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Chiat v. Elko County School District

United States District Court, D. Nevada

March 26, 2018

HEIDI CHIAT, an individual, Plaintiff,
ELKO COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT, a governmental entity, STEVE COOK, an individual, LYNN MANNING JOHN, an individual, JEFF ZANDER, an individual, and MIKE SMITH, an individual, Defendants.


         Before the court is defendants Elko County School District (“ECDS”), Steve Cook, Lynn Manning John, Jeff Zander, and Mike Smith (collectively “defendants”) motion for summary judgment (ECF No. 27). Plaintiff has responded (ECF No. 30) and defendants have replied (ECF No. 33) to plaintiff's response. The defendants' motion is therefore ripe for judgment.

         Plaintiff sued ECSD and four individual administrators, alleging federal Constitutional and state law claims relating to her First Amendment rights and protected speech. In addition to ECSD, plaintiff has named various members of ECSD and the Owyhee Combined School (“OCS”) including (1) OCS vice principal Lynn Manning John, (2) OCS principal Steve Cook, (3) ECSD superintendent Jeff Zander, and (4) ECSD deputy superintendent Mike Smith.

         Plaintiff alleges one retaliation claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 arguing that she was subjected to an adverse employment action because of her constitutionally protected speech (ECF No. 1 (Complaint)). Plaintiff also alleges a state law claim for tortious discharge. Id. Defendants have moved for summary judgment on both of plaintiff's claims.

         I. Background

         A. Plaintiff's employment and licensure

         Plaintiff commenced the Nevada teacher license application process with the Nevada Department of Education (“NDE”) in September 2015 in preparation for an interview for a teaching job in Elko, Nevada (Def. Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 3 (Deposition of Heidi Chiat)). On September 22, 2015, plaintiff was offered a contract to teach fifth-grade at OCS (Def. Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 4). Plaintiff accepted the employment offer in a letter received by ECSD on September 30, 2015 (Def. Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 5).

         The September 22 contract offer states that it was made “pending receipt of a copy of your certification for the state of Nevada and receipt of official transcripts in [the ECSD superintendent's] office . . . final approval by the Board of Trustees.” (Def. Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 4). On October 28, 2015, Plaintiff was advised by the NDE in an email that:

Your application for an initial K-8 Elementary license has been evaluated and does not currently meet the minimum requirements. The license you applied for is a core teaching area and the requirements below must be met before a license may be issued: Praxis II Elementary. . . . You do not have a valid [Nevada] educator license until these steps are taken and you receive confirmation that the license has been issued. Your non-refundable fee and application are valid through November 29, 2015. If you do not provide the required information prior to that date you will need to submit a new application, new fingerprint card and new application fee.

(Def. Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 6).

         On March 18, 2016, defendant Smith notified plaintiff by letter that her conditional employment with ECSD would be terminated. In that letter, quoting NRS 391.120(3), defendant Smith stated “it is unlawful for the board of trustees of any school district to employ any teacher who is not legally qualified to teach all the grades which the teacher is engaged to teach.” (Def. Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 12). NRS 391.120(3) further provides that “the board of trustees shall suspend or terminate, as applicable, the employment of any teacher who fails to maintain a license.” At the time of her termination, plaintiff had failed to meet the minimum requirements to be licensed as a teacher in Nevada and no license had been issued to the plaintiff by the state of Nevada.

         B. Alleged protected speech and adverse employment action

         In her complaint, plaintiff claims that “[p]rior to a negative evaluation received by Plaintiff on February 29, 2016, Plaintiff had complained up her chain of command regarding efforts by Defendant John and her family members to harass Plaintiff regarding her discipline and grading of students.” (Complaint). Plaintiff further claims that her complaints “alleged favoritism by John of students that were related to John by blood.” Id. Plaintiff asserts that her complaints of favoritism and harassment constitute protected speech.

         Plaintiff also claims that she engaged in protected speech when she reported to defendants Cook and Zander, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs rumors that “an underage student was having an affair with a teacher at” OCS (Complaint).

         Plaintiff alleges she suffered adverse employment actions in the form of a negative evaluation and termination as a result of her protected speech in ...

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