March 2013 Court Report
Read the March 2013 issue of Court Report, which includes such topics as fair dismissal, reduction in force, the Teacher Tenure Act and direct appeal. Click the links to read more about the cases. This newsletter is an ACSBA member benefit.
March 2013 Issue of Court Report
Fair Dismissal Act – Reduction in Force (Teacher Tenure Act)
This case was originally reported in the January 2013 edition of Court Report. The Court of Civil Appeals has now withdrawn that opinion and replaced it with a new opinion.
This case, which began before the Students First Act went into effect, involved the board’s decision to terminate several employees after declaring a reduction in force due to financial difficulties. The hearing officer reversed the terminations asserting that the board had failed to demonstrate how the terminations would improve the board’s financial condition. The hearing officer also held that the board provided insufficient notice of the reasons for the reduction in force because even though it offered evidence of “overstaffing,” it did not allege that as part of the “financial difficulties” reason included in the recommendation of termination. The board appealed to the Court of Civil Appeals arguing that the hearing officer applied the wrong burden, improperly required the board to establish financial savings and improperly found the notice insufficient.
The Court first addressed the hearing officer’s finding that the board failed to give the employees notice that it was using overstaffing as an additional ground for termination. The Court found no evidence which supported the hearing officer’s finding that overstaffing was a separate ground for terminating the employees and therefore rejected the hearing officer’s finding that the board should have listed it as an express ground. Therefore, the Court held that the board’s notice was sufficient.
The Court then addressed the “justifiable decrease in jobs” ground provided in the notice. Noting that the ground had not been defined, the Court noted that “a decrease in jobs is ‘justifiable’ when a school board is capable of providing a good reason for reducing or eliminating the number of positions or the number of employees within each position”. The Court specifically found that an “adverse change in the financial circumstances of a school board” constituted a justifiable reason for decreasing jobs. The board has the burden of proof to show that the decrease in jobs is justifiable. Therefore, the board must prove that the system is in poor financial condition and that reducing jobs is a rational response to addressing that condition. If the board is able to present a prima facie case of justifiable decrease in jobs, the burden then shifts to the employee to disprove the ground. The employee cannot satisfy that burden by showing that some other employee should have been terminated. That discretion lies with the board. The employee must either show that there was no rational basis for declaring the RIF, that the decision was personal, political or otherwise illegal or that the board failed to follow its RIF policy.
Because the hearing officer applied the incorrect analysis, the Court reversed the decision and remanded the case to the hearing officer to determine--based on the evidence already heard--whether the board proved it was suffering from financial hardship and whether its RIF decision was a rational method of responding to that hardship. The Court specifically noted that the hearing officer should not determine whether the board’s decision was the best method for addressing its hardship.
Teacher Tenure Act - Direct Appeal
Board of School Comm. of Mobile County v. Thomas, -- So.3d --, 2013 WL 135563 (Ala.Civ.App. Jan. 11, 2013)
This case also began prior to the Students First Act. It addressed the proper forum for determining whether a teacher had attained tenure.
The teacher was hired by the board for two complete school years until she resigned halfway through the third school year in January 2006. She was rehired
by the board for the 2006/2007 and 2007/2008 school year, at which time she received notice of nonrenewal. The teacher filed a direct appeal with the
administrative law judge seeking a declaration that she had earned tenure and was therefore entitled to a hearing prior to any attempt to terminate
her. The ALJ agreed, found that she had attained tenure and ordered the board to afford her a hearing. The board filed a certiorari petition in circuit
court asking it to reverse the ALJ’s decision, but the circuit court denied its petition and the board appealed.
The Court of Civil Appeals declined to consider the appeal on the grounds that the ALJ had no jurisdiction to enter the original order. The question of whether the teacher had tenure could only be decided by the circuit court; not an ALJ. The ALJ could only determine whether a tenured teacher had been denied a hearing. Therefore, the Court declared the previous proceedings void and dismissed the appeal.