CHARLESTON, West Virginia — A former West Virginia schools superintendent cannot sue the state Board of Education over its decision to fire her, the state's Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.
The court ruled in favor of the board, which appealed a circuit judge's denial of its request to dismiss Jorea Marple's lawsuit.
Marple was fired in 2012. She sued the board and former board President Wade Linger last year in Kanawha County Circuit Court, alleging defamation and violation of due process rights.
The board's lawyers said in a filing with the Supreme Court that both the board and Linger were entitled to qualified, or good faith, immunity for discretionary actions taken in terminating Marple's employment.
The Supreme Court agreed in dismissing Marple's complaint.
"We do not pass judgment on the wisdom, correctness, or fairness of Dr. Marple's termination," the justices wrote. "The West Virginia Constitution, statutory law, and her employment contract all gave the Board and Mr. Linger discretion to terminate her position at their will and pleasure. As a matter of law, Dr. Marple had no constitutionally protected interest in continued employment as superintendent. "
Had the lawsuit been allowed to proceed, the board's lawyers argued, the case could have spawned a flood of similar meritless litigation by disgruntled state employees who are fired from at-will positions. They also said the state and taxpayers would have incurred added and unnecessary expenses "while dishonoring the public policy embodied in the clear constitutional and statutory prescription that the position of Superintendent is an at-will position."
Marple's lawyers said Linger and other board members held secret meetings to discuss her termination before firing her at a regular meeting on Nov. 15, 2012. The matter was not on that meeting's agenda. Board members revisited Marple's firing on Nov. 29, 2012, and again voted to oust her. Two board members who opposed Marple's dismissal resigned a month later.
"Dr. Marple's employment contract clearly and unambiguously provided that she was an at-will employee and contained no guarantee of future employment or procedure for termination," the high court wrote.
Marple had served as the state's schools chief since 2011, and previously served as deputy superintendent.
At the time of her firing, the board noted state students scored below the national average on most performance indicators reported by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Linger also cited how Education Week gave West Virginia failing grades for K-12 student achievement, and that one in four high school students didn't graduate on time, if at all.
Linger further alleged that a "defensive" Department of Education showed no sense of urgency regarding the lagging performance, and instead stonewalled or offered excuses when pressed to change.
Several people at the board's meeting noted Marple had carried out numerous recommendations from a wide-ranging public schools system audit, which described a system with plenty of bureaucrats and ample funding but short on accountability and results.
The board embraced all but a handful of the audit's findings, declaring the end result "a clear path for student success." The board's response listed more than 70 steps taken under Marple that responded to or meshed with the audit's more than 120 recommendations.