An Oklahoma County District Court judge declined to dismiss a lawsuit Thursday against State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters and the Oklahoma State Department of Education regarding the allegedly wrongful termination of a former employee, but she left one aspect of the requests pending.
The hearing was the first among three wrongful termination lawsuits against Walters and the department in the past five months. The other two cases are pending in federal court and also name Matt Langston, the department’s chief political adviser, as a defendant.
Thursday’s hearing came after Walters and OSDE filed motions asking Judge Sheila Stinson to dismiss Janessa Bointy’s wrongful termination lawsuit against them.
Bointy is an Edmond parent and former school counselor specialist for Project AWARE, a federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration grant program meant to provide mental health services for students. She was fired in March after she spoke at an Edmond Public Schools board meeting about the mental health services and the grant in the wake of a student suicide that rocked the community. Bointy maintains that she spoke in her personal capacity and only used publicly available information in her speech to increase awareness about the grant.
Bointy’s attorney, Leah Roper, made a similar argument Thursday and also argued that the motion to dismiss should be denied because Bryan Cleveland, OSDE’s attorney, was arguing about the validity of facts of the case, which are generally not at issue in dismissal motions.
“Defendant seeks judgement in its favor based upon its argument of the facts contained within and out of the petition. Still, defendant has not identified any legal defect in the pleadings,” Roper wrote in her response opposing the motion for dismissal.
Cleveland, for his part, attempted to draw the judge’s attention to the video of Bointy’s comments to the Edmond school board to demonstrate that she violated OSDE’s policies by speaking in an official capacity.
Ultimately, Stinson ruled against OSDE and Walters’ motion and denied the dismissal. A second motion to dismiss from Walters in his individual capacity remains pending.
“I’m not surprised by the outcome. The good news on the motion as a whole is that we know a little bit about what the state’s position is now,” Roper told NonDoc after the hearing. “Nothing there really surprised me either. But we’ll be able to progress through the usual discovery channels and continue pursuing this as far as the state goes.”
Approached after the hearing, Cleveland said only, “I’m not authorized to talk to the press.” A spokesperson for OSDE did not return an email seeking comment prior to the publication of this article.
The motion to dismiss at the center of Thursday’s hearing was not the only motion submitted to Stinson asking her to dismiss the suit. In addition to suing Walters in his official capacity, Bointy is also suing Walters in his individual capacity.
As an individual, Walters is represented by Julia Mann, a Texas-based attorney with the firm Jackson Walker LLP. Mann filed a motion to dismiss on behalf of Walters in his individual capacity Oct. 27, but she did not attend Thursday’s hearing, and Stinson declined to issue a ruling on that motion.
Mann did not return a phone call seeking comment prior to publication of this article.
Two other wrongful termination suits pending in federal court
In addition to Bointy’s lawsuit, two other former employees have filed separate lawsuits against Walters and Langston in both their official and individual capacities.
Both cases were filed May 30 by Matthew Colwell and Cheryl McGee in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma. Their claims center on a purported scheme wherein Langston sent different versions of a memo to department staff threatening them with termination if they leaked documents to media. The different versions of the memo contained subtle changes that supposedly allowed OSDE leadership to identify employees who gave the letter to members of the media.
Motions to dismiss both lawsuits have been pending before federal Judge Charles Goodwin since August.
In addition to Cleveland, Scott McElhaney with Jackson Walker LLP is representing Langston and Walters in both lawsuits.