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Socol v. Albemarle County School Board

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Charlottesville Division

June 25, 2019

IRA D. SOCOL, Plaintiff,
ALBEMARLE COUNTY SCHOOL BOARD, and MATTHEW S. HAAS, individually and as Superintendent of Albemarle County Public Schools, Defendants.


          Hon. Glen E. Conrad, Senior United States District Judge

         Ira D. 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.


         The 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).

         In 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. ¶¶ 12-13..

         On or 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."[1] Id. Based on Haas' representations, Socol agreed to accept the position. Id. ¶¶ 19-20.

         The 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.

         Socol 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.

         The 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.

         After 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. ¶ 43.

         Socol 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.

         On May 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.

         After 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.

         On June 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.

         On July 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 report. Id.

         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.

         Socol 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.

         The 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.

         Socol 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.

         On 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.

         Socol 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.

         Procedural History

         Socol 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.

         On 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 ...

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