By Traci Chapman
The 2016 firing of Mustang Public School District athletic director Chester “Chuck” Bailey was just the start of a legal battle that recently saw an abrupt turnaround – a battle now set for a Nov. 2 settlement conference.
That hearing was set Oct. 15, three months after the Tenth Circuit United States Court of Appeals overturned a May 18, 2017 ruling by U.S. District Judge Joe Heaton in favor of the district and former Superintendent Dr. Sean McDaniel.
Heaton’s ruling granted summary judgment requests filed by MPS and McDaniel; motions for summary judgment assert an opposing party has not proven facts at issue in the case – in this action, that Bailey hadn’t proven the district and superintendent had violated his constitutional rights in firing him.
Bailey was terminated from his job of about seven years in July 2016 after McDaniel discovered the athletic director sent two letters to Oklahoma County District Court judges in connection with a criminal case filed against Dustin Bailey Graham, Bailey’s nephew. The former athletic director wrote to those judges, both at the time Graham was sentenced and about a year later when his nephew sought a shorter prison sentence, testifying both to the man’s character and remorse for his actions.
Graham in 2014 pleaded guilty to felonies connected to his clandestine videotaping of women in the bathroom of his apartment, including one who was a minor, which resulted in a single child pornography manufacturing charge. He was initially given a 10-year sentence, including five years in the custody of the Department of custody.
McDaniel said during the board meeting that resulted in Bailey’s termination he didn’t have a problem with him writing letters on his nephew’s behalf; he lost faith in Bailey’s judgment, he said, because he utilized district letterhead in drafting it.
McDaniel learned of the letters’ existence in July 2016, after one of Bailey’s relatives, upset with the shortened sentence, sent the superintendent Graham’s court records, a copy of the initial Bailey correspondence to the judge and a handwritten note.
The former athletic director never disputed he wrote both letters; in fact, he told McDaniel about the second correspondence, sent by Bailey to support Graham’s 2015 request for a sentence reduction, when the superintendent confronted him about the first, questioning the athletic director’s choice to use district letterhead to voice support for a man convicted of a crime connected to child pornography.
“McDaniel became concerned that Bailey would not acknowledge any problem with his use of the letterhead and that McDaniel lost confidence in Bailey’s judgment as a result,” Heaton wrote in his May 8 order.
Bailey alleged the district violated his First Amendments rights to free speech in firing him and that in pursuing his termination, McDaniel “acted intentionally with malice or with reckless disregard.”
Heaton found McDaniel’s choice to recommend Bailey’s firing – and Mustang Board of Education’s choice to follow that recommendation – did not violate Bailey’s First Amendment rights to speech and also found McDaniel was protected by qualified immunity, a doctrine that asserts government officials do not bear liability for civil damages if “their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.”
“In short, the court concludes the speech at issue here is not protected under the First Amendment because it does not involve a matter of ‘public concern’ – Plaintiff’s claim against the school district therefore fails as a matter of law,” Heaton’s judgment stated.
The appeals court disagreed, July 24 remanding the case back to Heaton’s court.
While the higher court ruled McDaniel had immunity for his actions, it did not agree that was as a result of the rule of law – but, rather, that law hadn’t been settled on the illegality of the superintendent’s actions at the time he took them.
“The law at issue was not clearly established at the time he (McDaniel) violated it,” the court wrote.
While Heaton did not believe Bailey proved Mustang violated his constitutional rights, the higher court took a broader approach to the issue, stating the former athletic director wrote letters on Graham’s behalf on a matter of public concern – a protected action.
In the suit, Bailey sought $75,000 in damages, legal costs and fees from both Mustang Public Schools and McDaniel personally. He also asked for an injunction order MPS to reinstate him to his former position or “an award of front pay for a period that the court determines is just and equitable, as well as punitive damages from the superintendent.
That meant the case against MPS was once again active, effective Sept. 5. On Oct. 12 the court granted a joint request to have the matter heard by Magistrate Judge Suzanne Mitchell at a Nov. 2 settlement conference. In the meantime, both the district and Bailey must in good faith work to settle the case between them before that date, court filings decreed.
MPS Board of Education met Oct. 26 in executive session to grant board president Jeff Landrith authority to settle the lawsuit. Landrith was unable to make any comment on the pending legislation, as was Interim Superintendent Charles Bradley, except to confirm the board’s move in giving the board president decision-making authority during the Nov. 2 conference.