GPISD Board President Named In Federal Wrongful Termination Lawsuit

Burke Hall, Grand Prairie School Board President

Grand Prairie ISD Board President Named In Federal Wrongful Termination Lawsuit

In the pending case of Hawkland vs. GPISD, Robert Hawkland claims that Grand Prairie Independent School District wrongfully terminated him. The defendants named individually and in their professional capacities, including Burke Hall, School Board President; Vicki Bridges, Assistant Superintendent; and Phil Jimerson, Interim Assistant Superintendent of Operations.

The only GPISD school board member named in the federal lawsuit was Burke Hall.

Case Background

For 20 years, Hawkland was an employee of GPISD. His employment was terminated on June 30, 2019, without cause. The decision-makers behind this termination included the now deceased Superintendent of Schools, Susan Simpson Hull and the defendants listed in the case. Hawkland alleges that Hull, Vicki Bridges, and Phil Jimerson engineered, individually and in their capacities on the board, Hawkland’s termination. The plaintiff was called in and requested to suddenly resign. When the plaintiff refused to leave his position, his employment was suddenly terminated.

There was no criticism regarding his behavior or professional conduct. Performance reviews have shown to be excellent throughout Hawkland’s career. As the manager of the district’s HVAC systems, he had received merit raises for his performance over the past five years. There is no counseling on his record over his 20-year employment.

It is alleged that Hawkland’s termination is the result of him exercising his freedom of speech in connection with a management practice investigation involving accounting practices due to the splitting of invoices that the defendants wanted to conceal.

Throughout 2017, Hull was facing criticism from citizens in the school district concerning her use of a residence that was purchased with $700,000 in school district funds. There were improvements made to this residence that totaled more than $100,000. One of those improvements was a ten-foot-tall privacy fence. This action triggered an investigation into the accounting and management practices being carried out by administrators.

The defendants in Hawkland vs. GPISD implemented an informal policy that blocked disclosures and public discussions about the residential improvements and the funds used to complete them. In the process, employees that were believed to be a threat to the non-disclosure of the investigation were either discredited or terminated.

Pursuant to the informal policy that the defendants activated, the defendants and Hull gave inconsistent explanations regarding the use of school bond funds on the improvements done to the superintendent’s residence. Only a portion of the investigative report was released showing items the public already knew about through the news media. The board refused to release the rest of the report.

When one member on the Board of Trustees was in favor of releasing the entire report, Hull labeled this person as “disruptive.” No action was taken against Hull and the other defendants when the “disruptive” board member was forced to give up any notes and was shut out of meetings.

The Claim

Hawkland was one of the employees that cooperated in the investigation. He gave opinions and responded to questions that were asked by a member of the Board of Trustees and outside attorneys. Hawkland’s statements were not in favor of Hull, particularly invoice splitting for expenditures to avoid having to get board approval to spend money on invoices over a certain amount.

Hull was aware that Hawkland was participating in the investigation and it was leaked that he was the source of information. As a result, he was excluded from meetings he originally attended and his department budget was slashed. Defendant Bridges passed the word to the plaintiff that he was to keep his mouth shut and started questioning contractors about the plaintiff’s activities.

The Counts

Three counts have been brought against the defendants by the plaintiff. They are:

1. First Amendment Retaliation Claim [Monell Liability] Against Defendant – The defendants implemented an informal policy that allowed them to interfere with the plaintiff’s right to free speech while he was acting as a private citizen. Superintendent Hull retaliated against the defendant due to his protected speech. The defendants aided Hull in carrying out these actions.

2. First Amendment Retaliation Claim Against Defendants Burke Hall, Vicki Bridges and Phil Jimerson in their individual capacities – The defendants participated in the informal policy that allowed them to interfere with the plaintiff’s right to free speech.

3. Damages – The plaintiff is seeking damages for lost earnings, loss of earning capacity, compensatory damages, loss of insurance and other benefits, attorney fees, and loss of retirement benefits.

We reached out to Burke Hall, GPISD School Board President with the following questions:

1. In the case Hawkland vs. GPISD in which you are named can you tell me if you are responsible for your own attorney fees or if GPISD is responsible for those costs? Why do you think you were the only board member named in the wrongful termination federal lawsuit?

2. Mr. Hawkland’s lawsuit contends that he was dismissed based on retaliation can you think of any reason why he might feel that way?

GPISD’s legal counsel replied to our request and sent us the following.

“Grand Prairie ISD has retained the services of Leasor Crass, P.C. to assist in its defense of the matter you reference in your email.  Although the Texas Public Information Act does not require the District to respond to fact questions posed as information requests, the District has instructed me to respond to your question.  See Open Records Decision No. 563 at 8 (1990). 

As of the date of your request, the District has paid $4,738.65 in the defense of this matter.  As for additional comments regarding the suit, neither the District, Board, nor any individual named in that suit has any additional comment as this is current, pending litigation.”

You can read the full details in the case filing by clicking here.