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State Supreme Court throws out Jorea Marple's lawsuit against WVBE

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State Supreme Court throws out Jorea Marple's lawsuit against WVBE
By Kate White, The Charleston Gazette-Mail

The West Virginia Supreme Court on Tuesday threw out a lawsuit filed by ousted state schools superintendent Jorea Marple against the state Board of Education and its former president, after she was abruptly fired in 2012.

The opinion reversed Kanawha Circuit Judge James Stucky’s decision. Stucky had ruled last year that the school board and former president Wade Linger were not immune from the lawsuit.

“We do not pass judgment on the wisdom, correctness, or fairness of Dr. Marple’s termination,” Justice Menis Ketchum wrote in the opinion. But, he added, “The West Virginia Constitution, statutory law, and her employment contract all gave the Board and Mr. Linger discretion to terminate her position at their will and pleasure.”

Marple claimed her due-process rights were violated when she was fired. She accused Linger of leading a covert agenda to fire her and alleged that he and the board violated open-meetings laws, defamed her and put her in a false light.

In November 2012, state school board members voted to fire Marple, without any advance warning or mention on the board’s agenda. Later that month, in an attempt to fix possible violations of open-meetings laws, the board voted again to fire her, after listing the issue on the meeting agenda.

Following the second vote, Linger read a public statement citing the state’s poor education statistics and saying the board needed to head in a “new direction.” When she was fired, Marple had been superintendent for less than two years.

Linger said after Marple’s firing that the board was “not saying that Superintendent Marple is any more responsible than governors, legislators, educators or board members for these shortcomings.”

Two board members, Priscilla Haden and Jenny Phillips, voted against firing Marple and resigned in protest after the vote.

In his ruling last year denying the motion to dismiss Marple’s lawsuit, Stucky mentioned only one type of immunity — “sovereign,” which protects the state from being sued. But Victor Flanagan, an attorney representing Linger and the board, told justices that his clients are protected by “qualified immunity,” which protects officers of state agencies and boards from being sued. Flanagan also argued that Marple was an at-will employee and that the board had the discretion to fire her.

The Supreme Court unanimously agreed with Flanagan.

“Upon review, we find that Dr. Marple’s complaint fails to allege a cause of action sufficient to overcome the Board’s and Mr. Linger’s discretion to terminate her. Therefore, qualified immunity bars each of her claims,” Ketchum wrote in the 30-page opinion.

Circuit Judge Christopher Wilkes was assigned to the case after Chief Justice Margaret Workman disqualified herself from the case.

“We think the court made the correct decision and addressed all the issues that were before it,” Flanagan said Tuesday. “As we’ve argued for over two years now, we think qualified immunity applied, and I think the law supported that, and I think the Supreme Court did a very nice job of pointing that out, as well as stating that the West Virginia superintendent of schools is an at-will employee.”

Marple had received a highly positive evaluation five months before her firing and a pay raise. Her attorney, Timothy Barber, had argued that at-will workers have protected property and liberty rights. He said liberty deals with reputation and that Marple’s firing was malicious. Barber couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday afternoon.

Marple failed to provide any law that supported her argument that Linger’s statements cast doubt on her established record or portrayed her in a false light, the opinion states. Justices noted that Linger and the board specifically made clear they were not blaming Marple for the shortcomings of the state’s education statistics.

“Rather,” Ketchum wrote, “the Board’s statement was that education statistics in West Virginia are poor compared to the rest of the nation — a fact that long predates Dr. Marple and, unfortunately, appears to outlive her employment as superintendent.

“While the Board’s statement may have come as a shock to Dr. Marple, especially in light of her previous accolades, our role is not to determine whether the Board’s statement was fair or correct, but rather, whether it violated the Constitution.”