Appeals court rules against former Career Prep principal in lawsuit against CCSD

Joshua Kellogg The Daily Times
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — A federal appeals court has ruled against former Career Prep High School Principal Joyce Rock, stating her constitutional rights were not violated when the Central Consolidated School District fired her for speaking against the possible closure of the school.

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling on June 29 reaffirmed U.S. Chief Magistrate Judge Karen Molzen's decision on Aug. 8, 2014, in Rock's lawsuit against the CCSD Board of Education and Superintendent Don Levinski.

Judges Carlos Lucero, Harris Hartz and Jerome Holmes handled the case, and Hartz wrote the judgment.

The appeals court confirmed Molzen's judgment that the termination of Rock did not violate her First Amendment rights when district administrators decided to not renew her contract after she spoke against the possible closure of the alternative high school during a community meeting.

CCSD spokesman James Preminger said in an email the school district respectfully supported the rulings by both courts.

"CCSD supports the First Amendment, but there is more in this case as the rulings against plaintiff Joyce Rock by both the U.S. District Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals shows," Preminger said in an email.

Rock declined comment, but her Albuquerque-based attorney, Timothy White, said they were disappointed with the decision and feel the basic facts disputed in the case were ignored.

"Joyce spoke out publicly in support of Career Prep because it was the right thing to do to protect the students there and the Court's decision simply rubber stamped the superintendent's retaliation against her for not agreeing with the proposal to close the school," White said in an email.

The lawsuit and appeal centered on the possibility of Career Prep being closed to save money and the opposition Rock voiced during a May 8, 2013, community meeting.

The meeting was held to explain the situation to parents and students. Rock spoke publicly at the meeting about her opposition to the proposal to close the school.

Rock was informed on May 29, 2013, her contract would not be renewed, and she was placed on administrative leave for the remainder of her contract.

After her contract was terminated, Rock was named the 2012-2013 secondary school principal of the year by the New Mexico Association of Secondary School Principals.

The court documents state Levinski said the primary reason for Rock's termination was her behavior at the meeting, believing she crossed a line by acting like the school district was trying to hurt the students and the school. He also took offense to Rock's suggestion that a substantial number of students would rather drop out rather than enroll at Shiprock High School if Career Prep closed.

The central issue of the appeal was whether Levinski could fire Rock if he viewed her speech as having a detrimental impact on work relationships. According to the court documents, Levinski said it was Rock's job to support the district.

The judgment said Rock's public opposition of the administration policy was sufficient reason for her termination.

"Rock's public speech did not expose corruption or other unlawful conduct, or even some secret agenda of the District," Hartz wrote in the judgment. "It simply expressed her opposition to the policy adopted by her superiors. And it is well established that the First Amendment does not require a government employer to tolerate such disloyalty from the upper echelons of the administration."

White said they are pursuing the next step of the appeal by asking the full 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to review the case, and he is "prepared to ask the United States Supreme Court to review the case should that not result in allowing Joyce's case to proceed to a jury."

Joshua Kellogg covers education for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627 and Follow him @jkelloggdt on Twitter.