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Federal judge dismisses Sensabaugh lawsuit against Washington County Schools, Halliburton

Zach Vance • Nov 19, 2018 at 7:19 PM

A federal judge has determined the free-speech rights of former David Crockett football coach Gerald Sensabaugh were not violated when Washington County Schools director Kimber Halliburton reprimanded him last fall and ultimately fired him in March. 

On Monday, U.S. District Judge Pamela Reeves officially dismissed the $5 million lawsuit, filed by Sensabaugh, that alleged Halliburton violated his First Amendment rights for retaliating against him for Facebook posts he wrote that were critical of the school system. 

“The court finds that no reasonable jury could find that Sensabaugh’s Facebook posts were a substantial motivating factor for Halliburton’s decisions to issue the Letters of Guidance/Reprimand/Suspension or to terminate Sensabaugh. Halliburton decided to terminate Sensabaugh only after a complete investigation by an outside law firm and after Sensabaugh had been given an opportunity to respond to the investigation findings,” Reeves wrote in her ruling. 

The judge ultimately determined Halliburton would have fired Sensabaugh absent his Facebook posts. 

“Sensabaugh’s actions of insubordination, use of profanity toward students, and retaliatory conduct toward students and co-workers were an independent justification for Halliburton’s actions,” the filing stated. 

Recounting the ordeal in her 19-page memorandum opinion,  Reeves described the case as “something out of the movies.” 

“A high school football star from East Tennessee makes it big in the NFL, plays eight years professionally, and then returns home to coach a previously mediocre high school program to ‘unprecedented success,’ ” Reeves wrote.  

“In Hollywood, the plot would inevitably climax with the team overcoming long odds to clinch the state championship. But in this case, that’s not what happened. Instead, in the middle of the football season, the school district called foul play on the coach, the coach claimed the district was out of bounds, and now the court must step in as referee.”

Sensabaugh’s initial Facebook posts criticized the school system for deteriorating facilities, specifically at Jonesborough Elementary, the subject of his first posting titled “The real problem in Washington County.”

That post contained photos showing student faces, and because of that, Sensabaugh was asked to remove just the photos, but not the content, the opinion stated. 

Two days later, Sensabaugh wrote another post criticizing the school system for using prison laborers while students were on-site. Halliburton texted Sensabaugh about both posts, saying he needed to “know all the facts.” 

“I don’t need to know all the facts. Just my observation,” Sensabaugh responded to Halliburton, according to the court filings. “Just let me know the next step. Fire me or deal with it.” 

Sensabaugh was subsequently issued a Letter of Guidance on Oct. 5, 2017, from David Crockett Principal Peggy Wright.

In that letter, she cited his alleged use of profanity when speaking to students, his failure to follow doctors’ orders regarding football players who have not been cleared to practice or play; his unprofessional conduct in communicating with other employees; and his failure to comply with multiple requests to remove the photo depicting students’ faces from his Facebook page. 

The next day, on Oct. 6, Sensabaugh met in person with Wright. During that meeting, Halliburton was told Sensabaugh became “agitated, began pacing back and forth, became belligerent and confrontational.” 

Following that meeting, Sensabaugh went to the cafeteria, where the team was eating its pre-game meal. It was there Sensabaugh allegedly warned he was “coming after” Athletic Trainer Bryon Grant and challenged the injured student in front of the whole team, the court opinion states. 

“’Did you tell them I practiced you?’ ” Sensabaugh was quoted in the court opinion. “The student answered ‘yes’ while holding his head down as if he was afraid of Sensabaugh. Wright received almost identical accounts from other parents and coaches.” 

A Letter of Reprimand/Suspension was issued four days later, and Sensabaugh was soon placed on administrative leave.

In February, a law firm hired by the school system to investigate the allegations recommended Sensabaugh be fired.

Halliburton then invited Sensabaugh to rebut the report or make a case in his defense, to which he never responded. Sensabaugh was fired March 15, 2018. 

 

 

 

 

 

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