CHARLESTON – The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals has ruled that the West Virginia Department of Education has qualified immunity and that the plaintiff’s claims are not sufficient enough to overcome the DOE’s qualified immunity.
Tammy McGraw filed a lawsuit against the West Virginia Department of Education after her employment was terminated. She alleged a constitutional tort claim and a claim for wrongful termination. The circuit court denied the DOE’s motion to dismiss based on qualified immunity and the DOE appealed that order to the Supreme Court.
“Ms. McGraw alleged that the DOE leaked a letter it received from her previous government employer revealing that she was under investigation for misallocating public funds for personal use,” the May 17 opinion states. “Although she does not dispute that she was, in fact, under investigation on those charges, she alleges the DOE’s leak of this letter violated her constitutionally-protected liberty interest.”
Justice Menis Ketchum authored the majority opinion. Justice Margaret Workman, deeming herself disqualified, did not participate in the decision of the court and Judge Joseph K. Reeder sat by temporary appointment.
“Upon review, we find that Ms. McGraw failed to outline a liberty interest violation sufficient to overcome the DOE’s qualified immunity because the truth of the allegedly leaked letter..was not disputed,” the opinion states. “Therefore, the DOE’s qualified immunity bars Ms. McGraw’s constitutional tort and wrongful termination claims. We reverse the circuit court’s order and dismiss Ms. McGraw’s claims against the DOE.”
The WVDOE received a letter from McGraw’s previous employer, the Virginia Department of Education that stated she was under investigation for misallocating public funds for personal use. The letter was allegedly leaked to local news media in response to media inquires as to why the DOE terminated her at-will employment.
McGraw filed the lawsuit against the DOE and, on June 16, 2016, the circuit court entered an order denying the DOE’s motion to dismiss, finding that McGraw pleaded sufficient facts to outline a liberty interest violation and that qualified immunity does not bar her claims for a constitutional tort or wrongful termination. The DOE then appealed that circuit court’s ruling.
“It is undisputed that Ms. McGraw was, as stated in the letter, under investigation in Virginia for misallocating public funds for personal use in her previous employment and that she failed to disclose this investigation to the DOE,” the opinion states. “She alleged her termination was based on the DOE learning of this investigation through its receipt of the letter, and the DOE seems to concur by arguing that it terminated her for her lack of candor in failing to disclose the investigation during her employment interview.”
Ketchum wrote that even if the DOE leaked the letter to local news media in response to media inquiries on why it terminated McGraw, it would have been an honest response to the media’s questions, thus meaning there was no fraud, malice or oppression in the response.
Unless the DOE acted fraudulently, maliciously or oppressively in terminating her at-will employment, qualified immunity bars recovery under McGraw’s claim for wrongful termination, according to the opinion.
“Upon review of Ms. McGraw’s complaint, we find no factual allegations revealing fraud, malice or oppression in the termination of her at-will employment,” Ketchum wrote. “She merely claims that the DOE did not fully explain the reason why it terminated her at-will employment, which is not fraudulent, malicious or oppressive, as required to overcome qualified immunity. Accordingly, the circuit court erred by failing to dismiss Ms. McGraw’s claim for wrongful termination.”
The Supreme Court ruled that it reversed the circuit court’s order and dismissed the claims against the DOE.
WVDOE is represented by Jan L. Fox and Mark C. Dean of Steptoe & Johnson.
McGraw was represented by John D. Wooton of Wooton, Davis, Hussell & Ellis; and Matthew S. Criswell
W.Va. Supreme Court of Appeals case number: 16-0679