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After Henry Lyons gave a student athlete an "F" in his course at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, a university committee determined that the student should get a second chance. The paper, graded by the committee, got a D+.
Lyons complained to the school's chancellor about the preferential treatment afforded student athletes and asked for an investigation. The university didn't offer him a job for the next semester, which Lyons said was retaliation for speaking out about the treatment of student athletes, a violation of his First Amendment rights.
Whose Speech Is It, Anyway?
The Eighth Circuit reversed a district court ruling denying a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. Lyons, the court said, failed in his pleadings to show a causal connection between the protected speech and the adverse employment action the university took.
Lyons didn't identify specifically what speech he made that was protected -- "an inexcusable but not fatal pleading error" -- leading to some confusion about which speech, exactly, he was claiming protection for. A public employee speaking as a citizen on a matter of public concern has his speech protected, but if the employee is acting in his official employment capacity, then his speech isn't protected.
In addition to speaking with the chancellor, Leo Morton, Lyons also spoke to F. Wayne Vaught, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and Reginald Bassa, Director of the Program for Adult College Education. Vaught and Bassa claimed that speech made during this interaction, which occurred as a result of a grade he had assigned, was "due to his role as a UKMC lecturer." Ultimately, though, the Eighth Circuit sussed out that the only protectable speech was the first meeting with Chancellor Morton because that meeting occurred with other community members present, taking his statements about preferential treatment for student athletes beyond his job requirements.
They're Not Mind Readers
Not that demystifying the complaint helped any. With the Vaught/Bassa meeting out of the picture, Lyons had to show a connection between the arguably protected statements he made during the meeting with Morton and his de facto firing by -- guess who? Vaught and Bassa, who were in a position to not recommend him for teaching for the next semester. That he couldn't do, because nowhere did he plead that Vaught and Bassa "were aware of the alleged protected speech or even knew of Lyons's meeting with Chancellor Morton and the community leaders."
And so the Eighth Circuit reversed the district court's order, demonstrating that if a case is sort of on the edge, a badly pleaded complaint can push it over into dismissal country.