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Cockrel v. Shelby Cty. Sch. Dist. - 270 F.3d 1036 (6th Cir. 2001)

Rule:

To defeat the plaintiff's retaliation claim at trial, the defendants must show by a preponderance of the evidence that they would have terminated plaintiff even had she not engaged in constitutionally protected activity. To defeat plaintiff's claim on a motion for summary judgment, however, a substantially higher hurdle must be surpassed, particularly where the moving party bears the ultimate burden of persuasion on this issue at trial. To merit summary judgment in their favor, the defendants may not simply bring forth enough evidence to allow a jury to find that they would have terminated plaintiff regardless of her speech. Rather, in reviewing a motion for summary judgment, courts must view the evidence and draw all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, and summary judgment in favor of the party with the burden of persuasion is inappropriate when the evidence is susceptible of different interpretations or inferences by the trier of fact. 

Facts:

Plaintiff Donna Cockrel, a tenured fifth-grade teacher at Simpsonville Elementary School in defendant Shelby County, Kentucky School District ("District") was terminated on July 15, 1997 by the District's superintendent, Dr. Leon Mooneyhan. The District's grounds for Cockrel's termination were insubordination, conduct unbecoming a teacher, inefficiency, incompetency, and neglect of duty. As the basis for these charges, the District detailed 17 specific instances of misconduct engaged in by Cockrel, including: failing to teach and disparaging the school's "Just Think" curriculum; calling Principal Harry Slate names in front of staff members and students; and failing to cooperate with the Title I program and the Title I aides in her class, as well as with other faculty members and staff. Cockrel claimed that the District fired her due to her decision to invite Woody Harrelson, the television and film actor most famous for his role as "Woody" on the network television show "Cheers," and others to her classroom to give presentations on the environmental benefits of industrial hemp. Hemp, an illegal substance in Kentucky, was a plant from which both marijuana and a valuable fiber can be harvested. Cockrel filed a First Amendment retaliation lawsuit in federal district court the District. The district court granted the District's subsequent motion for summary judgment. Cockrel appealed.

Issue:

Did the district court err in granting the District's motion for summary judgment?

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

The court of appeals held that although Cockrel was speaking in her role as an employee when presenting information on the environmental benefits of industrial hemp, the content of her speech most certainly involved matters related to the political and social concern of the community, as opposed to mere matters of private interest. Next, the court held that the District's interests in an efficient operation of the school and a harmonious workplace did not outweigh Cockrel's interests in speaking about the benefits of industrial hemp, an issue of substantial political and economic concern in Kentucky. Finally, the court concluded that a genuine issue of material facts existed from which a reasonable jury could conclude that Cockrel would not have been terminated had she not engaged in constitutionally protected activity.

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