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United States ex rel. Bias v. Tangipahoa Parish School Board

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

September 13, 2017

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, ex. rel. RONALD BIAS
v.
TANGIPAHOA PARISH SCHOOL BOARD, ET AL.

         SECTION “L” (1)

          ORDER AND REASONS

         Before the Court is Defendant Tangipahoa Parish School Board's motion for judgment on the pleadings. R. Doc. 195. Plaintiff opposes this motion. R. Doc. 213. Additionally, before the Court are cross-motions for summary judgment from relator Ronald Bias, and the sole remaining Defendant Tangipahoa Parish School Board (“TPSB”). R. Docs. 197, 206. Having considered the parties' briefs and the applicable law, the Court now issues this Order and Reasons.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This action arises out of an alleged misappropriation of United States Marine Corps (“USMC”) funds and resulting retaliation. On November 1, 2006, relator Ronald Bias retired from the Marine Corps as a lieutenant colonel. Following his retirement, he was employed by the Tangipahoa Parish School Board as a senior marine instructor for the Junior Officers' Training Corps ("JROTC") at Amite High School. On June 18, 2009, the USMC contacted Mr. Bias to inform him that it had mistakenly allowed him to retire two years early. As a result of this error, the Marine Corps paid Mr. Bias $106, 000 for which he had been ineligible. Accordingly, he was provided with the option of repaying those benefits or re-enlisting for a period of 15 months so as to become eligible for retirement. Mr. Bias chose the latter. Although JROTC positions are ordinarily filled by retired officers and employed by the schools, the USMC allowed Plaintiff Bias to continue his position as a JROTC instructor at Amite High School in order to fulfill his re- enlistment. Therefore, Mr. Bias was to be employed by the USMC rather than the school. According to Mr. Bias, he was informed that he would remain at this assignment for 15 months, at which point he could either re-enlist or retire.

         As the senior marine instructor, Mr. Bias supervised Mr. Foster, a marine instructor and retired master sergeant in the Marine Corps, and reported to Mr. Stant, principal of Amite High School, both of whom were employees of the Tangipahoa Parish School Board. Mr. Bias alleges that in September 2009, he became aware that Mr. Foster planned to request that the Marine Corps reimburse him for non-JROTC activities, including an out-of-state trip by the school's crosscountry team. Mr. Bias then notified both Mr. Stant and the Marine Corps of Mr. Foster's intentions. However, with Mr. Stant's approval, Mr. Foster persisted and made the request, which was denied. As a result, in part, Mr. Foster was decertified as a senior instructor with the JROTC. Mr. Bias reported an additional alleged misappropriation in April 2010, which involved reimbursement for non-JROTC related concession stand supplies.

         Later that month, on April 12, 2010, Mr. Bias was informed by the Marine Corps that he would be transferred to a New Orleans school district if he did not retire. Mr. Bias asserts that this transfer constituted retaliation against him for “whistleblowing.” Because Bias believed the transfer would be detrimental to his career and would cause considerable strain to his family, Mr. Bias chose to retire instead of taking the assignment. His retirement occurred sometime after he had completed his 15 months of active service. Additionally, Mr. Bias asserts that between the time of the reported misappropriation of funds and the transfer order, Stant and Foster attempted to undermine his ability to perform his job by shouting at him, badgering him at school meetings, and spreading rumors.

         In September 2012, Bias filed this lawsuit against the Tangipahoa Parish School Board as well as Mr. Stant and Mr. Foster, in their official capacities. R. Doc. 1. He asserted claims under the False Claims Act (“FCA”), 31 U.S.C. §§ 3729-3733, including a qui tam action and a retaliation claim. Bias later amended his complaint to add claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and state law against the defendants. The defendants moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim or, alternatively, for summary judgment. This Court, relying on Rule 12(b)(6), dismissed Bias's FCA retaliation claim because he had not sufficiently alleged that the defendants caused his employer, the Marine Corps, to transfer him. The Court additionally dismissed Bias's Section 1983 and state law claims as time-barred. After the Court entered a scheduling order regarding Bias's sole remaining claim, the FCA qui tam action, Bias moved for leave to file a second amended complaint. This was denied by the magistrate judge and that denial was affirmed by this Court. The parties settled the remaining FCA claim and final judgment was entered on the previously-dismissed claims in the defendants' favor in January 2015.

         Bias timely appealed the Court's ruling and in March 2016, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the ruling in part and remanded in part. R. Doc. 129. The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's dismissal of the Section 1983 claims and state law claims as time-barred. However, the Fifth Circuit reversed the dismissal of Bias's FCA retaliation claim against the School Board and remanded it to the district court in accordance with its opinion. R. Doc. 129. In reversing the district court's dismissal of the claim, the Fifth Circuit found that although Bias was employed by a different entity, the School Board may be liable because, under § 3730(h), liability extends to defendants “by whom plaintiffs are employed, with whom they contract, or for whom they are agents.” R. Doc. 129-1 at 10. The Fifth Circuit concluded, “exactly what the relationship was between Bias and the School board is unclear. It is plausible, though that he was, as claimed, an agent [of TPSB].” U.S. ex rel. Bias v. Tangipahoa Par. Sch. Bd., 816 F.3d 315, 325 (5th Cir. 2016). Additionally, the Fifth Circuit concluded that Foster and Stant's attempts to undermine Bias's ability to perform his job plausibly constituted retaliatory acts. Id. at 327.

         II. PRESENT MOTIONS

         Before the Court is Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings. Also before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment.

         Defendnat TPSB first asserts that Plaintiff Bias should be judicially estopped from bringing the present claim because Plaintiff failed to disclose the claim to the Bankruptcy Court during his bankruptcy proceeding. R. Doc. 195-1 at 3-6. Plaintiff Bias responds arguing that there is confusion within the Bankruptcy Code and Plaintiff was not required to disclose the present claim because he was not directed by the Court or his attorney to do so. R. Doc. 213 at 3-4. Second, Defendant alleges that Plaintiff's claims are barred by the Feres doctrine because adjudication of the claims will required the Court to improperly interfere with military decisions. R. Doc. 197-1 at 13. Finally, Defendant argues that it is entitled to summary judgment because Plaintiff has failed to satisfy the elements of the FCA retaliation claim. R. Doc. 197-1 at 11.

         In his motion for summary judgment, Plaintiff Bias argues that he has satisfied all required elements of the FCA retaliation claim. R. Doc. 206-1 at 1.

         The present motions raise three issues: 1) judicial estoppel, 2) the Feres doctrine, and 3) summary judgment on Plaintiff's FCA retaliation claim.

         III. LAW ...


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