On January 2, 2001, in a decision styled as Fales v. Garst, No. 99-2272 (8th Cir. 01/02/2001), the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit dismissed a lawsuit filed by three special education teachers against the principal of their school. The Court reported, “tension arose between Garst (principal) and the three teachers over the needs of special education students.” The teachers complained “about Garst’s administrative decisions and actions to his superiors and others, including the media.”
Teachers File Suit Against Principal
On July 31, 1998, the three teachers filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Western District of Arkansas. In their Complaint, the teachers alleged “that Garst had violated their rights to freedom of speech and association under the First Amendment by instructing them not to discuss incidents regarding special education students at West Fork and their rights to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment by lowering their evaluations.”
Counsel for Principal Garst filed a Motion for Summary Judgment with the District Court. Essentially, he asserted that even if the facts alleged by the teachers were true, as a matter of law the teachers did not have legal grounds for a case against the principal, in part because Garst had a qualified immunity. The District Court did not agree with Garst and denied this Motion for Summary Judgment. The case was allowed to proceed to trial.
Principal Appeals to Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals
Before the trial, Garst filed an appeal with the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. The U. S. Court of Appeals issued a decision that reversed the District Court.
In law, resolution of a legal issue is often based on the balancing of competing, conflicting interests. One tipping of the scales may support your perception of the facts, but the see-saw / tilt / or spin of the case may be viewed differently by another person.
The Eighth Circuit wrote that the nature of the teacher’s “freedom of speech” is related in part to whether the speech was about something of “only personal interest” or “on a matter of public concern.”
The court believed that speech “which centered around the proper care and education of special education students, touched upon matters of public concern.” Thus, the teachers’ speech would seem to be “constitutionally protected expression.” However, the Court noted that, “the court balances the teacher’s interest in speaking against her employer’s interest in promoting the efficiency of the public service it performs through its employees.
Balancing Test: Teachers' Free Speech v. Employers Interest in Efficiency
In this case, the balancing test was the teachers’ free speech interest versus the employer’s interest in efficiency.
Query: What happened to an analysis or balancing of the interests of the students?
The Court held that the plaintiffs’ speech “resulted in school factions and disharmony among their co-workers and negatively impacted Garst’s interest in efficiently administering the middle school.”
In closing, the court wrote, “here it is beyond peradventure that the plaintiffs’ speech caused the school upheaval. Because we believe that the teachers’ interest in speaking on these matters was outweighed by the interest of efficient administration of the middle school, we conclude the district court erred in not finding Garst was entitled to qualified immunity.”
None of the cases cited by the Court of Appeals involved special education teachers who spoke out against school administrators. Two of the cases cited, Bowman and Belk, make interesting reading, and may be used to develop litigation road maps in the future. Eighteen years ago, in Bowman, gym teachers who used excessive corporal punishment received a favorable ruling from the Court of Appeals in litigation against a school district. In last year’s Belk ruling, a city administrator received a favorable ruling from the Court. These cases are available from findlaw.com, versuslaw.com and several other locations on the Internet.
The Door of Litigation Opens
The door of litigation between special education teachers and administrators opened wide enough that a Court of Appeals issued a ruling. The initial Judge kept the door open. The Court of Appeals closed the door. Because the door opened, pathways and roadmaps to successful litigation will develop. Garst will be studied by attorneys who prosecute and defend similar cases in the future.
And these cases will come.
With this decision in Garst, you are witnessing the emergence of a new era in special education litigation. In law, early litigators and trail-blazers are often vilified and criticized, and they often lose the initial skirmish. The actions of special education teachers Jacquelyn Fales, Mary Ann Kahmann, and Eileen Scarborough will be remembered and studied by lawyers and their clients for many years. In time, the rights of students and the teachers who stand up for these students may receive better protection and greater weight in the balancing process.
Read the Complaint in Fales v. Garst. Download the decision in Fales v. Garst (pdf)