Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

West Virginia Department of Education v. McGraw

Supreme Court of West Virginia

May 17, 2017

WEST VIRGINIA DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION, Petitioner
v.
TAMMY MCGRAW, Respondent

          Submitted: April 25, 2017

         Appeal from the Circuit Court of Kanawha County The Honorable Carrie L. Webster, Judge Civil Action No. 15-C-1893

          Jan L. Fox, Esq. Mark C. Dean, Esq. Steptoe & Johnson PLLC Charleston, West Virginia Counsel for the Petitioner.

          John D. Wooton, Esq. Wooton, Davis, Hussell & Ellis Beckley, West Virginia Counsel for the Respondent.

          Matthew S. Criswell, Esq. Mark L. French, Esq. Criswell French, PLLC Charleston, West Virginia Counsel for the Respondent.

          JUSTICE WORKMAN, deeming herself disqualified, did not participate in the decision of the Court.

          JUDGE JOSEPH K. REEDER sitting by temporary appointment.

         SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

         1. "A circuit court's denial of a motion to dismiss that is predicated on qualified immunity is an interlocutory ruling which is subject to immediate appeal under the 'collateral order' doctrine." Syl. Pt. 1, W.Va. Bd. of Educ. v. Marple, 236 W.Va. 654, 783 S.E.2d 75 (2015).

         2. "To the extent that governmental acts or omissions which give rise to a cause of action fall within the category of discretionary functions, a reviewing court must determine whether the plaintiff has demonstrated that such acts or omissions are in violation of clearly established statutory or constitutional rights or laws of which a reasonable person would have known or are otherwise fraudulent, malicious, or oppressive in accordance with State v. Chase Securities, Inc., 188 W.Va. 356, 424 S.E.2d 591 (1992). In absence of such a showing, both the State and its officials or employees charged with such acts or omissions are immune from liability." Syl. Pt. 11, W.Va. Reg'l Jail & Corr. Facility Auth. v. A.B., 234 W.Va. 492, 766 S.E.2d 751 (2014).

         3. "The Due Process Clause, Article III, Section 10 of the West Virginia Constitution, requires procedural safeguards against state action which affects a liberty or property interest." Syl. Pt. 1, Waite v. Civ. Serv. Comm'n, 161 W.Va. 154, 241 S.E.2d 164 (1977).

         4. "The 'liberty interest' includes an individual's right to freely move about, live and work at his chosen vocation, without the burden of an unjustified label of infamy. A liberty interest is implicated when the State makes a charge against an i individual that might seriously damage his standing and associations in his community or places a stigma or other disability on him that forecloses future employment opportunities." Syl. Pt. 2, Waite v. Civ. Serv. Comm'n, 161 W.Va. 154, 241 S.E.2d 164 (1977).

         5. To state a claim for a violation of a government employee's liberty interest in his/her good name, the employee must allege that the stigmatizing statement made against him/her was false. To the extent that our opinion in Waite v. Civil Service Commission, 161 W.Va. 154, 241 S.E.2d 164 (1977), is inconsistent with this holding, it is overruled.

         6. A government employer implicates its employee's liberty interest in his/her good name when the following elements are alleged: (1) a stigmatizing statement; (2) which was false; (3) was published, or made accessible to the public; (4) in connection with a serious adverse employment action. When these elements are met, the employee must be afforded procedural safeguards under Article III, Section 10 of the West Virginia Constitution.

          OPINION

          KETCHUM, JUSTICE

         The West Virginia Department of Education ("the DOE") appeals an order by the Circuit Court of Kanawha County. In its order, the circuit court denied the DOE's motion to dismiss based on qualified immunity.

         The underlying lawsuit was filed by Tammy McGraw after the DOE terminated her at-will employment. The lawsuit contained the following two claims against the DOE: (1) a constitutional tort claim, and (2) a claim for wrongful termination. As to her constitutional tort claim, Ms. McGraw alleged that the DOE leaked a letter it received from her previous government employer revealing that she was under investigation for misallocating public funds for personal use. Although she does not dispute that she was, in fact, under investigation on those charges, she alleges the DOE's leak of this letter violated her constitutionally-protected liberty interest.

         Upon review, we find that Ms. McGraw failed to outline a liberty interest violation sufficient to overcome the DOE's qualified immunity because the truth of the allegedly leaked letter, i.e., that she was under investigation for misallocating public funds, was not disputed. Therefore, the DOE's qualified immunity bars Ms. McGraw's constitutional tort and wrongful termination claims. We reverse the circuit court's order and dismiss Ms. McGraw's claims against the DOE.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         This appeal arises from the DOE terminating Ms. McGraw's at-will employment as its Executive Director of the Office of Instructional Technology. This termination was, at least in part, due to the DOE's receipt of a letter from Ms. McGraw's previous employer, the Virginia Department of Education.[1] The letter stated as follows:

Tammy McGraw has been the focus of an ongoing investigation by [The Office of the Virginia State Inspector General] and the [Virginia] department of education for illegal activities and misuse of state funds.....These charges involve such things as diverting programmatic funds to cover personal travel expenses, purchasing equipment for personal use, falsely submitting travel invoices, and making payments to contractors without contracts and for work not performed. .
While the investigation is still continuing and a decision on the indictment has not been made, McGraw has been relieved of her position at the Virginia Department of Education for the above violations of law.

(Emphasis added). In short, the letter revealed that Ms. McGraw was under investigation in Virginia for misallocating public funds for personal use but that a decision on the investigation had not yet been made. The DOE claims that Ms. McGraw failed to disclose this ongoing investigation during her employment interview.

         Ms. McGraw does not dispute that she was under investigation in Virginia for misallocating public funds for personal use. Instead, she complains that the letter was leaked to local news media in response to media inquiries as to why the DOE terminated her at-will employment. Ms. McGraw's complaint states the letter "was provided to the Charleston Gazette by a member of the West Virginia Department of Education[, ]" and "[m]ultiple news articles were published based on the false information contained in the letter."

         Ms. McGraw filed a lawsuit against the DOE asserting claims for a constitutional tort and wrongful termination.[2] The DOE filed a motion to dismiss her lawsuit under West Virginia Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), [3] asserting that qualified immunity barred Ms. McGraw's claims.[4] The circuit court failed to order Ms. McGraw to file a reply to the DOE's motion to dismiss pleading qualified immunity; instead, it scheduled a hearing on the DOE s motion.[5]

         On June 16, 2016, the circuit court entered an order denying the DOE's motion to dismiss, finding that Ms. McGraw pleaded sufficient facts to outline a liberty interest violation and that qualified immunity does not bar her claims for a constitutional tort or wrongful termination. It is from that order that the DOE brings this appeal.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         In this appeal, we assess a circuit court order denying a motion to dismiss based on qualified immunity. We have held: "A circuit court's denial of a motion to dismiss that is predicated on qualified immunity is an interlocutory ruling which is subject to immediate appeal under the 'collateral order' doctrine."[6]

         Having established that this appeal is properly before this Court, we review the circuit court's order de novo.[7] "In conducting a de novo review, we apply the same standard applied in the circuit court."[8] That is, generally, "dismissal for failure to state a claim is only proper where it is clear that no relief could be granted under any set of facts that could be proved consistent with the allegations in the complaint."[9] "If the complaint alleges sufficient facts, it must survive a . . . motion to dismiss even if it appears that recovery is very remote and unlikely."[10] Under this general pleading standard, "the complaint is construed in the light most favorable to plaintiff [Ms. McGraw], and its allegations are to be taken as true."[11] However, to the extent Ms. McGraw's complaint is based on allegations of fraud, a heightened pleading standard applies, and the circumstances constituting fraud must be stated with particularity.[[1]]

         III. ANALYSIS

         The DOE argues the circuit court erred by failing to dismiss Ms. McGraw's claims based on qualified immunity. "Qualified immunity preserves the freedom of the State, its agencies, and its employees to deliberate, act, and carry out their legal responsibilities within the limits of the law and constitution."[13] As we explain below, qualified immunity bars recovery for Ms. McGraw's constitutional tort and wrongful termination claims. We discuss the standard for qualified immunity and its application to Ms. McGraw's claims in turn.

         A. Qualified Immunity in General

         The first step in determining whether a state agency is entitled to qualified immunity is:

[A] reviewing court must first identify the nature of the governmental acts or omissions which give rise to the suit for purposes of determining whether such acts or omissions constitute legislative, judicial, executive or administrative policy-making acts or involve otherwise discretionary governmental functions.[14]

         The facts giving rise to Ms. McGraw's suit were the DOE's termination of her at-will employment and its alleged leak of a letter explaining its non-retention of Ms. McGraw as an employee. We have stated, "employee retention . . . fall[s] within the ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.