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Williams v. Shelby County Board of Education

United States District Court, W.D. Tennessee, Western Division

September 13, 2019

SONYA P. WILLIAMS, Plaintiff,
v.
SHELBY COUNTY BOARD OF EDUCATION, Defendant.

         JURY DEMAND

          ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART MOTION TO CERTIFY QUESTIONS TO THE SUPREME COURT OF TENNESSEE

          THOMAS L. PARKER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Defendant, Shelby County Board of Education (“Defendant” or the “Board”), moves to certify certain questions of law to the Supreme Court of Tennessee. (ECF No. 182.) Plaintiff, Dr. Sonya P. Williams, disagrees that certification is appropriate here. (ECF No. 184.) For the reasons below, the Court GRANTS IN PART AND DENIES IN PART this Motion to Certify.

         BACKGROUND

         This case is about Plaintiff's dismissal from the Shelby County School System (“SCS”) and her unsuccessful attempts later to acquire another position with SCS. (See ECF No. 1.) Plaintiff filed a five-count complaint alleging: (1) retaliation in violation of the First Amendment;[1] (2) violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; (3) violation of the Tennessee Public Protection Act; (4) retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; and (5) violation of Tennessee Teacher Tenure Act, Tennessee Code Annotated § 49-5-511(b). (Id.) Defendant moved for summary judgment on all Plaintiff's claims. (ECF No. 42.) Plaintiff timely responded to the Motion. (ECF Nos. 46 & 76.)

         This Court later granted in part and denied in part Defendant's summary judgment motion. (ECF No. 88.) Most of the claims were dismissed, but Plaintiff's Teacher Tenure Act[2]claim survived summary judgment and now this claim undergirds Defendant's Motion to Certify. (See id. at PageID 2647; ECF No. 182.) Plaintiff alleges that she was wrongly terminated from her position with SCS when SCS eliminated her job, along with the entire adult education program she worked in, because of a loss of grant funding. (ECF No. 1 at PageID 7-8.)

         It seemed the case was then ready for trial. At the pretrial conference in January 2019counsel for SCS revealed that the SCS Board passed a new resolution in October 2018 (the “2018 Resolution”) that allegedly effectively authorized the terminations of certain SCS employees, including Plaintiff. (See ECF No. 117, 122-3.) The Board's vote appeared to follow the Sixth Circuit's holding in Kelley v. Shelby County Board of Education, 751 Fed.Appx. 650 (6th Cir. 2018).

         In that case, the Sixth Circuit affirmed the lower court's interpretation of the Teacher Tenure Act. (Id.) The lower court held in that case that the SCS Board violated the Teacher Tenure Act when the superintendent, not the Board, made the determination to terminate the plaintiffs under a reduction in force policy. Kelly v. Shelby Cty. Bd. of Educ., 198 F.Supp.3d 842, 850-54 (W.D. Tenn. 2016). But the district court later ruled that the Board came into compliance with the Teacher Tenure Act when it passed a resolution in October 2016 (the “2016 Resolution”) authorizing the termination of these same teachers. See Kelley, 751 Fed.Appx. at 653. The Sixth Circuit affirmed this decision but noted that:

[t]he Board's post hoc resolution, two years after the fact, cannot cure the harm caused by the improper layoffs and loss of jobs for the individual teachers. However, once the district court held that the Board had violated its nondelegable duties, the Board took immediate action to correct its violation, creating a resolution to ratify the excessing decisions. In so doing, the Board was in effect taking ultimate responsibility for the excessing decisions, bringing the previously unlawful terminations into compliance with Tennessee law.

Id. at 656.

         Turning to this case, the SCS Board later voted on the 2018 Resolution to “expressly approve” the excessing of certain employees whose names were not included on the 2016 Resolution and to bring those excisions into compliance with state law. (See ECF No. 122-3 at PageID 3326.) Defendant included Plaintiff's name on this list. (Id. at PageID 3328.) Thus, the Board acted on Plaintiff's excision over two years after she was terminated and Plaintiff seeks damages for that period. Now Defendant questions whether Plaintiff is entitled to damages for the period between her termination and the Board's resolution.

         And so Defendant seeks to certify five (5) questions of law to the Tennessee Supreme Court under Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 23. (ECF No. 182.) Plaintiff disputes the need to certify these questions, arguing that the statute lays out the steps the Board must take to terminate a teacher because of a reduction in force. (ECF No. 184.) And that case law has properly interpreted the statute as providing a remedy for teachers excised in violation of § 49-5-511(b). (Id. at PageID 4948-51.)

         In any event, the Court addresses the Motion to Certify with these arguments in mind.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 23 permits federal courts to certify questions of state law to the Tennessee Supreme Court when the questions are (1) determinative of the cause of action and (2) there is no controlling precedent from the Tennessee Supreme Court. Tenn. Sup. Ct. R. 23 §1. The certification decision “lies within the sound discretion of the district court.” Pennington v. State Farm Mutual Auto. Ins. Co., 553 F.3d 447, 449-50 (6th Cir. 2009) (quoting Transam. Ins. Co. v. Duro Bag Mfg., Co., 50 F.3d 370, 372 (6th Cir. 1995)). The United States Supreme Court supports certification “when there are ‘[n]ovel, unsettled questions of state law.'” Lindenberg v. Jackson Nat'l Life Ins. Co., 912 F.3d 348, 371 (Larsen, J. dissenting) (quoting Arizonans for Official English v. Arizona, 520 U.S. 43, 79 (1997)). Certification is an effective tool in our federal system because it prevents federal courts from having to make state law and it “promotes judicial efficiency and comity and also protects [the] state's sovereignty.” Eiswert v. United States, 619 Fed.Appx. 483, 486 (6th Cir. 2015) (quoting Renteria-Villegas v. Metro. Gov't of Nashville & Davidson Cty., 382 S.W.3d 318, 320 (Tenn. 2012)). Federal courts may sua sponte certify a question to the Tennessee's highest court when the district court finds these requirements. See Eiswert, 619 Fed.Appx. 483.

         The Court addresses the Motion with these principles in mind.

         ANALYSIS

         Defendant argues that the Court should certify these five questions of law to the Tennessee Supreme Court:

(1) Is a tenured teacher, who was improperly excessed by a school board under Tenn. Code Ann. ยง 49-5-511(b) ...

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