A wrongful termination case against the Blaine County School District can go to trial, a federal court in Boise ruled Monday night.
In his 55-page decision, U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill denied portions of motions for summary judgement by both the School District and the plaintiff, Craig Eastop, a former elementary school teacher. That gives the two sides 45 days from Nov. 4 to reach a deal out of court, or move to a jury trial.
Eastop is seeking his reinstatement as a teacher and damages. The complaint lists the five members of the school board at the time and Superintendent GwenCarol Holmes, all in their official capacities, as defendants.
Eastop was fired by the school board in November 2017, following 17 years with the district. The decision came after more than a year of reports citing “inappropriate behavior and struggles with alcohol” as an Alturas Elementary gym teacher, according to Winmill’s order.
But those claims aren’t in question. Neither is Eastop’s history with alcohol, which contributed to two misdemeanor DUI convictions.
Rather, his case alleges breach of contract; violation of state law and the federal Rehabilitation Act, which bars discrimination against employees seeking treatment for disabilities including alcoholism; and contravention of his constitutional Fourth Amendment rights protecting him from unreasonable searches.
The latter elements kicked the case to the U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho, where it has trundled forward for months.
Eastop alleges that the district violated its own policy—and subjected him to an unconstitutional search that might reveal a disability, breaking federal law—by requiring him to take a “baseline” test for drugs and alcohol as part of a probation without “reasonable suspicion” that he was drunk or high, as stipulated in district policy. According to the court case, Eastop says his refusal to submit to the test led to the board’s firing him—hence his breach of contract and wrongful termination allegations.
Under its reasonable suspicion policy, the district could have tested Eastop for alcohol, Winmill wrote. But, the insistence on a “suspicionless” test, above and beyond its normal practice, means Eastop has a case for a jury to decide.
“There were clearly concerns about Eastop’s behavior at school,” Winmill wrote, “however there is a dispute of a material issue of fact as to whether the Defendants were justified in requiring Eastop to submit to alcohol testing and firing him for that refusal.”
The incidents that led to the school board’s decision began in September 2016, when Alturas Principal Brad Henson received an email from a teacher regarding sexual comments Eastop made toward her, according to the judge’s decision. A month later, Eastop was arrested for a “third or subsequent” DUI—though the charge was dropped after Eastop’s blood alcohol content proved to be below the legal limit. Afterward, then Superintendent John Blackman and then Human Resources Director Shannon Maza met with Eastop to discuss the incident, and “discuss a plan for his sobriety.”
Eastop presented positive student evaluations during his employment. But in the spring, he again displayed “erratic and inappropriate” behavior, according to depositions cited by the judge; in May, he was put on administrative leave pending a district investigation.
In a deposition, Holmes said there were “safety issues” with Eastop, adding that he had been “acting very erratically, harassing staff, harassing kids, not on his game as far as being able to ensure that the students were safe, because he was not in control of himself.”
She recommended probation. But the board initially opted for termination proceedings in May 2017. At some point between then and August, trustees changed their minds, settling for probation, which included drug and alcohol testing.
In August, Eastop refused to sign the terms of probation, and refused to take an initial test, putting him once more on administrative leave. Less than three months later, he was fired for his refusal to submit to the testing “as prescribed by his Probation Terms,” Winmill wrote.
Paul Stark of the Idaho Education Association is representing Eastop in the case; he could not be reached for comment by press time Thursday.
The School District is prepared to enter mediation to resolve the dispute in the allotted timeframe, district Communications Director Heather Crocker told the Idaho Mountain Express, though it is prohibited from commenting further on personnel matters.
“There are policies in place for employees,” Crocker said in a statement. “We are one step closer to resolving the matter lawfully, fairly and efficiently in order to continue our focus on high expectations and a safe learning environment for all students in Blaine County.”