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July 2012 Court Report

27-Jul-2012

Read the July 2012 issue of Court Report, which includes such topics as teacher tenure, open meetings and the Students First Act. This newsletter is an ACSBA member benefit.

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July 2012 Issue of Court Report

Montgomery County Board of Education v. Moon-Williams, ---So.3d---, 2012 WL 2161637 (Ala. June 15, 2012)

This case originated under the now-repealed Teacher Tenure Act. A special education teacher was accused of forging IEP documents for multiple students. After being confronted, she was issued a letter of reprimand by the Special Education Director. Subsequently, the board suspended the teacher for 20 days without pay. The teacher contested the suspension and a hearing officer was appointed. In reaching his decision, he used the two-pronged “just cause” standard often applied in employment law. He found that the board’s action was substantively justified, but procedurally flawed because the teacher was subjected to “workplace double jeopardy” since she was reprimanded and suspended for the same conduct. He reversed the suspension and the board appealed.

The board argued that the hearing officer wrongfully applied the two-pronged just cause standard to the case in violation of Alabama law and improperly applied the doctrine of workplace double jeopardy. The Court of Civil Appeals agreed noting that the Alabama Supreme Court had already determined that the standards commonly used in collective bargaining agreements and employment law are improper in the context of the Teacher Tenure Act. The Court also noted that Alabama law does not recognize the concept of workplace double jeopardy. Therefore, because the Court found the hearing officer’s ruling to be arbitrary and capricious, the Court reversed him and ordered a new hearing.

 

Slagle v. Ross, ---So.3d---, No. 1090638 (Ala. June 15, 2012)

In this case, a candidate for the superintendent’s position sued the board for violating the Open Meetings Act. The candidate alleged that there were two sets of violations. First, a quorum of the seven-member board participated in a meeting with other leaders of the community, and second, the board members participated in back-to-back serial meetings in violation of the Act.

In the first incident, local community leaders invited certain members of the board to a meeting or forum. When the board members realized that four of them were present (constituting a quorum of the board), one volunteered to step out. When another member had to return to work, the member who volunteered to step out returned to the meeting.

In the second incident, the superintendent wanted to meet with the board members to discuss her goals and objectives. The superintendent scheduled back to back meetings; each with the board president and two other board members. At no time were there four members in each meeting.

The trial court agreed with the board that because no quorum at any of the meetings or sessions, there was no violation of the Act. The plaintiff appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court. The Court agreed with the plaintiff that the Act requires a liberal interpretation, but also agreed with the board that it had no authority to construe meanings that were outside the “terms of the Act.” Under the unambiguous terms in the Act, no “meetings” occurred because no quorum was present. The Court specifically rejected the notion board members could engage in serial meetings. Therefore, the trial court’s order was affirmed. Slagle and the Alabama Press Association have filed an application for rehearing of the 5-4 decision.

Board of School Commissioners of Mobile County v. Christopher, ---So.3d---, 2012 WL 1760236 (Ala. May 18, 2012)

This case also originated under the now-repealed Teacher Tenure Act. The board terminated the teacher after declaring a reduction in force. The teacher appealed and the hearing officer reversed the board’s decision. While deciding that the reduction in force was appropriate, the hearing officer determined that this particular employee should have been spared in light of her exemplary record and performance for the school system. The hearing officer also noted that federal funds that the school system received after the termination could have been used to rehire the teacher. The Supreme Court reversed the hearing officer’s decision and found that he had exceeded his authority by considering the employee’s value to the system. Accordingly, because the hearing officer determined that the reduction in force was justified, the termination was also justified.

Brandi Moody v. Montgomery County Board of Education, Montgomery County Circuit Court, CV-2011-901202 (Feb. 13, 2012)

Brandi Moody v. Montgomery County Board of Education, OAH No. 12-5 (May 30, 2012)

This suit was filed after the board transferred an assistant principal. Because the employee was being transferred outside her feeder zone, she requested a full due process hearing, complete with subpoenaed documents and witnesses, a court reporter, and the right to cross examine witnesses, but the board refused. She and her counsel were permitted to address the board regarding why she should not be transferred. The employee filed suit asserting she was entitled to a full due process hearing as well as numerous other arguments. The board filed a motion to deny the petition on the grounds that the employee failed to exhaust her administrative remedies by filing a direct appeal with the Administrative Law Judge. After a hearing, the trial court found that the employee failed to exhaust her administrative remedies and would be required to do so before proceeding with any of her other arguments in the trial court.

The employee subsequently filed a similar action before the Chief Administrative Law Judge asserting similar arguments. The board responded that, while the statute was unclear as to what a “hearing” was for outside the feeder pattern transfers, the Legislature did not intend boards to hold full due process hearings for such a routine personnel matter. The ALJ agreed and found that a minimal due process (or Loudermill) hearing was all that was required. The matter is now pending review before the original trial court.


Jayne Harrell Williams

Jayne is a shareholder with the law firm of Hill, Hill, Carter, Franco, Cole & Black

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