Like students, teachers do not shed their constitutional right to free speech while at school. However, their rights are not without limits as the Sixth Circuit demonstrated recently when it issued a ruling upholding termination of a teacher. In Sensabaugh v. Halliburton, the District’s head football coach posted concerns on Facebook about the conditions he found when visiting an elementary school (a visit unrelated to his job). One of these posts included photos of a classroom and one included the faces of several students. District officials tried to contact Sensabaugh in an effort to explain their concern that this post could violate school policy as well as FERPA. However, they were unable to get in contact with him.
Meanwhile, Sensabaugh posted a separate entry on Facebook discussing his concerns with prisoners working at the high school. Again, school administration reached out to Sensabaugh to discuss their concerns over the posts. During their conversation, the administration informed Sensabaugh that he did not need to delete the post, but instead asked him to remove only the picture of the students accompanying the post. Sensabaugh yelled at members of the administration and informed them that he would not take the post down.
Following the conversation, administration drafted a “Letter of Guidance” which addressed Sensabaugh’s failure to remove the photos from Facebook, his conduct during the phone call, and other previous misconduct. This letter stated that the administration was not requiring Sensabaugh to remove his comments from his posts but directed him to remove the picture displaying the minor students. The letter clearly stated that failure to follow its directives could lead to discipline up to and including termination. Finally, Sensabaugh agreed to remove the photos from Facebook.
Following the Letter of Guidance, Sensabaugh’s behavior and actions continued to cause problems in the District. This led the administration to issue a Letter of Reprimand which placed Sensabaugh on administrative leave pending investigation. It was alleged that Sensabaugh accused the Athletic Director of coming to work under the influence of prescription pills, as well as threatening a football player and athletic trainer. The administration hired an independent law firm to investigate the alleged misconduct.
The investigator’s report concluded that Sensabaugh had engaged in unprofessional, insubordinate, threatening, and retaliatory behavior towards supervisors, students, and staff. It concluded that Sensabaugh’s actions had intimidated and undermined his coworkers and supervisors. The investigators went on to conclude that Sensabaugh’s repeated, belligerent, and confrontational speech to coworkers made it inconceivable for them to maintain an ongoing employment relationship. As a result, the investigator recommended that Sensabaugh’s employment with the district be terminated.
Administration notified Sensabaugh that the independent investigator had submitted their findings and recommended his termination. Sensabaugh was offered the opportunity to provide any statement or evidence in support of a less severe punishment. However, Sensabaugh never responded. The District then terminated Sensabaugh’s employment.
Sensabaugh sued, arguing that the District retaliated against him for exercising his First Amendment right to free speech. In order for a teacher to prevail on a First Amendment retaliation claim, he must show that: 1) he engaged in protected conduct; 2) an adverse action was taken against him that would deter a person of ordinary firmness from continuing to engage in that conduct; and 3) that the adverse action was motivated at least in part by the protected conduct. Bell v. Johnson, 308 F.3d 594, 602 (6th Cir. 2002).
The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals first determined that the Letter of Guidance was not an adverse action. The letter did not impose any discipline, but instead simply imposed directives that Sensabaugh needed to follow in order to avoid discipline. Likewise, the Court also found that the Letter of Reprimand was not an adverse action. Though the letter resulted in paid administrative leave, this still did not result in an adverse action. Ehrlich v. Kovack, 710 F.App’x 646, 650 (6th Cir. 2017).
There is no dispute that the termination was an adverse action. However, Sensabaugh must show that the Facebook posts were a substantial or motivating factor in the adverse employment action. Though the Letter of Guidance, Letter of Reprimand, and termination came within six months after the Facebook posts, temporal proximity alone is rarely, if ever, sufficient to establish the causation requirement. Here, there was no other indication to demonstrate that Sensabaugh was terminated because of his Facebook posts. The court noted that at no time leading up to the termination did the administration ask or require Sensabaugh to remove the Facebook posts. Instead, the letters acknowledged Sensabaugh’s right to comment on public concerns. He was asked to remove the content from his posts that violated FERPA. Additionally, the independent investigation substantiated other allegations of misconduct that supported termination.
Ultimately, the court determined that when deciding to end Sensabaugh’s employment, the District relied on several instances of misconduct which were unrebutted by Sensabaugh. There was no indication that the viewpoints expressed in his Facebook posts (other than the FERPA-protected images of students) played any part in the District’s decision to terminate. Therefore, the District did not violate his constitutional rights.
Sensabaugh v. Halliburton, 937 F.3d 621 (6th Cir.2019)