Appeals court revives, remands former Spring ISD teacher's lawsuit over drug dealing on campus allegations

By Karen Kidd | Jan 8, 2019

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AUSTIN – The dismissed case of a former Spring Independent School District teacher who claims he was suspended after he reported alleged drug dealing on campus is revived and headed back to a Harris County court.

A Texas 14th Court of Appeals three-judge panel reversed Harris County 55th District Court's grant of summary judgment on the former teacher's claims about alleged drug dealing by another teacher and remanded the case.

The Appeals Court also affirmed the lower court's decision in the jurisdictional plea of two school officials and its decision to grant summary judgment in favor of the district on the former teacher's takings claim.

The Appeals Court's judgment was handed down in the case of former Dekaney High School teacher Michael D. Van Deelen. Van Deelen had appealed the District Court's earlier take-nothing final judgment in favor of the school district, high school Principal Pamela Farinas and Assistant Principal Corey LeDay.

The lower court concluded that Van Deelen didn't challenge all supporting grounds in Farinas' and LeDay's plea, failed to allege sufficient facts to constitute a takings claim under the state's constitution and making a good faith report to law enforcement, all requirements under the Texas Whistleblower Act (TWA).

"Concluding that Van Deelen raised an issue of material fact as to the TWA claims involving his reports as to a teacher, we reverse the trial court's summary judgment as to those TWA claims," the Appeals Court said in its 20-page memorandum opinion issued Dec. 20.

Justice Martha Hill Jamison wrote the memorandum opinion in which Justice William J. Boyce and Justice Marc Brown concurred.

The case stems from Van Deelen's multiple reports in early 2016 "about what he believed were numerous instances of unlawful drug use and dealing" on the high school's campus "by students and a teacher, Bobby Scott," the background portion of the Appeals Court's opinion said.

Farinas investigated Van Deelen's allegations at the time and found the allegations had no merit. Van Deelen claimed he soon was the target of "adverse personnel actions against him, including reprimands and warnings that he would be terminated if he continued to make false allegations concerning drug use and dealing on the school's campus," the opinion said.

Farinas subsequently recommended to a district human resources department official that Van Deelen be removed from the high school's campus, the opinion states.

The following month, after Van Deelen filed a grievance, he was suspended and barred from the high school's campus. In April, Van Deelen filed his lawsuit against the school district and subsequently amended the case three times, alleging TWA and Texas Constitution violations.

Farinas and LeDay filed a motion to dismiss and jurisdiction plea to under the Texas Tort Claims Act and the state's education code immunity provision, which the district court granted, dismissing the lawsuit against the principle and vice principal with prejudice. The school district filed a motion for summary judgment on the TWA and constitutional claims, which the district court granted in May 2017.

Van Deelen appealed, claiming the District Court was wrong when it dismissed the case.

The Appeals Court affirmed the district court's decision about Farina and LeDay's jurisdiction plea and overruled Van Deelen's argument that Farinas failed to report Van Deelen's allegation's failure to law enforcement.

However, the Appeals Court found an issue of material fact exists about whether Van Deelen was acting in objective good faith when he reported Scott allegedly was dealing drugs on campus. The school district had argued that Van Deelen "jumped to conclusions," the Appeals Court's opinion said.

"We disagree," the opinion said and referred to Van Deelen's allegations that he "saw 20 to 30 pill bottles in the console" of Scott's vehicle and that he observed a student unlock and open the car, open the console and take some of the pills.

The Appeals Court found that a "reasonably prudent teacher with similar training and experience and in similar circumstances" could have drawn the same conclusion, the Appeals Court's opinion said.

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