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December 2014 Court Report: Eleventh Amendment Immunity, Title VII-National Origin Discrimination, and Attorney General's Opinions

10-Dec-2014

Read the December 2014 issue of Court Report, which includes such topics as Eleventh Amendment immunity, Title VII-national origin discrimination, and attorney general's opinions. This newsletter is an ACSBA member benefit.

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December 2014 Issue of Court Report

 

Eleventh Circuit

Walker v. Jefferson County Board of Education, 771 F.3d 748 (11th Cir. Nov. 4, 2014)

Weaver v. Madison City Board of Education, 771 F.3d 748 (11th Cir. Nov. 4, 2014)

These two unrelated cases were consolidated because they both dealt with the issue of whether Alabama school boards were entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity, which protects states and state agencies from federal suits. Walker involved multiple employees who sued the board claiming that its practice of determining their hourly and overtime rates violated the Fair Labor Standards Act. Weaver involved an employee who sued the board for violating his reinstatement rights following his military deployment under USERRA. Both boards moved to dismiss the suits on the grounds that the boards were entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity. The Weaver court denied the board’s motion to dismiss, but theWalker court granted the board’s motion to dismiss. The Weaver board and Walkeremployees appealed the respective decisions to the Eleventh Circuit which consolidated the appeals. AASB filed an amicus brief in support of the boards.

The boards argued that the Eleventh Circuit’s 1990 ruling in Stewart v. Baldwin County Board of Education, which held that local school boards were not entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity, should be overruled in light of later significant developments in Alabama’s immunity law regarding local school boards. 908 F.2d 1499 (11th Cir. 1990). The boards relied upon the 2012 decision in Versiglio v. Board of Dental Examiners of Alabama, which placed significant weight on how the state courts viewed the agency in question to assist in its determination of Eleventh Amendment immunity. 686 F.3d 1290 (11th Cir. 2012).

The Eleventh Circuit used a three-factor test to determine whether the boards were entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity: (1) how state law defines the boards; (2) how much control Alabama has over the boards; and (3) how much fiscal autonomy the boards have, including whether they are funded by the state and whether the state coffers are responsible for judgments against the boards.

The Court agreed with the boards that the first factor supported Eleventh Amendment immunity in light of the multiple recent decisions from the Alabama Supreme Court that school boards enjoyed sovereign immunity from state law claims. However, the Court noted that this factor was not dispositive of the Eleventh Amendment immunity issue. The Court determined that the local boards had sufficient autonomy over their funding and affairs, particularly in the area of personnel matters which were the underlying functions at issue in the instant cases. Because the remaining two factors suggested limits on the state’s control, those factors did not support Eleventh Amendment immunity. Accordingly, the Eleventh Circuit held that the boards were not agencies of the state for purposes of Eleventh Amendment immunity and remanded the cases to the lower courts to continue their proceedings.

 

Fong v. School Board of Palm Beach County, Fla., 2014 WL 5570460 (11th Cir. Nov. 4, 2014)

This case involved a probationary teacher of Chinese descent. The administrators engaged in multiple observations of the teacher’s classes and were critical of her teaching style, classroom management abilities and inability to accept constructive criticism. The principal also allegedly made comments to the teacher regarding her “very strong accent”. He claimed that neither he nor her students could understand her and suggested that she record herself and listen to the way she was speaking. The teacher sued the board for national origin discrimination after she was nonrenewed. The district court granted summary judgment to the board and the teacher appealed.

The teacher asserted that the principal’s statements regarding her accent were direct evidence of intentional discrimination. The Court noted that employment action based upon an employee’s accent can be national origin discrimination, but also conceded that such concerns can be a legitimate basis for an employment decision where effective communication is reasonably related to the employee’s performance, such as a teaching position. The Court found that the principal’s statements were not discriminatory, but reasonably related to his legitimate concern that the students be able to understand the teacher.

The Court next determined that the board’s stated reasons for nonrenewing the teacher—her poor classroom management skills and teaching style—were legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for nonrenewing her. The teacher’s attempt to quarrel with the wisdom of the principal’s reasons were insufficient to demonstrate pretext. The Eleventh Circuit reaffirmed the principle that it was not a “super-personnel department” that would second-guess an employer’s decisions. Its only job was to determine if the reason given was honest; not whether it was correct or appropriate. Accordingly, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision in favor of the board.

 

Attorney General’s Opinions

A.G. Op. 2015-011 (Ala. Nov. 6, 2014)

This opinion was requested by a board that asked whether the thirty-minute planning period required by Ala. Code §16-1-1 was required to be during the school day when students receive regular instruction or whether it could be scheduled during the work day even beyond when students are present to receive regular instruction. The Attorney General noted that the term “teaching day” is not defined by the law and no other law or regulation controls the scheduling of the planning period. Absent such authority, local boards have the authority to determine what constituted the “teaching day” and have the option to determine whether the planning period was scheduled before, during or after the regular school day.

 

Jayne Harrell Williams

Jayne is General Counsel & Director of Legal Advocacy for the Alabama Association of School Boards

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