.Nameplate February 2013 Issue
Legal Brief                                                         Page 10

 

Perseverance in Personnel

Matters   

BY WAYNE YOUNG

Wayne Young
A teacher with a serious health impairment filed a disability discrimination claim against the school district where she was employed, claiming the district was not properly implementing her disability accommodation plan. The school district responded, denying any discrimination against the teacher.

The superintendent and school board attorney had no way to know that, by challenging this initial claim, they were embarking upon a 10-year journey though the legal system, involving 11 separate judicial and administrative proceedings. Had they known, they would have no doubt wrangled with the eternal question that arises in such legal matters: Is it worth the effort?

Fight or Flight?
Almost daily, I have a conversation with a superintendent or administrator who is facing the prospect of taking on the challenge of a substandard or misbehaving employee. The conversation almost always includes a discussion of the likelihood of litigation or other due-process proceedings. At that point, I generally ask this question: Are you willing to fight the battle?

The administrative or judicial resolution of these matters can take years, and it is often both a financial drain on the school district and an emotional drain on the administrators involved. And, unfortunately, even with strong facts and solid legal representation, school districts may find themselves at the end of these cases with a less-than-satisfactory result.

In light of these daunting realities, perhaps school administrators can find some comfort and hope in the case referenced above, a recent case in my state. It began when the teacher had the tragic misfortune of suffering two separate severe head injuries while serving as an employee of the school district. Neither injury was work-related, but clear evidence indicated these injuries contributed to erratic and inappropriate workplace behavior by the teacher.

After the school district began sanctioning the behavior, the teacher embarked on a more-than-decadelong legal battle with the district and other agencies.

Continuous Challenges
While still employed after suffering her injuries, the teacher filed separate disability discrimination claims with the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights and federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Both claims were dismissed. Sometime later, she was charged with multiple misdemeanor criminal offenses after making death threats against several students at her school. After being convicted of the offenses, her employment was terminated by the school district.

The teacher challenged her dismissal through the state’s administrative hearing process. The tribunal upheld her termination, and she appealed that decision to the Circuit Court. Her termination was upheld by the court. She then filed a federal lawsuit against the district, again alleging disability discrimination. The trial court dismissed her suit. She appealed the dismissal to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld the decision of the trial court.

The teacher then filed a state court disability discrimination action against the school district. Once again, the trial court dismissed the case. She appealed to the state Court of Appeals, which affirmed the dismissal by the trial court.

Next, her teaching certificate was revoked by the state licensing agency, the Education Professional Standards Board. The teacher appealed the revocation to the circuit court, which upheld the decision of the standards board. On appeal, the Kentucky Court of Appeals upheld the certificate revocation.

Doing What’s Right
Although the facts of this case are not typical of most employee discipline matters, the case is both instructive and enlightening to school districts faced with the prospect of a potentially arduous and protracted personnel matter.

At any time during this decadelong ordeal, the school district leaders and legal counsel could have simply said, “Forget it!” and given up. The result would have been that a teacher who was completely incapable of effectively performing her duties would have supervised and taught hundreds of students during that period.

A willingness to persevere in an effort to do the right thing mattered to those students.

Wayne Young is executive director and general counsel for the Kentucky Association of School Administrators in Frankfort, Ky. E-mail: wayne@kasa.org

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