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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.

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          Mary E. Kelly, Thomas W. Meiklejohn, Livingston, Adler, Pulda, Meiklejohn & Kelly, Hartford, CT, for Plaintiff.

          Danielle Van Katwyk, Attorney to be Noticed, Denver, CO, Johanna G. Zelman, Michel Bayonne, Jenna M Goldman, Ford Harrison, LLP, Hartford, CT, for 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 Plaintiff's 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

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Connecticut General Assembly seat in the 65th 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].) Plaintiff's 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 [Plaintiff's] 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 Plaintiff's employer, All-Star, to complain about Plaintiff's 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 Plaintiff's 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 ...

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