A wrongful termination claim stemming from a 2016 Indianapolis Public Schools teacher sex scandal will move forward after a district court judge determined the IPS school board commissioners violated an employee’s due process rights when they terminated her without proper notice.
In a Friday ruling, Judge Tanya Walton Pratt of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana allowed Deborah L. Leser’s claim against IPS and its commissioners to continue, agreeing with the former IPS employee that the circumstances surrounding her June 2016 termination violated her due process rights. Leser, who most recently served as the school district’s director of student services, was fired last year for her failure to report an inappropriate student-teacher relationship to the Child Protective Services.
According to court documents, Leser first became aware of the inappropriate relationship between a student and Shana Taylor, a former teacher at the Longfellow Alternative School, when Longfellow principal William Jensen informed her of a parent’s report of the relationship. Leser, unsure of how to handle the situation, followed IPS Procedure 3213.01 and advised Jensen to speak with Tina Hester, assistant superintendent of human resources.
Hester, instead of calling police, assigned Title IX Coordinator Shalon Dabney to investigate the situation, and Leser spoke with other IPS employees, who advised her that she had handled the situation properly. Then, at Dabney’s request, IPS employee Mark Cosand reported Taylor’s inappropriate relationship to Child Protective Services.
Shortly after the CPS report in February 2016, news of Taylor’s conduct became public knowledge and was widely covered in Indianapolis media. IPS Superintendent Dr. Lewis Ferebee and attorney David Given then began conducting interviews with several employees, including Leser.
Criminal charges were eventually filed against Hester and Dabney for their failure to immediately file a report with CPS, and although no charges were filed against Leser, she was informed on June 1, 2016, that the district had made a preliminary decision to terminate her for the same reason. After a hearing on June 27, that decision became official on June 30.
Leser filed her complaint in federal court the following November in the case of Deborah L. Leser v. Indianapolis Public Schools, et al., 1:16-cv-02044, alleging the school district and its commissioners, in their individual and official capacities, violated her due process rights by failing to provide proper notice of her alleged wrongdoing, failing to advise her of her Garrity rights prior to interviewing her and by making an arbitrary and capricious decision to terminate her. Pratt agreed with Leser on each of her claims except one, violation of her Garrity rights, and denied the commissioners’ motion to dismiss.
With regard to Leser’s Garrity claim, Pratt noted there was no criminal proceeding against Leser at the time of her interview with Ferebee and Given. Additionally, Leser did not allege the school district coerced her into giving self-incriminating statements, so the defendants could not have violated her Garrity rights by failing to offer her immunity from criminal prosecution on the basis of her answers.
But beyond the Garrity claims, Pratt agreed with Leser’s arguments on every other point in the case, noting she was “‘entitled to oral or written notice of the charges against (her), an explanation of the employer’s evidence, and an opportunity to present her side of the story.’”
“Although Defendants may establish that they did in fact give Leser proper notice, at this stage in the litigation, dismissal based on facts not included in the Complaint is inappropriate,” Pratt wrote. “…Accordingly, because Lesser asserts that each Defendant failed to notify her of her alleged wrongful act – as required by both state and federal law – the Court denies Defendants’ motion on this bases (sic).”
Further, Pratt wrote that the other employees who had knowledge of Taylor’s misconduct were not fired, so Leser asserted sufficient facts to state a claim for arbitrary termination. Thus, Leser’s substantive due process rights were violated, leading Pratt to deny the motion to dismiss on the basis of the commissioners’ qualified immunity.
However, the judge did deny Leser’s request for attorney fees, finding the defendants’ motion is not baseless.
IPS representatives said Tuesday in a statement, “IPS contends these claims are without merit, and we will vigorously defend against them. No further comment will be offered on pending litigation.”
Pratt’s decision can be read in its entirety here.