 12(b)(6) standard doesn't require a plaintiff to set forth a prima facie case for each element." George v. Urban Settlement Servs., 833 F.3d 1242, 1247 (10th Cir. 2016) (quotation omitted). However, if the allegations "are so general that they encompass a wide swath of conduct, much of it innocent," the plaintiff has not "nudged [his] claims across the line from conceivable to plausible." Khalikv. United Air Lines, 671 F.3d 1188, 1191 (10th Cir. 2012) (quotation omitted).

         Qualified immunity shields individual defendants named in § 1983 actions unless their conduct was unreasonable in light of clearly established law. Estate of Booker v. Gomez, 745 F.3d 405, 411 (10th Cir. 2014). "[W]hen a defendant asserts qualified immunity, the plaintiff carries a two-part burden to show: (1) that the defendant's actions violated a federal constitutional or statutory right, and, if so, (2) that the right was clearly established at the time of the defendant's unlawful conduct." Id. (quotation omitted). "Asserting a qualified immunity defense via a Rule 12(b)(6) motion . . . subjects the defendant to a more challenging standard of review than would apply on summary judgment." Peterson v. Jensen, 371 F.3d 1199, 1201 (10th Cir. 2004).

         II. BACKGROUND

         The following facts are taken from the complaint and, for present purposes, viewed in the light most favorable to Plaintiff. Plaintiff was an employee of Adams County School District No. 14 and held the position of Post-Secondary/Work Readiness & Family Engagement Specialist at Lester Arnold High School. (ECF No. 3 at ¶ 55.) Plaintiff was also a board member of INSPIRE, a Colorado nonprofit organization with a mission "to ignite, train, and invest in youth to become Change Agents in their schools, families and communities." (Id. at ¶ 29.) Since 2014, INSPIRE has contracted with the District to work with students at various schools. (Mat¶30.)

         Due to the District's poor performance over a number of years, the state board of education began planning to take over certain aspects of it. (Id. at ¶ 13.) Community members, parents, and students staged multiple protests directed at Defendants' mismanagement of the District, including a student-led walkout at Adams City High School in April 2018 and formation of a group calling for the removal of Defendant Abrego as superintendent. At some protests, students wore INSPIRE t-shirts. (Id. at ¶¶ 18-20.) Although INSPIRE did not encourage students to protest or to wear the t-shirts, it did encourage them to attend school board meetings, tell Defendants their stories, and work with school administrators. (Id. at ¶¶ 32-34, 38.)

         In May 2018, the executive director of INSPIRE met with administrators from Adams City to discuss their concerns that INSPIRE students were protesting the administration. (Id. at ¶ 38.) The administrators stated that they would not continue to contract with INSPIRE unless its board members provided letters of support for the administration. About a week later, INSPIRE's contract with Adams City was cancelled.

         The following month, Plaintiff was notified by letter that his position at Lester Arnold had been eliminated. (Id. at 58.) The District's letter states: "We have decided to discontinue [the District's] contract with INSPIRE and as a result, your at[-]will position at Lester Arnold is eliminated effective June 22, 2018." (Id. at ¶ 59.) But according to Lester Arnold's website, Plaintiffs former position was soon held by another person. (Id. at ¶¶ 63-64.) INSPIRE continued its program at Lester Arnold, but the principal there received a written reprimand from the District. (Id. at ¶¶ 47-51.) That letter states: "No entering into a contract with INSPIRE." (Mat¶51.)

         Plaintiff alleges Defendants violated his First Amendment rights by firing him in retaliation for his association with INSPIRE and for not writing a letter in support of the District.

         III. ANALYSIS

         Section 1983 provides a remedy for people, including public officials, if an individual violates their federal rights while acting under color of state law. Cillo v. City of Greenwood Village, 739 F.3d 451, 459 (10th Cir. 2013). Public employee retaliation claims based on protected First Amendment activity are subject to the four-part test derived from Pickering v. Board of Education, 391 U.S. 563 (1968), and Connick v. Myers, 461 U.S. 138 (1983). Id. at 460. The Pickenng/Connick test requires a plaintiff to show that "(1) his First Amendment activity involved a matter of public concern; (2) his interests in the protected activity outweighed the employer's interest in regulating it; and (3) the protected activity was a substantial motivating factor in the employer's decision to take adverse action against him." Id. at 461. If the plaintiff does so, the employer can escape liability by showing that (4) it would have taken the same action in the absence of the protected activity. Id

         A. Freedom of ...


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