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Williams v. Alhambra School District No. 68

United States District Court, D. Arizona

February 10, 2017

Karen Williams, Plaintiff,
Alhambra School District No. 68, et al., Defendants.


          Honorable G. Murray Snow United States District Judge

         Pending before the Court is the motion to dismiss of Defendants Alhambra School District No. 68, Robert Zamora, Ray Martinez and Mari Alvarado.[1] (Doc. 18.) For the following reasons, Defendants' motion is granted in part and denied in part.


         Plaintiff Karen Williams began employment with Defendant Alhambra School District (“Alhambra” or “the District”) as Alhambra's Superintendent on or around July 1, 2010.[2] (Doc. 16 at 4.) Defendants Robert Zamora and Mari Alvarado were members of the Alhambra School Board (the “Board”) at the time of Williams's hiring. (Id.) Defendant Ray Martinez was elected to the Board in late 2014 and began serving his term on January 1, 2015. (Id. at 14.) The dispute between Plaintiff and Defendants arises out of the circumstances in which Plaintiff's employment as Superintendent ended.

         Williams, an African-American woman, alleges that her employment ended as the result of a “discriminatory plan of removing Williams in favor of a Latino/Hispanic candidate” for Superintendent. (Id. at 22.) She alleges that early in her tenure as Superintendent, Defendant Zamora told Williams that he believed District staff- including the Superintendent position-should be filled by candidates who “reflect[ed] the predominately Latino community demographic.” (Id. at 4.) Williams told Zamora that she would recommend “the best and most qualified candidates for the positions regardless of race, color, or national origin.” (Id.) Williams alleges that another Board member told Williams, on July 23, 2013, that Defendants Zamora and Alvarado “intended to conspire together to ensure that Alhambra engaged in discriminatory practices with respect to furthering the agenda to replace Williams and her peers with Latino employees.” (Id. at 6.) Other Alhambra employees soon told Williams the same thing.[3] (Id. at 7.) An investigation conducted by Williams and Alhambra's human resources director provided further information along these lines. (Id.) Williams then made a complaint to Alhambra's attorney. (Id. at 7-8.) After receiving lower performance evaluation scores than usual, allegedly as a result of her refusal to engage in preferential hiring toward Hispanic individuals, Williams filed another complaint with the Board and asserted that state and federal law, as well as District policy, forbade her from hiring according to race or national origin. (Id. at 9.)

         Williams had renegotiated her employment contract in April, 2012, after having served as Superintendent for nearly two years. (Id. at 5.) She was offered, and she accepted, a new contract in May of that year. (Id.) That contract provided for her continued employment as Superintendent from July 1, 2012, until June 30, 2015. (Id.)

         In January, 2015, discussions between the Board and Williams regarding an extension or renewal of Williams's contract commenced. (Id. at 15.) The Board and Williams met in executive session on January 22; the Board agreed to offer Williams a one year extension to her contract, and Williams agreed to the Board's proposal. (Id.) In the open meeting that followed, the Board voted unanimously to provide Williams with the contract renewal. (Id.)

         After this meeting came negotiations over the contract. Although Williams alleges she accepted the extension of her contract as offered by the Board, she also alleges that she requested, through her attorney, two modifications to the proposed contract extension and one modification to the proposed Board resolution-modifications which she characterizes as “minor and immaterial” and upon which her acceptance was not conditioned (Id.) Alhambra's attorney agreed that two of the modifications were appropriate and immaterial and stated that though the District would have to approve the third, it had a “policy and practice” of doing so; for her part, Williams, through her attorney, stated that she would accept the contract regardless of whether the modifications were made. (Id. at 16-17.)

         On February 19, 2015, the Board met. Two separate items on the agenda dealt with approving Williams's proposed modifications and her new contract. But no approval was forthcoming. One Board member (not a defendant here) moved to approve each item, but both motions failed for lack of a second. (Id. at 17.) On February 25, another meeting was held, with a new agenda item, regarding the selection of a firm to conduct the search for a new Superintendent. (Id. at 18.) A search firm was selected by a vote of three-to-one at a meeting on March 2. (Id. at 18-19.)

         On March 26, the Board approved certain measures relating to the search for a new Superintendent. The Board then voted three-to-two to place Williams on non-disciplinary paid leave effective immediately, and voted three-to-one to appoint an interim Superintendent. On April 3, Williams received a letter from Alhambra's attorney notifying her that the Board had voted not to renew her contract. On June 4, the Board voted to offer a contract to Mark Yslas, who became the new Superintendent.

         Throughout the Board meetings in February and March, members of the public voiced concerns that Williams was the victim of discrimination. (Id. at 18-20.) On March 2 and again on March 26, Williams made “impassioned” public speeches at Board meetings, complaining that she was being discriminated against and reiterating her desire to remain as Superintendent. (Id.) At least one non-Defendant Board member also publicly spoke out against what she saw as discriminatory and improper actions by Defendants Zamora, Alvarado and Martinez. (Id. at 20.)

         Williams brings this suit alleging various claims against the District itself and the three members of the Board who voted to replace her and allegedly discriminated against her. She alleges race, color and national origin discrimination, and retaliation under Title VII; various violations of her constitutional and statutory rights; violation of her right to contract under 42 U.S.C. § 1981; and three state law claims: breach of contract, breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and wrongful termination. Defendants seek dismissal for failure to state a claim.


         I. Legal Standard

         To survive dismissal for failure to state a claim pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), a complaint must contain more than “labels and conclusions” or a “formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action”; it must contain factual allegations sufficient to “raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). While “a complaint need not contain detailed factual allegations . . . it must plead ‘enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Clemens v. DaimlerChrysler Corp., 534 F.3d 1017, 1022 (9th Cir. 2008) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). “A claim has facial plausibility 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). The plausibility standard “asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully. Where a complaint pleads facts that are ‘merely consistent with' a defendant's liability, it ‘stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of entitlement to relief.'” Id. (internal citations omitted) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557).

         When analyzing a complaint for failure to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6), “[a]ll allegations of material fact are taken as true and construed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.” Smith v. Jackson, 84 F.3d 1213, 1217 (9th Cir. 1996). However, legal conclusions couched as factual allegations are not given a presumption of truthfulness, and “conclusory allegations of law and unwarranted inferences are not sufficient to defeat a motion to dismiss.” Pareto v. FDIC, 139 F.3d 696, 699 (9th Cir. 1998).

         II. Analysis

         A. Duplicative & Improper Parties

         As an initial matter, Defendants challenge Williams's naming of the Board members as parties both in their official and individual capacities. They argue that Williams cannot name the Board members in their official capacity, since she has also named the District itself as a defendant, and that she cannot name them in their individual capacity since they have immunity as school board members.

         A suit against a school board member in his or her official capacity is equivalent to a suit against the school district. See Ctr. for Bio-Ethical Reform, Inc. v. L.A. Cty. Sheriff Dep't, 533 F.3d 780, 799 (9th Cir. 2008). But that only leads to dismissal of the member if they were not also sued in their individual capacity. See Id. Here, the Board members are also sued in their individual capacity with respect to Williams's claims under § 1983 and § 1981. The individual Defendants are not, therefore, dismissed on such claims.

         Defendants assert that they are entitled to absolute immunity from suit in their individual capacity because of their status as school board members. However, school board members are entitled only to assert a qualified good-faith immunity for liability under § 1983. See Wood v. Strickland, 420 U.S. 308, 318 (1975). Neither authority that Defendants cite to the contrary is persuasive. A.R.S. § 12-820.01 does provide for absolute liability in certain decisions relating to hiring, but it applies to “public entit[ies], ” not public officials.[4] See Wilson v. Maricopa Cty., 463 F.Supp.2d 987, 999 (D. Ariz. 2006). Moreover, the Board member Defendants are sued in their individual capacity only under § 1983 and § 1981; a state law cannot immunize them against a federal cause of action.[5] See Martinez v. State of Cal., 444 U.S. 277, 284 n.8 (1980); ABC Sand & Rock Co., Inc. v. Maricopa Cty., No. CV-13-00058-PHX-NVW, 2013 WL 1693690, at *5 (D. Ariz. Apr. 18, 2013). Community House, Inc. v. City of Boise, Idaho, 623 F.3d 945 (9th Cir. 2010), is also inapplicable. Community House emphasizes that “[l]ocal government officials are entitled to [absolute] legislative immunity for their legislative actions.” 623 F.3d at 959. Employment decisions with respect to an individual are not legislative actions and are not covered by legislative immunity. See Bogan v. Scott-Harris, 523 U.S. 44, 55-56 (1998); Bechard v. Rappold, 287 F.3d 827, 829 (9th Cir. 2002).

         The Board member Defendants are therefore entitled only to qualified immunity. This protects them from suit “insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982). As the Ninth Circuit has held, the intentional racial discrimination that Williams alleges is both inconsistent with acting in good faith, and a violation of clearly established constitutional rights:

No official can in good faith impose discriminatory burdens on a person or group by reason of a racial or ethnic animus against them. The constitutional right to be free from such invidious discrimination is so well established and so essential to the preservation of our constitutional order that all public officials must be charged with knowledge of it. . . . [O]nce a defendant is shown to have acted with intent to discriminate based on racial or ethnic hostility, such intent constitutes the malicious intention to cause a deprivation of constitutional rights that is inconsistent with the subjective state of mind required for the defense of good faith immunity.

Flores v. Pierce, 617 F.2d 1386, 1392 (9th Cir. 1980). Thus, qualified immunity does not apply here, and the Board member Defendants are subject to suit in their individual capacities.

         B. ...

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