Toney v. Lee County School District (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-013-17, 11 pp.) (James Lockemy, J.) Appealed from Lee County Circuit Court (Maité Murphy, J.) S.C. App.
Holding: Although the plaintiff-teacher disobeyed a directive that she not talk to anyone about her situation while a grievance against her was pending, the record does not contain substantial evidence that the teacher’s insubordination affected her primary duties as a teacher.
We affirm the circuit court’s reversal of defendant’s decision to terminate plaintiff.
Another teacher (Teacher B) filed a grievance against plaintiff for revealing information about Teacher B’s personal life. The school principal instructed plaintiff not to pursue the matter until his return from a conference.
Several days later, plaintiff contends she found a packet left in her classroom containing copies of Facebook posts written by Teacher B. Plaintiff reported her receipt of the packet to school administrator Bernard McDaniel. McDaniel told plaintiff that if she had something to tell him about the matter, she should put it in writing. Plaintiff gave McDaniel a copy of the Facebook posts.
Plaintiff also left a sealed envelope containing a copy of the posts at the office of the school district’s superintendent. According to plaintiff, she was concerned a child might be in danger.
Although plaintiff disobeyed the principal’s directive by discussing her situation with others, the defendant-school board failed to produce sufficient evidence showing plaintiff’s alleged insubordination demonstrated evident unfitness to teach. S.C. Code Ann. § 59-25-430 defines “unfitness for teaching” in a nonexclusive manner. Nevertheless, the types of conduct referred to in the statute – persistent neglect of duty, willful violation of rules and regulations, drunkenness, conviction of a crime, gross immorality, dishonesty, and illegal use, sale, or possession of drugs – exceed plaintiff’s failure to comply with the principal’s directive to not discuss the matter until his return. The record does not contain substantial evidence that plaintiff’s insubordination affected her primary duties as a teacher.
Communication with a Board Member
Plaintiff was suspended while the grievance against her was investigated, and the school district instructed her not to contact district employees. The letter did not prohibit plaintiff from contacting a school board member, and she did so, not in reference to the grievance against her, but regarding concerns about the substitute teacher who was teaching in her place.
Substantial evidence does not indicate plaintiff willfully disregarded a directive in contacting a board member. Moreover, plaintiff’s contact with the board member did not amount to insubordination evidencing an unfitness to teach.
Pattern of Conduct
In her 23 years of working for defendant, plaintiff had been admonished several times for unprofessional behavior and violating school rules. However, only one letter – from 2006 – was included in her personnel file.
The principal testified that, prior to plaintiff’s placement on administrative leave in October 2013, he had no reason to recommended her dismissal. In addition, plaintiff was contracted to teach year after year. The incidents cited by the board do not reveal a pattern of conduct demonstrating plaintiff’s unfitness for teaching within the meaning of § 59-25-430.