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Mercer County Board of Education v. Ruskauff

Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia

November 4, 2019

Mercer County Board of Education, Defendant Below, Petitioner
Holly Ruskauff, Plaintiff Below, Respondent

          (Mercer County 18-C-36)


         Petitioner Mercer County Board of Education ("BOE"), by counsel Chip E. Williams, Ashley Justice Tucker, and Jared C. Underwood, appeals the Circuit Court of Mercer County's July 10, 2018, order granting, in part, and denying, in part, its motion to dismiss respondent's complaint. Respondent Holly Ruskauff, by counsel Scott H. Kaminski, filed a response. The BOE filed a reply.

         The Court has considered the parties' briefs and record on appeal. The facts and legal arguments are adequately presented, and the decisional process would not be significantly aided by oral argument. This case satisfies the "limited circumstances" requirement of Rule 21(d) of the Rules of Appellate Procedure and is appropriate for a memorandum decision rather than an opinion. For the reasons expressed below, the decision of the circuit court is reversed, and this case is remanded to the circuit court for entry of an order dismissing respondent's remaining claim.

         On February 14, 2018, respondent filed a complaint against the BOE asserting causes of action for negligence and a deprivation of procedural due process. Respondent, a speech teacher, detailed that she was a BOE employee from 2011 through 2015, and that during a February 10, 2015, board meeting, the BOE suspended her employment. Respondent alleged that the suspension and reason for it were posted to the internet in the BOE's meeting minutes.[1] Respondent further alleged that, subsequent to her suspension, she attempted to find substitute employment. During this search, she was informed by Emily Karnes, another BOE employee, that a representative of the Somerset County, Maryland, Board of Education had contacted her and referenced the employment action detailed in the meeting minutes, as those minutes were available for viewing online. The Somerset County Board of Education did not hire respondent.

         In support of her negligence count, respondent asserted that the BOE breached its duty to maintain the confidentiality of her personal employment information by posting the reason for its employment decision on its website. This breach allegedly caused respondent to lose employment opportunities and suffer lost wages, benefits, and other damages.[2]

         Respondent's due process claim was predicated on the BOE's alleged failure to provide her with a predetermination conference and other related deprivations, such as the failure to provide certain written notices.

         The BOE moved to dismiss respondent's complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. The BOE asserted that both of respondent's claims against it were barred by the doctrine of qualified immunity and the applicable one-year statute of limitations. In her response to this motion, respondent argued that despite a duty of confidentiality with respect to employee discipline, her disciplinary action remained available on the BOE's website in its meeting minutes. Respondent appended to her response the BOE's February 10, 2015, meeting minutes, quoted above.

         Respondent also attached a February 17, 2016, e-mail from Ms. Karnes, informing her that the Somerset County representative had seen the meeting minutes. Respondent had previously e-mailed Ms. Karnes to inquire into the negative reference provided to the Somerset County representative and to request that future references be based on the first three years of her four-year employment with the BOE, which she characterized as positive. In her e-mail response, Ms. Karnes informed respondent that she did not provide a negative reference and, instead, only provided the representative with respondent's employment date range. Ms. Karnes also noted that the Somerset County representative "reference[d] the [BOE] memo disciplinary action that had your name on it. (Board memo's [sic] are public knowledge)[.] However, I told her I could not discuss the issue."

         The parties appeared for a hearing on the BOE's motion to dismiss on June 1, 2018. On July 10, 2018, the circuit court entered its order granting the BOE's motion with respect to respondent's procedural due process claim. But the court found that

[t]here is a dispute as to whether the [BOE] is required to include the reasoning for employment decisions or disciplinary actions in meeting minutes, or in the alternate whether the [BOE] must include only the final decision without the reasoning for said decision. Further, it is unclear what the [BOE] representative told the representative from Somerset County with regard to [respondent's] prior employment.

         Accordingly, the court denied the BOE's motion as to the negligence claim. This appeal followed.

         We review a circuit court's denial of a motion to dismiss de novo. See Syl. Pt. 4, in part, Ewing v. Bd. of Educ., 202 W.Va. 228, 503 S.E.2d 541 (1998). "For purposes of the motion to dismiss, the complaint is construed in the light most favorable to plaintiff [], and its allegations are to be taken as true." W.Va. Bd. of Educ. v. Marple, 236 W.Va. 654, 660, 783 S.E.2d 75, 81 (2015) (citation omitted). "[D]ismissal 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." Id. (citation omitted). But a plaintiff's complaint must "at a minimum . . . set forth sufficient information to outline the elements of his [or her] claim," and "in civil actions where immunities are implicated, the trial court must insist on heightened pleading by the plaintiff." Id. (citations omitted).

         The BOE asserts that the circuit court erred in denying its motion to dismiss respondent's negligence claim for several reasons. First, the BOE argues that it is entitled to qualified immunity and that qualified immunity bars negligence claims against governmental officials. The BOE also argues that the court erred in denying its motion on the basis that a dispute exists as to whether the BOE must include in its meeting minutes only its employment decision and not the reasoning for that decision. According to the BOE, any such dispute amounts to a question of law for the court's resolution, not a question of fact for a jury. Additionally, the BOE claims error in the court's conclusion that it is unclear what the BOE representative told the representative with Somerset County ...

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