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Ransome v. O'Bier

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Richmond Division

April 20, 2017



          John A. Gibney, Jr. United States District Judge

         This case flows from accusations of racial bias, personal animosity, and political maneuvering in a rural Virginia school district that ultimately led to the plaintiff, Michael Ransome, losing his job as principal of Northumberland Middle School ("NMS"). Ransome brings his complaint against the Northumberland County School Board (the "School Board"), School Board members Dana O'Bier and Gayle Sterrett, and their alleged co-conspirator, local activist Steve Berman. Ransome brings a variety of state law tort claims against O'Bier, Sterrett, and Berman, as well as breach of contract against O'Bier, Sterrett, and the School Board (collectively the "Northumberland Defendants"). He also brings a federal claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1981, alleging that the School Board breached its contract with Ransome due to O'Bier's and Sterrett's racial bias.

         The Northumberland Defendants have moved to dismiss Ransome's claims. The Court grants their motion to dismiss in part and denies it in part. The Court grants the motion to dismiss Ransome's § 1981 claim because § 1981 is not the proper vehicle to assert a discrimination claim against state actors.[1] Ransome's business conspiracy claim fails because Ransome does not have a separate business interest unrelated to his personal reputation or employment interest as required by statute. Ransome claims that the School Board breached his contract when it removed him as NMS principal and made him Director of Achievement Gap Initiative, but this claim fails because the School Board has the power to terminate Ransome's employment under both the contract and Virginia statute. Ransome's claim that Sterrett and O'Bier tortiously interfered with his employment fails because Ransome does not adequately allege breach of contract, an essential element of tortious interference with contract. Finally, Ransome's claim that O'Bier and Sterrett conspired with Berman to tortiously interfere with Ransome's contract fails because the tortious intereference claim fails. The Court denies the motion to dismiss as to Ransome's defamation and conspiracy to defame claims because Ransome has stated a plausible claim for those torts.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The School Board hired Ransome as principal of NMS in June 2014. From 2014 through 2016, Ransome received positive performance reviews from the Northumberland County Public Schools ("NCPS") Superintendent. NCPS renewed his contract in 2015 and again in 2016. Ransome's contract with the School Board includes the following provisions: (1) "The School Board reserves the right to dismiss, suspend, or place on probation Employee . . .;" and (2) the "contract shall not operate to prevent discontinuance of employment as provided or allowed by law."[2]

         In November 2015, O'Bier and Sterrett won election to the School Board. Ransome alleges that from the time O'Bier and Sterrett won their School Board seats through at least the summer of 2016, they, along with Berman, "planned and schemed to remove Ransome as the NMS Principal." (Compl. ¶ 17.) Ransome also alleges that the O'Bier and Sterrett used Berman's membership in a local political action committee, Active Community Members for Education ("ACME"), as a vehicle for their scheme to defame Ransome.

         Ransome identifies two notable events that contributed to the ill will among the parties. First, before Sterrett joined the School Board, Ransome turned her down for a teaching job at NMS. Second, in February 2016, Ransome gave a talk at the Northumberland Public Library on the subject of white privilege after the library's director heard Ransome speak at a church discussion group. Many clashes between Ransome and O'Bier, Sterrett, and Berman came to a head on June 29, 2016, at a special School Board meeting to approve year-end expenditures. With the School Board chairman absent, O'Bier and Sterrett moved to reassign/promote Ransome to an administrative, non-principal position and, over the objections of the School Board's counsel, forced a vote on the motion. Only O'Bier and Sterrett voted in favor of the motion. Another School Board member voted against and a fourth abstained. The motion passed.

         II. DISCUSSION [3]

         Ransome alleges that the defendants' behavior gives rise to claims for discrimination under 42 U.S.C. § 1981; business conspiracy under Va. Code Ann. §§ 18.2-499, 18.2-500 (Count I); breach of contract (Count V); tortious interference with a contract (Count III); conspiracy for tortious interference with contract (Count II); defamation (Count IV); and conspiracy to defame (Count II).[4]

         A. 42 U.S.C. § 1981

         Ransome fails to state a claim that the Northumberland Defendants discriminated against him because of his race in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981. The federal remedy for a § 1981 claim against state actors is a claim under 42 U.S.C § 1983. Jett v. Dallas Indep. Sch. Dist., 491 U.S. 701, 737 (1989). Because Ransome did not use the proper vehicle to bring a § 1981 claim against state actors, the Court dismisses the claim without prejudice and grants Ransome leave to re-plead only this claim.[5]

         B. Business Conspiracy

         Ransome alleges that O'Bier, Sterrett, and Berman took action against Ransome in an effort to assassinate his character and destroy his reputation as an administrator and lecturer, but he does not state a claim for statutory business conspiracy. Under Va. Code §§ 18.2-499, 18.2-500, a business conspiracy claim requires "(1) a combination of two or more persons for the purpose of willfully and maliciously injuring plaintiff in his business (2) resulting in damage to the plaintiff." Sunlap v. Cottman Transmission Sys., 287 Va. 207, 214, 754 S.E.2d 313, 317 (2014) (quoting Allen Realty Corp. v. Holbert, 227 Va. 441, 449, 318 S.E.2d 592, 596 (1984)). "An individual does not have a business interest if 'he neither owned a company, did business as a separate organization, nor had a separate tax identification number for his contractor status.'" Cox v. MAG Mutual Ins. Co., 3:14-cv-377-JAG, 2015 WL 1640513, at *6, n. 17 (E.D. Va. Apr. 9, 2015) (quoting Shirvinski v. U.S. Coast Guard, 673 F.3d 308, 321 (4th Cir. 2012)). The statute does not protect "personal reputation and interest in employment." Andrews v. Ring, 226 Va. 311, 319, 585 S.E.2d 780, 784 (2003).

         Ransome claims that the defendants' conduct harmed his reputation as a school administrator and as a lecturer, but these allegations fail to state a claim. First, Ransome does not allege any role as an administrator outside of his employment as NMS principal, so the claim fails as related to that allegation. Next, Ransome fails to state a cognizable business interest in lecturing because Ransome does not allege that he owned a lecturing company, did business giving lectures as a separate organization, or had a separate tax ...

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