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Caleb v. Carranza

Court of Appeals of Texas, First District

March 30, 2017

MABLE CALEB, JACKIE ANDERSON, PATRICK COCKERHAM, DIANN BANKS, AND HERBERT LENTON, Appellants
v.
RICHARD A. CARRANZA, SUPERINTENDENT OF THE HOUSTON INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT, Appellee

         On Appeal from the 164th District Court Harris County, Texas Trial Court Case No. 2010-21712

          Panel consists of Justices Bland, Massengale, and Lloyd.

          OPINION

          Michael Massengale Justice

         This is an appeal from the dismissal of a lawsuit against the former superintendent of the Houston Independent School District. The appellants, who are former employees of the school district, sought injunctive and declaratory relief stemming from an investigation that culminated in a recommendation to terminate their employment.

         The pleadings do not allege a facially valid challenge to any constitutional right, and they are barred by governmental immunity. As such, the trial court properly granted the plea to the jurisdiction. We affirm.

         Background

         We take the appellants' pleadings as true for purposes of this appeal. The dispute arises from an investigation by the Houston Independent School District into allegations of employee misconduct.[1] Mable Caleb was the principal of Key Middle School when, in the summer of 2009, she was appointed principal of Kashmere High School. Caleb was asked to remain as transitional principal at Key until a permanent replacement could be found. After a replacement principal was appointed at Key, Terry Grier became the superintendent of HISD. Grier replaced the newly appointed Key principal with another person, resulting in an outcry and demonstrations from the community.

          On October 31, 2009, after being relieved of all responsibilities relating to Key, Caleb moved all of her personal belongings and some school property from Key to Kashmere. She was assisted by appellant Herbert Lenton, Key's operations manager, in accordance with HISD procedures. In late November 2009, Grier hired a law firm to investigate the transfer of property, which by then had attracted some media attention. The investigation focused on the transfer of property from Key to Kashmere and on allegations that teachers at Key provided students with actual test problems to practice for standardized tests in order to increase their scores.

         The attorney-investigators questioned Caleb and Lenton, as well as others connected to Caleb, including appellants Jackie Anderson, Patrick Cockerham, and Diann Banks. Anderson was a union representative and friend of Caleb who served as the Special Education Department Chair at Key from 2008 to 2009. Cockerham had been an aide to Anderson at Key, and he transferred to Kashmere with Caleb. Banks had been a math teacher at Key from August 2005 through June 2010.

         Upon completion of the investigation, the law firm reported its findings to HISD. Grier shared the findings with the media, the public, and the Texas Education Agency. Based on the report, Grier terminated Caleb in April 2010, and he proposed termination of Cockerham and nonrenewal of the one-year contracts of Anderson and Banks. Upon instruction from Grier, Lenton's supervisor recommended that he be terminated. Administrative hearings cleared Anderson and Cockerham, and the hearing officers recommended that they not be dismissed from employment. Lenton also sought an administrative hearing, but the appellate record does not indicate the results of that hearing. Although Banks was cleared of allegations that she participated in the standardized testing scandal, she resigned due to an unpleasant work environment.

         Caleb, Anderson, Cockerham, Banks, and Lenton filed suit against numerous defendants, including Grier in his official capacity. Among the defendants, this appeal pertains only to Grier. The live pleading at the time the claims against Grier were dismissed was the fifth amended petition. That petition alleged that Grier violated various provisions of the Texas Constitution when he "terminated" the appellants "based on a report he commissioned" without giving them "the opportunity to refute the claims contained within before making them public."

         The appellants sought a declaration that their constitutional rights were violated by Grier. They requested an injunction preventing Grier from violating their constitutional rights and requiring him to reinstate them "to positions of employment occupied or reasonably comparable to those respectively occupied before November 12, 2009, with all attendant benefits" and to expunge the report from their personnel records. The appellants also sought recovery of attorney's fees and costs.

         Grier filed a plea to the jurisdiction. He did not challenge any jurisdictional facts. Instead, he argued that he was immune from the claims. The trial court granted the plea and dismissed the claims against Grier with prejudice. That order was appealed.

         While the appeal was pending in this court, Caleb settled her claims against Grier, and she filed an agreed motion to dismiss her appeal, which we now grant. See Tex. R. App. P. 42.1(a)(1). The granting of this motion leaves Anderson, Cockerham, Banks, and Lenton as the remaining appellants. While this appeal has been pending, Grier was replaced by ...


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