Sensabaugh Saga: Washington County school board files motion to dismiss $5 million lawsuit

Zach Vance • Updated Mar 9, 2018 at 9:29 PM

Two significant deadlines related to the ongoing saga between Washington County Schools and suspended David Crockett head football coach Gerald Sensabaugh coincidentally fell on Friday.

Washington County officials had until the end of the day to respond to a $5 million federal lawsuit brought by the former NFL player, and Sensabaugh had until the end of the day to rebut an investigative report, commissioned by the school system, that recommended his termination.

Washington County officials met their deadline by filing a motion to dismiss Sensabaugh’s lawsuit, which alleges the school board and Director of Schools Kimber Halliburton violated his free speech rights when they disciplined him last fall for raising concerns about the school system on social media.

Attorneys Samuel McPeak and Jeffrey Ward, representing the Washington County Board of Education and Director of Schools Kimber Halliburton, argued that Sensabaugh’s claims were not legally interpreted as “adverse actions,” and therefore his constitutional rights were not violated.

“The defendants submit that a letter of counseling or a reprimand that had no adverse effect on the employee’s wages or benefits does not constitute an adverse action,” the motion to dismiss, citing Russell v. Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, states.

“As to the plaintiff’s suspension, the Sixth Circuit has previously determined in assessing First Amendment retaliation claims that a suspension with pay pending investigation of alleged misconduct does not constitute an adverse employment action.”

It should be noted that, should Halliburton ultimately choose to fire Sensabaugh, then his termination would legally qualify as an adverse reaction.

“Our precedents make clear that termination is an adverse employment action, but we have previously found that being placed on paid administrative leave while an investigation is conducted into suspected wrongdoing is not an adverse action,” the defendants’ motion states.

Because Sensabaugh’s suit also lists Halliburton as an individual defendant, the motion to dismiss also argues that she is protected under “qualified immunity,” which shields public officials from damages for civil liability.

Regarding the other deadline, Sensabaugh said he was not going to meet with Halliburton or offer a written rebuttal to the school system’s investigative report, completed by attorney Phillip Baker, which recommends Sensabaugh’s termination.

According to court records, on Feb. 12, Halliburton sent Sensabaugh a letter notifying him of the results of Baker’s investigation and gave him until Feb. 23 to offer a response or attend a meeting.

“If I do not hear from you, then I will make a decision based upon Attorney Baker’s report,” Halliburton said.

That appeared to have been moved to Friday after the Washington County Board of Education voted during its last meeting to release the report’s findings to the public, which included a video of Sensabaugh allegedly using profanity on a bus in front of football players.

On Feb. 14, according to court records, Sensabaugh’s attorney Buck Dougherty sent a public records request to Washington County Board of Education attorney Scott Bennett asking for the “complete investigative file resulting in the Baker Recommedations,” among numerous other requests for personnel files.

On the same day, Bennett responded, saying the school board had not yet voted to release the Baker reports, and as a result, attorney-client privilege prevented Baker’s work from being shared.

Sensabaugh said his attorney has filed a complaint in Washington County Circuit Court regarding the public records.

“I’ve been waiting on an answer if I’m going to coach there or not. They’ve had the outcome of the investigation for God knows how long. They’ve had their recommendation for so long. They already had a deadline, and the first time I agreed to let them extend it for more time,” Sensabaugh told the Johnson City Press.

“I did that, and in the midst of that, what they did was they released a video to the public and tried to get me to come back in and respond to the video. I’m not coming in there to talk because I’ve given them everything, and I know this isn’t an investigation. This is their attorneys giving them legal advice. And they went to the public and said this is going to be an independent investigation, which it clearly was not.”

Sensabaugh said he can prove the report was not an “independent investigation” because the school board’s retainment letter with Baker allegedly states he was hired for legal advice, not to complete an independent investigation.

Even after all this, Sensabaugh said his ultimate goal is to continue coaching football at David Crockett High School.

“That’s my goal. That’s what I’m fighting for. I want to get back there. I have a lot of work to do there. I have a lot of things I want to accomplish there, and it’s a perfect situation for me because it’s a program that’s been in shambles for so long, and I really can change that program around. I firmly believe that,” Sensabaugh said.

“I appreciate all the support in the community, and everybody who is believing in me. I’m going to keep fighting to expose a system that has many flaws and treats people the wrong way.”

Neither Sensabaugh’s attorney Buck Dougherty, nor Halliburton returned messages seeking comment.

It’s unknown when Halliburton will make her final decision on Sensabaugh’s employment.  

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