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Thibault v. Spino

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

December 30, 2019

ASHLEY N. THIBAULT Plaintiff,
v.
MOLLY SPINO, individually, and TORRINGTON BOARD OF EDUCATION, Defendants.

          RULING DENYING DEFENDANTS' MOTION TO DISMISS

          JANET BOND ARTERTON, U.S.D.J.

         In this § 1983 action, Plaintiff Ashleigh Thibault claims that her First Amendment rights were violated when she was fired from her position as a contract public school bus driver after engaging in political speech on Facebook. The firing occurred after Ms. Thibault criticized Defendant Molly Spino, a member of the Torrington Board of Education ("Board"), who was running for a seat as a state legislator. Ms. Thibault's Facebook post criticized Ms. Spino's performance as a mother, described Ms. Spino's children as bullies, and endorsed Ms. Spino's opponent.

         Defendants Molly Spino and the Torrington Board of Education now move under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) to dismiss Count One, which alleges a First Amendment retaliation claim. Defendants contend that Plaintiffs speech did not address a matter of public concern, and so was not protected. Defendant Spino also moves to dismiss Count Two-a similar retaliation claim to which she is the only defendant-on the basis of qualified immunity.

         For reasons discussed below, Defendants' Motion [Doc. # 27] is denied.

         I. Facts Alleged

         Plaintiff Ashleigh Thibault is a resident of Torrington, Connecticut. (Am. Compl. [Doc. # 26] ¶¶ 4, 10.) During the time period relevant to this action, Plaintiff Thibault was employed as a school bus driver for All-Star Transportation, Inc. ("All-Star"). (Id. ¶¶ 7, 9.) All-Star maintained a contract with the Defendant Torrington Board of Education to provide transportation to children enrolled in the Torrington Public Schools system from July 1, 2013 to June 30, 2018. (Id. ¶¶ 7, 8.) That contract stated that the "Board reserves the right... to require the immediate termination of any of [All-Star's] employees at any time for due and sufficient cause," (id. ¶ 8), which includes the "[v]iolation of standards of conduct towards the public, staff, students, or other employees of the board," (Ex. A (All-Star Contract) to Defs.' Mot. [Doc. # 27-2] at 9).

         Defendant Molly Spino is a member of the Torrington Board of Education. (Am. Compl. 5.) In 2018, she ran for the Connecticut General Assembly seat in the 65, h Assembly District, where Plaintiff is registered to vote. (Id. ¶¶ 10, 11.) Defendant Spino's opponent was incumbent Michelle Cook. (Id. ¶ 12.)

         On June 25, 2018, Plaintiff posted a public message on the "Michelle Cook For State Representative" Facebook page, endorsing Ms. Cook and criticizing Defendant Spino. (Id. ¶ 13; see also Ex. E (Facebook Post) to Defs.' Mot. [Doc. # 27-6].) Plaintiffs Facebook Post "followed another post that was critical of Defendant [Molly] Spino's performance as a member of Defendant Board," and it read as follows:

Unfortunately, Molly will never take the blame of things ... much like her children! I have bit my tongue for quite sometime now ... but with this all being said and done. Politics in this town are absolutely disgusting. My child was singled out, bullied, talked down to ... BY HER CHILDREN. She should focus on getting her mess under control... Before worrying about anything else! You have done a wonderful job thus far Michelle.

(Am. Compl. ¶ 15 (ellipses in original).) Ms. Cook responded that she was "sorry [Plaintiff] and [Plaintiffs] family have had this happen" and that she was "willing to help in any way [she] can." (Facebook Post at 1.) Ms. Cook also "ask[ed] that this being taken to a private message as [she]'d rather not discuss something this personal in the open-especially with children involved." (Id.)

         On or about June 26, 2018, Defendant Spino "telephoned Plaintiffs employer, All-Star, to complain about Plaintiffs posting on Cook's Facebook campaign page." (Am. Compl. ¶ 16.) That same day, Defendant Spino and an attorney "met with representatives of All-Star to complain about Plaintiffs posting on Cook's Facebook campaign page." (Id. ¶ 17.)

         The next day, the Board sent a letter to All-Star. (Ex. F (Termination Letter) to Defs.' Mot. [Doc. # 27-7].) The June 27, 2018 letter "invoke[d] the District's right to require the immediate termination of Ms. Ashleigh Nicole Thibault from all Torrington assignments for 'due and sufficient cause'":

Under the terms of that agreement, due and sufficient cause is defined, in part, as "violations of standard of conduct towards the public, staff, students or other employees of the Board." On or about June 25, 2018, Ms. Thibault posted a comment on social media that referenced Torrington students in an unprofessional and unacceptable manner. Such conduct violated state and federal laws regarding student confidentiality that she, as an agent of the BOE in her capacity as a school bus driver, has an obligation to adhere to. We cannot and will not tolerate such conduct toward any of our students.

(Id.) Following the receipt of this letter, All-Star terminated Plaintiff from her employment as a school bus driver. (Am. Compl. ¶ 19.)

         Plaintiff now sues Defendants Molly Spino, in her individual capacity, and the Torrington Board of Education. (Id. ¶¶ 5, 6.) Count One recites a First Amendment retaliation claim brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and it alleges that both "Defendants caused All-Star to terminate Plaintiffs employment" in response to her speech "endorsing a political candidate and criticizing her opponent on a campaign social media site." (Id. ¶¶ 20-23.) Count Two raises a nearly identical retaliation claim, but it is directed only at Defendant Spino and makes the additional allegation that Defendant Spino's acts "were taken with malice and reckless disregard" for Plaintiffs rights. (Id. ¶ 24.)

         Defendants Spino and the Board move to dismiss these claims.[1] Both Defendants move to dismiss Count One, for failure to state a claim. Defendant Spino also moves to dismiss Count Two, on the grounds that she is entitled to qualified immunity.

         II. Discussion

         A. ...


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