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Rowe v. Hamilton County Board of Education

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville

July 13, 2015


Assigned on Briefs April 15, 2015

Appeal from the Circuit Court for Hamilton County No. 14C333 W. Jeffrey Hollingsworth, Judge

Leonard Rowe, Chattanooga, Tennessee, Pro Se.

D. Scott Bennett, Mary C. DeCamp, and Andrew J. Godbold, Chattanooga, Tennessee, for the appellees, Hamilton County Board of Education and Rick Smith, Superintendent.

Thomas R. Frierson, II, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Charles D. Susano, Jr., C.J., and D. Michael Swiney, J., joined.



I. Factual and Procedural Background

This appeal arises from the trial court's grant of summary judgment to the defendants, the Hamilton County Board of Education and its superintendent, Rick Smith (collectively, "Defendants"), on the basis of, inter alia, res judicata. In reaching this conclusion, the trial court noted previous state and federal actions brought unsuccessfully by Mr. Rowe against Defendants or their predecessors and found that the case at bar was based on the same nexus of facts. In particular, our Supreme Court's decision in Rowe v. Bd. of Educ. of the City of Chattanooga, 938 S.W.2d 351, 353 (Tenn. 1996) ("Rowe II") summarizes much of the pertinent factual and procedural history as follows:

Rowe is a certified and licensed school teacher. In addition, he has two master's degrees and is certified as an educational specialist. He began teaching in the Chattanooga school system in 1967, but was denied tenure at the end of the 1968-69 school year. After brief service in the military, Rowe returned to teaching in Chattanooga and was granted tenure in either 1972 or 1973. He continued teaching in the Chattanooga system until 1980 when he was discharged "for cause, including insubordination, and inefficiency." The charges against Rowe primarily arose from his conduct during and after a discussion with the principal about Rowe's evaluation. Specifically, Rowe was charged with walking out of two conferences called by the principal, refusing to enter into discussion with the principal, and stating that the principal had not been truthful about previous events. After a hearing before the Board, Rowe was dismissed. Rowe appealed the dismissal, but the Board's decision was upheld by both the Chancellor and the Court of Appeals.
Beginning in 1986 or 1987, Rowe again attempted to obtain a teaching job in the Chattanooga school system. He was placed on the substitute teacher's list in 1987 and worked on a part-time, as needed basis, approximately one-half of the school days that year. There were no negative occurrences reported as a result of his employment, and Rowe received favorable recommendations for full time employment from the principals of two schools where he taught. Sometime after the school year ended, however, Reynolds, the new superintendent of schools, was asked by Board members why Rowe's name was placed on the substitute teacher's list when he previously had been discharged for cause by the Board. Upon verifying Rowe's prior for cause dismissal, Reynolds directed that Rowe's name be removed from the substitute teacher's list.
Despite his removal from the substitute teacher's roster, Rowe continued to apply for full-time, permanent employment within the Chattanooga school system. When his efforts proved unsuccessful, Rowe filed a complaint with the City of Chattanooga Human Rights and Human Relations Commission in 1990, alleging that the Board had discriminated against him on the basis of race by removing his name from the substitute teacher's list and by hiring applicants for two vacant principal positions for which he had applied. After a full investigation and a hearing, the Commission concluded that Rowe had failed to establish racial discrimination, but recommended that the Board adopt a uniform policy to address "previously dismissed teachers' and substitute teachers' ability to obtain employment within the Chattanooga Public Schools." In response, the Board, on April 8, 1991, adopted policy 4117.5, which provides as follows:
Any employee of the Board of Education terminated for cause, inefficiency, or immorality shall not be eligible for reemployment, whether at the same or different level. Neither shall such individuals be eligible for employment on a contract basis, including serving as substitute teacher.
Thereafter, Rowe filed a complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the Board and Reynolds, alleging that their refusal to consider him for a position in the Chattanooga school system violated his rights under the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. Rowe sought a declaratory judgment that Board policy 4117.5 was an unconstitutional infringement upon his property and liberty rights to pursue his chosen occupation. In addition, he sought back pay from the time the Board had adopted the policy, alleging that he would have been hired had the policy not been adopted.
Following a bench trial, the chancellor invalidated the policy, but refused to award Rowe any other relief, concluding there was no proof "to indicate that Mr. Rowe would have been rehired but for this policy statement."

Rowe II, 938 S.W.2d at 353-54.[1]

Upon appeal of the chancery court's decision referenced above, this Court affirmed the ruling that the Board's policy was unconstitutional but reversed the chancery court's finding as to Mr. Rowe's property and liberty interests in his rehiring potential and remanded for a hearing to determine Mr. Rowe's damages, if any. Id. at 354. Upon certiorari granted to the defendants in that action, our Supreme Court determined that Mr. Rowe did not have a property or liberty interest in potential employment with the Chattanooga school system and affirmed the chancery court's dismissal of his complaint. Id. at 356-57. ("[Mr. Rowe cannot] now complain about the effect of his prior [employment] dismissal for cause, a proceeding in which he was afforded due process, on his future employment opportunities.") (emphasis in original).

Approximately ten years prior to our Supreme Court's 1996 decision in Rowe II, Mr. Rowe first brought an action in federal court related to his employment with the Chattanooga school system after his first state appeal of that termination had proven unavailing. See Rowe v. Bd of Educ. of City of Chattanooga, 755 F.2d 933 (6th Cir. 1985) ("Rowe I "). In his initial federal action, Mr. Rowe, proceeding self-represented, asserted a civil rights claim under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1985. See id at 933. In Rowe I, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed the district court's dismissal of Mr. Rowe's action on the basis of res judicata, citing the prior state court action. See id ("It ...

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