Sensabaugh amends lawsuit against Washington County Schools; Halliburton attorneys request summary judgement

Zach Vance • Updated Apr 30, 2018 at 7:02 PM

Attorneys representing Gerald Sensabaugh and Washington County Schools have filed a flurry of motions and documents in the last month in regard to a $5 million federal lawsuit the former David Crockett High School head football coach filed against the school system earlier this year. 

Sensabaugh is alleging Washington County Schools officials violated his free-speech rights when he was suspended last fall after he took to social media to raise various concerns related to the school system. 

The latest filings follow Director of Schools Kimber Halliburton’s March 15 decision to officially terminate Sensabaugh’s employment, based on allegations that he used profanity in front of his players and engaged in unprofessional conduct.

On April 6, Sensabaugh’s attorney, Buck Dougherty, filed a motion requesting the court allow his client to submit an amended complaint in light of his termination. 

“Granting this motion allows plaintiff to describe in further detail the adverse action that he continues to suffer under as a result of the defendants’ actions, which now includes full termination of his employment,” the motion states. 

Counsel representing Washington County Schools initially argued that Sensabaugh being suspended did not legally constitute “adverse action,” but based on previous court rulings, termination of employment does constitute “adverse action.” 

On April 17, the court granted a joint motion allowing Sensabaugh to amend his complaint, and the defendants’ 21 days to respond to the amended complaint, which includes additional context into Sensabaugh’s firing. Both parties also have additional time to submit their joint discovery plan. 

A day later, on April 18, Judge Pamela Reeves denied Washington County Schools’ motion to dismiss for failing to state a claim. 

Reeves had also ordered both parties discuss consenting to a magistrate judge’s authority on the case, but on April 26, both parties submitted a joint document stating they would not consent to proceed before a magistrate judge. 

Magistrate judges often function like assistants to district judges, and because a district judge’s docket can easily fill with felony criminal trials due to the right to a speedy trial, magistrate judges can take over cases such as civil disputes to lighten the load for district judges and get an earlier trial for those involved in the case.

Since Sensabaugh specifically names Halliburton as an individual defendant in the case, Halliburton’s defense filed a motion Monday that seeks a summary judgment on the matter. Halliburton’s attorneys argue she cannot be held personally liable, and as director of schools, she is covered by “qualified immunity,” which shields public officials from damages related to civil liability. 

Unless the two parties can reach a settlement, a trial date has been scheduled for Sept. 10, 2019, in Knoxville. 

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