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Beckett v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville & Davidson County

United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Nashville Division

December 20, 2017

BRANDY BECKETT, Plaintiff,
v.
METROPOLITAN GOVERNMENT OF NASHVILLE AND DAVIDSON COUNTY, TAFFY “TIFFANY” MARSH, and CRAIG S. OTT, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM

          ALETA A. TRAUGER, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         The Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County and Craig S. Ott (collectively, “Metro”) have filed a Motion to Dismiss (Docket No. 22), to which Brandy Beckett has filed a Response (Docket No. 29). Taffy Marsh has also filed a Motion to Dismiss (Docket No. 25), to which Beckett has filed a Response (Docket No. 31), and Marsh has filed a Reply (Docket No. 38). Beckett then filed a Second Motion to Amend Complaint (Docket No. 30), to which Metro has filed a Response (Docket No. 32), and Beckett has filed a Reply (Docket No. 34). For the reasons herein, Metro's and Marsh's motions will be granted and Beckett's motion will be denied as futile.

         I. BACKGROUND & PROCEDURAL HISTORY[1]

         On December 19, 2013, Beckett, who had been trained and hired to be a bus driver for the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools (“MNPS”), was serving as a “bus monitor” on a bus the passengers of which included a special education student whom the court will refer to as “J.D.” (Docket No. 21 ¶¶ 6-7, 13-14.) Although the full nature and extent of J.D.'s disability are not detailed in the Complaint, he is apparently unable to engage in spoken verbal communication and, instead, audibly expresses distress only by crying. During the bus ride, another child repeatedly struck and bit J.D. while Beckett looked elsewhere. (Id. ¶ 14(b)-(c).) J.D. cried but was otherwise unable to indicate that he was in danger or distress. After J.D. arrived home, still crying, his mother discovered bruises on his body from his mistreatment by the other child. (Id. ¶ 14(c)-(d).)

         Unbeknownst to Beckett, MNPS had already been made aware of prior injuries that J.D. had suffered during earlier bus rides, and a safety plan had been put in place regarding J.D. that took the nature of his particular disabilities into account. (Id. ¶¶ 11-12.) As Beckett describes events, she took steps to obtain documentation that would have alerted her to the safety plan before the bus ride, but MNPS did not supply her with the materials she requested. (Id. ¶ 14(a)-(b).) Because Beckett was not made aware of the safety plan and because J.D. himself was unable to alert her to his predicament, Beckett did not perform any special monitoring or investigation that might have prevented or stopped the violence against him. (Id. ¶ 14(c).)

         About a month later, on January 20, 2014, a manager informed Beckett that J.D. had been injured while she was acting as bus monitor and requested a written statement from her on the matter. Beckett provided a statement denying any wrongdoing. (Id. ¶ 17.) On February 12, 2014, Marsh, as MNPS's Executive Director of Transportation, recommended that Beckett be terminated. (Id. ¶ 20.) Beckett objected to the recommendation in a meeting with Ott, MNPS's Executive Director of Human Capital Operations, but Ott accepted and finalized the recommendation to terminate Beckett no later than March 31, 2014, the date of a letter from Ott to Beckett informing her of his determination. (Id. ¶¶ 22-23.)

         In addition to recommending Beckett's termination, Marsh “caused a complaint to be filed with the Tennessee Child Abuse Hotline” (Id. ¶ 20), also known as the “DCS hotline, ” in reference to the state's Department of Children's Services. See Medley v. State, No. M2010-01181-CCA-R3-PC, 2012 WL 12932521, at *2 (Tenn. Crim. App. July 16, 2012). DCS is required by statute to “be capable of receiving and investigating reports of child abuse twenty-four (24) hours a day, seven (7) days a week.” Tenn. Code Ann. § 37-1-406(a). When the agency receives such a complaint, it is required to conduct a thorough investigation. Tenn. Code Ann. § 37-1-406(a), (d). Accordingly, DCS initiated an investigation into Marsh's allegations against Beckett with regard to J.D.[2] (Docket No. 21 ¶ 20.) As part of that investigation, a DCS investigator interviewed Beckett, who informed the investigator that she had not been given the necessary documentation alerting her to J.D.'s communication impairment. (Id. ¶ 22.)

         On May 16, 2014, a DCS case manager sent Beckett a letter informing her that she had been “identified as a person who committed child abuse or child neglect” and explaining that she had ten days to challenge the determination. (Docket No. 1-6.) Beckett reports suffering severe depression, anxiety, and despair upon learning that she had been labeled a perpetrator of child abuse or neglect and feared that the determination would limit her ability to participate in her own young children's school activities. (Docket No. 21 ¶ 27.) Beckett filed a timely Request for Case File Review with DCS. (Docket No. 1-7.) An administrative hearing on Beckett's challenge was held on May 20, 2015. (Docket No. 1-8.) On June 29, 2015, the administrative judge issued an initial order upholding DCS's determination. (Docket No. 1-10 at 13.)

         One effect of DCS's designation of Beckett as a perpetrator of child abuse or neglect was that she qualified for inclusion on a Tennessee Department of Health (“DOH”) registry of individuals determined to have perpetrated abuse or other wrongdoing against vulnerable persons. (Docket No. 1-11 at 5:19-22.) Tennessee Code Annotated § 68-11-1001(a) directs the DOH to “establish and maintain a registry containing the names of any persons who have been determined by Tennessee government agencies or any state or federal court or any administrative bodies to have abused, neglected, misappropriated or exploited the property of vulnerable individuals.” State agencies, licensees, and contractors are required to consult the perpetrator registry before allowing a prospective employee or volunteer to provide services to minors or other vulnerable persons, as defined by the statute. See Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 68-11-1002(8)(A), -1004(a).

         Beckett filed a Petition for Judicial Review in Davidson County Chancery Court pursuant to Tennessee's Uniform Administrative Procedures Act, Tenn. Code Ann. § 4-5-322. (Docket No. 1-11.) She asked for DCS's determination to be set aside and for her name not to be placed on the DOH registry. (Id. at 5:19-22, 11:6-18.) On January 30, 2017, Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman announced findings of fact and conclusions of law in Beckett's favor. (Docket No. 1-11.) Chancellor Bonnyman found that, “[i]f [Beckett] had seen the safety plan[, ] she would have known of previous incidents of injury to J.D. and could have prevented the injury occurring on her watch, ” but that there was “merely a glimmer of proof that [Beckett] saw or even knew of the . . . plan.” (Id. at 16:18-19, 18:12-15.) Chancellor Bonnyman noted, in particular, that Marsh had testified that a copy of J.D.'s safety plan had been placed on his bus seat, but both eyewitness and video evidence suggested otherwise. (Id. at 28:19-25.) Chancellor Bonnyman found that another key fact to which Marsh had testified-that MNPS's driver manual required a bus monitor to sit in the back or middle of the bus, not in the front as Beckett had-was also contradicted by documentary evidence, namely the manual itself. (Id. at 16:20-25.) On February 28, 2017, the Chancery Court entered a Final Judgment providing that “the decision of the Administrative Law Judge is hereby reversed in its entirety and the case is remanded to the agency to dismiss its proceeding against the petitioner[, ] to include removing her from any status as a perpetrator of child neglect and remove her from the registry for persons with the status of perpetrator.” (Id. at 1.)

         On June 12, 2017, Beckett filed a Complaint in this court, alleging that Metro and Marsh violated 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983, 1985, and 1988 through their handling of the allegation against her. (Docket No. 1 ¶ 45.) Following a Motion to Dismiss by Metro (Docket No. 16), Beckett filed a Motion to Amend (Docket No. 19), which the court granted (Docket No. 20). Beckett filed an Amended Complaint that included new factual allegations and also pled a new claim, against Marsh, for common law malicious prosecution under state law. (Docket No. 21 ¶ 53.) In the Amended Complaint, Beckett characterizes her § 1983 claim as based on the defendants' deprivation of her “property, liberty and equal protection interest[s] in her job and to be free from being wrongfully condemned as a substantiated child abuser.” (Id. ¶ 38.)

         Metro and Marsh filed new Motions to Dismiss (Docket Nos. 22 & 25), and Beckett again moved to amend her Complaint, this time “to include the allegation with respect to her procedural due process claim that she lacks an adequate remedy at law with respect to her pre-termination hearing, because there are no state remedies.” (Docket No. 30 at 1.)

         II. LEGAL STANDARDS

         A. Moti ...


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