United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Charlottesville Division
IRA D. SOCOL, Plaintiff,
ALBEMARLE COUNTY SCHOOL BOARD, and MATTHEW S. HAAS, individually and as Superintendent of Albemarle County Public Schools, Defendants.
Glen E. Conrad, Senior United States District Judge
Socol, a former employee of the Albemarle County Public
Schools ("School System"), filed this action
against the Albemarle County School Board ("School
Board") and the Superintendent of Schools, Matthew S.
Haas, asserting claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and
Virginia law. The case is presently before the court on the
defendants' motion to dismiss. For the reasons set forth
below, the motion will be granted in part and denied in part.
following facts are taken from the amended complaint and
documents relied on therein. See Phillips v. LCI
Int'l Inc., 190 F.3d 609, 618 (4th Cir. 1999)
(noting that the court can properly consider documents that
are "integral to and explicitly relied on in the
complaint" when ruling on a motion to dismiss).
February of 2013, Socol was hired to work as the Design
Project Manager for the School System's Design 2015
project. Am. Compl. ¶ 10. He became the Assistant
Director of Educational Technologies in March of 2015.
Id. ¶ 11. In July of 2017, Socol was selected
to direct the Department of Accountability, Research and
Technology, which was subsequently reorganized into the
Department of Learning, Engineering, Access, and Design
("LEAD Department"). Id. ¶¶
about March 5, 2018, Haas, who was then Deputy Superintendent
of Schools, informed Socol that he was Haas' choice to
assume the new role of Chief Technology and Information
Officer ("CTIO"). Id. ¶ 14. At the
time of their discussion, Haas had been selected to replace
Pamela Moran as Superintendent. Haas was aware that Socol had
been considering other professional opportunities outside the
School System. Id. ¶ 17. In order to convince
the plaintiff to forego other job opportunities, Haas agreed
to the salary requested by the plaintiff. Id. ¶
18. Haas also agreed that Socol would remain in the position
of CTIO throughout Haas' forthcoming tenure as
Superintendent. Id. ¶ 19. Haas indicated that
he "expected to serve two four-year
terms." Id. Based on Haas'
representations, Socol agreed to accept the position.
Id. ¶¶ 19-20.
School System publicly announced that Socol had been named
the CTIO on April 24, 2018. Id. ¶ 20. On July
1, 2018, Haas assumed the title of Superintendent.
Id. ¶ 16. In his role as CTIO, Socol was the
head of the LEAD Department. Id. ¶ 27. He
reported directly to Haas. Id. ¶ 16.
was heavily involved in the development of a new pilot high
school center known as Albemarle Tech. Id.
¶¶ 30-31. Haas appointed Socol and several other
School System employees to a committee responsible for
overseeing the project (the "Steering Committee").
Haas "made [Assistant Superintendent Deborah] Collins
the senior member of the committee" and "Lindsay
Snoddy the Project Manager," and he "gave Rosalyn
Schmitt, then the Director of Finance and Facilities,
financial oversight." Id. ¶ 33. The
Steering Committee was tasked with opening a new technical
high school, a new space for the LEAD Department, and a new
professional learning center, all of which would be located
in the same leased space. Id. ¶ 34. The
Steering Committee had approximately five months from its
formation to complete its work and open the new space to
students and administrators. Id.
School Board gave the Steering Committee a budget of $250,
000 to be used for furnishing the entire project.
Id. ¶ 38. The budget included professional
services, cabling, acoustical paneling, carpeting, and
furniture. Id. The allotted funding had to be spent
by June 30, 2018. Id. Two of the Steering Committee
members proposed hiring Jennifer Greenhalgh, a local interior
designer, to develop furnishing plans for the project at a
cost of $150.00 per hour. Id. ¶ 39. Socol
opposed the proposal, believing that it would be a waste of
money and that the Steering Committee, with the assistance of
the Building Services Department, could do the work.
Id. However, the other committee members disagreed
with Socol and elected to retain Greenhalgh to work on the
project. Id. Greenhalgh subsequently provided the
Steering Committee with a list of recommended furnishings
that totaled $488, 000, excluding professional fees,
appliances, cabling, carpeting, and furniture for certain
areas. Id. ¶ 40.
receiving Greenhalgh's proposal, the Steering Committee
asked Elodie Wolfe, an office assistant partially assigned to
the LEAD Department, to compile a list of turnishings that
would be more in line with the Steering Committee's
budget. Id. ¶ 41. In late April or early May
2018, Wolfe provided a presentation to the Steering
Committee, which included Greenhalgh's recommendations,
as well as a variety of alternative furnishings from vendors
such as Wayfair and IKEA. Id. ¶ 42.
"Without objection from any of its members, the Steering
Committee approved the purchase of the items in Ms.
Wolfe's alternate recommendations and, as the meeting
unfolded, those items were all placed in a Google spreadsheet
to which all committee members had access." Id.
The spreadsheet included the particular project and room for
which an item was purchased, the advertised price, the final
negotiated price, the date ordered, and the purchase card
("P-Card") used to make the purchase. Id.
alleges that the Steering Committee agreed that the LEAD
Department's P-Cards would be used to make the furniture
purchases approved by the committee. Id. ¶ 44.
"In some cases, multiple LEAD P-Cards were used to make
furniture purchases because such purchases would have
exceeded the available limit on any one such P-Card, which
was clearly noted in the [spreadsheet." Id.
¶ 45. The total amount of the purchases exceeded $50,
000. Id. ¶ 46. However, "no one project
(Albemarle Tech, the LEAD space, or the professional learning
center) had furnishings that cost in the aggregate in excess
of $50, 000." Id. Additionally, "[n]one of
the individual pieces of furniture (nor any group of
furnishings for any one space or purpose) authorized for
purchase by the Steering Committee exceeded $5, 000 in
cost." Id. ¶ 47. Socol further alleges
that none of the committee members objected to the purchases,
"either as to the items purchased or as to the manner in
which such purchases were made." Id. ¶ 48.
28, 2018, Socol received an email from Thomas Winder, the
Purchasing Agent for Albemarle County, questioning the fact
that multiple furniture purchases had been made from the same
vendor. Id. ¶ 50. Socol discussed the furniture
purchases with Reeda Deade, who handled the budget for the
LEAD Department. Deade advised Socol that '"this is
what we do all the time' [and] 'no one's ever
said anything.'" Id. ¶ 50.
receiving Winder's email, Socol requested a meeting with
Winder "so that he could understand what, if anything,
had been done wrong and how any issues could be
resolved." Id. ¶ 51. On June 11, 2018,
Socol met with Winder and other individuals, including
Assistant County Attorney Amanda Farley, Id. ¶
5 3. During the meeting, Farley "argued that the
furniture purchases for the three separate projects should
have been aggregated, and as aggregated, would have required
competitive bidding." Id. ¶ 54.
14, 2018, the School Board held a closed meeting during which
it ultimately approved the furniture purchases made by the
Steering Committee. Id. ¶ 57. Socol
subsequently learned from Haas that three School Board
members had voted against approval, and that one of the
members had suggested that Socol should be fired.
Id. ¶ 59.
20, 2018, Socol met with John Gray, Assistant Director of
Human Resources, and Clare Keiser, then Director of
Educational Quality, to discuss the purchasing. Id.
¶ 60. During the meeting, Keiser accused Socol of
purchasing furniture for his own benefit. Id. Socol
advised Gray and Keiser that such accusation was both untrue
and unfair. Id. Socol alleges that neither he nor
anyone else received any improper benefit as a result of the
furniture purchases, and that the Steering Committee's
only goal was to complete the project on time and within
budget. Socol further alleges that the furniture in question
remains in use today. Id. On July 27, 2018, Haas and
Keiser met with Socol and advised him that his time with
Albemarle County had '"come to an end.'"
Id. ¶ 66. When Socol objected, Haas advised him
that he had '"no rights here.'"
Id. Haas offered to allow Socol to resign and
receive a severance package if Socol would not speak publicly
about Haas' actions. Id. However, Socol refused
to resign. Id. On August 1, 2018, Haas sent Socol a
letter terminating Socol's employment as of that date.
Id. At some point, the School System prepared an
investigation report concluding that Socol had violated
Albemarle County procurement policies ("Investigation
Report"). Id. ¶ 70; see also
Investigation Report, Dkt. No. 15-2. The Investigation Report
was not shared with Socol until after his termination.
Id. ¶ 70. Socol alleges that he did not receive
a meaningful opportunity to contest the findings in the
School System has a written policy applicable to the
termination of employment as a result of resignation, layoff,
or dismissal ("Termination Policy"). Termination
Policy, Dkt. No. 9-1. The policy defines
"dismissal" as "an involuntary separation from
employment due to disciplinary infractions or inability to
perform the work." Id. at 1. In the case of
dismissal, "it is expected that the principal/department
head/designee has thoroughly investigated the incidents
leading to the dismissal, has documented any action taken,
and has applied discipline in a fair and consistent
fashion." Id. The Termination Policy further
provides as follows:
A. The Board shall make the final decision on all
recommendations by the Superintendent for the dismissal of
licensed personnel. A vote of the majority of a quorum [of]
the Board is necessary for dismissal.
B. The Superintendent may dismiss classified employees and
non-licensed administrative employees for good and just
cause. A dismissed employee may appeal the decision under the
approved grievance procedure, except for classes of employees
as defined in Policy GBMA.
Id. at 2.
was a non-licensed administrative employee at the time of his
termination. Am. Compl. ¶ 74. He did not receive any
form of pre-termination hearing, and he was "not within
the class of employees who have post-termination grievance
rights." Id. ¶¶ 75-76.
plaintiff was the only employee who was terminated for the
furniture purchases made by the Steering Committee.
Id. ¶ 79. None of the other committee members
were disciplined in any manner, even though the entire
committee approved the purchases. Id. The plaintiff
alleges that Snoddy, Collins, and Schmitt, "who were the
members of the Steering Committee best able to ensure
compliance of the furniture purchases with the procurement
regulations, have not only not been disciplined, but have
been promoted." Id. ¶ 80.
alleges that Haas made or published statements about his
termination to "multiple people" outside the School
System. Id. ¶ 137. On the same day that Socol
was given the choice to resign or be terminated, Hass called
Moran, the former Superintendent, and advised her of the
termination decision and the alleged reasons for it.
Id. ¶ 90. Socol alleges that he and Moran are
co-authors and business associates, and that Haas was aware
of their professional relationship at the time he contacted
Moran. Id. ¶ 91. During the phone call, Haas
indicated that Socol had '"misused P-Cards
deliberately and egregiously'" and that he had
"'admitted to the conduct in the [Investigation]
Report.'" Id. ¶¶ 93, 96. Socol
alleges that Haas' statement was completely false and
that it impugned his reputation for honesty, integrity, and
morality. Id. ¶ 94. Socol further alleges that
Haas suggested that the termination would have a deleterious
effect on the sales and publicity of the book that Socol had
co-authored with Moran, and that Socol could have avoided the
problem by resigning and accepting a severance agreement.
Id. ¶¶ 98-99.
August 1, 2018, the School System issued a press release
announcing that Socol was "no longer... employed by the
school division" and that Jamie Foreman, the Deputy
Technology and Innovation Officer, had been chosen to head
the LEAD Department on an interim basis. Id. ¶
101; see also Press Release, Dkt. No. 15-1. The
press release highlighted Foreman's qualifications and
the services provided by the LEAD Department. Id.
alleges, upon information and belief, that Haas also informed
Kevin Castner, another former Superintendent of Schools, of
the alleged reasons for Socol's termination. Id.
¶ 103. Within two weeks of the adverse employment
decision, Castner called Socol to discuss potential job
prospects. Id. ¶ 104. During the phone call,
Castner suggested that information publicized regarding
Socol's termination could hinder Socol's ability to
obtain a job with another school division. Id. Socol
alleges that the School System "did not provide [him]
with a pre-publication hearing before its agents publicized
the alleged reasons for [his] termination, despite the fact
that those reasons implicate his good name and
reputation." Id.; ¶¶ 112. Socol
further alleges that the publication of the alleged reasons
for his termination has prejudiced him in his profession.
Id. ¶ 113. For instance, an educational
furnishings company withdrew a preliminary offer after
learning about Socol's termination. Id. ¶
105. "Likewise, the manner of [the plaintiffs]
termination cost him a professional opportunity with BCWH
Architects." Id. ¶ 106.
filed the instant action against the School Board and Haas on
October 1, 2018. The defendants moved to dismiss the
complaint under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil
Procedure. On January 28, 2019, the court held a hearing on
the defendants' motion. At the conclusion of the hearing,
the court took the motion under advisement and granted the
plaintiff leave to file an amended complaint.
February 7, 2019, Socol filed an amended complaint against
the defendants, in which he asserts the following claims:
denial of due process in violation of the Fourteenth
Amendment under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Counts I and II);
breach of contract (Count III); and defamation per se (Count
rV). In ...