DID THE WOMAN STATE VALID CLAIMS STEMMING FROM HER NONRENEWAL?
Case citation: Gallien v. Goose Creek CISD, 2013 WL 1141953 (Tex. App. – Houston [14th Dist.] 2013) (unpublished).
Summary: Adrienne Gallien was employed as a teacher by the Goose Creek Consolidated Independent School District, but the district nonrenewed her contract. Gallien’s nonrenewal was upheld by the Commissioner of Education. [See, Gallien v. Goose Creek CISD, Dkt. No. 036-R1-0308 (Comm’r Educ. May 2, 2008); Texas School Administrators’ Legal Digest, September 2008]. Gallien then filed suit against the school district claiming that the district (1) nonrenewed her contract for reporting to multiple governmental agencies that her superiors instructed her to alter records to falsely reflect that students had completed certain courses and met graduation requirements; (2) failed to provide the required notice of the proceedings related to the nonrenewal of her contract; and (3) violated the Texas Open Meetings Act. The district, in turn, filed a motion for summary judgment, seeking judgment in its favor prior to trial. Gallien failed to respond to the motion within the deadline set by the court. The trial court granted the motion in favor of the district without specifying the grounds relied upon by the court. Gallien then appealed the judgment in favor of the district.
Ruling: The appeals court upheld the judgment in favor of the school district. On appeal, Gallien argued that the trial court improperly dismissed discrimination claims under the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act (TCHRA). However, the appeals court observed that her lawsuit never stated any specific allegations of discrimination and did not cite to the TCHRA. Thus, Gallien’s claims regarding discrimination were without merit.
In its “no-evidence” motion for summary judgment, the district argued that Gallien had no evidence that the district was required to conduct public meetings on proceedings related to the nonrenewal of her contract, that she requested public meetings, or that the district failed to provide required notice. The district also argued that Gallien could not produce evidence that the district deprived her of a hearing in violation of the Term Contract Nonrenewal Act. With respect to the Whistleblower claims, the district asserted that Gallien had no evidence that her report to various agencies regarding the district’s alleged violations of law was a “but-for cause” of the district’s suspending, firing, or otherwise discriminating against Gallien. Finally, the district maintained that Gallien could produce no evidence to support a breach of contract claim.
Gallien did not timely respond to the district’s arguments. She also did not properly request leave of court to file a late response. According to the appeals court, absent a timely response identifying evidence that challenges the request for summary judgment on no-evidence grounds, the trial court “was not required to search the record to find any such evidence.” Here, because Gallien failed to timely respond to the district’s no-evidence motion for summary judgment, the trial court did not err by granting judgment in favor of the district.
DID THE DISTRICT PROVIDE DUE PROCESS? WHAT ARE THE STANDARDS FOR BOARD MEMBER BIAS?
Case citation: Washington v. Burley, __ F.Supp.2d __, 2013 WL 943812 (S.D. Tex. 2013).
Summary: Russel Washington, the Police Chief of La Marque Independent School District, was fired after he was indicted on charges that were later dismissed. Washington filed suit after his termination, raising a number of claims against the district, several district officials and board members, and the county district attorney. He sued the school district for violating his due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment and for violating the Open Meetings Act. He also claimed that school officials conspired with the district attorney and others to have him indicted on false charges, as an excuse to have him terminated.
The district attorney requested dismissal of the claims against him based on absolute prosecutorial immunity. The district also sought judgment in its favor prior to trial on the due process and Open Meetings Act claims.
Ruling: The trial court dismissed the claims against the district attorney and all claims against the district, except the due process allegations related to Washington’s pre-termination hearing. Washington claimed that the district attorney filed baseless indictments against him, knowing that the indictments would lead to his termination. According to the trial court, however, the district attorney was entitled to absolute immunity. The district attorney’s actions in filing charges and presenting evidence to a grand jury were protected by absolute immunity. Washington did not allege any improper activity by the district attorney that fell outside of his role as an advocate in the judicial process. Thus, the claims against the district attorney were dismissed.
The trial court next considered Washington’s procedural due process claims. He argued first that the district denied him pretermination due process when it failed to notify him of his potential termination or give him an opportunity to present a defense prior to the board’s vote to terminate him. He also claimed that bias tainted the board’s vote to terminate. It was undisputed that, as a contract employee with the district, the district could not terminate him without due process of law. According to the trial court, Washington was entitled to some kind of hearing prior to termination, oral or written notice of the charges against him, an explanation of the employer’s evidence, and an opportunity to present his side of the story. The district argued that a pretermination hearing was not required because the felony charge against Washington required immediate response and the district afforded him an adequate post-termination hearing. The trial court observed that the “availability of a post-termination appeal does not foreclose a due process challenge to pretermination procedures.”
In this case, the court concluded that a genuine issue of material fact existed on whether the district gave Washington an opportunity to present his side of the case before he was terminated. The record showed that the district sent Washington a letter prior to the board’s termination hearing asking that he submit a statement of his understanding of the charges against him. He declined to do so, and another letter was sent requesting a statement from Washington. Washington’s attorney responded denying any criminal wrongdoing. At the termination hearing before the board, Washington was not allowed to address the board. According to the trial court, the evidence raised the issue of whether Washington received adequate pre-termination due process. As a result, Washington was allowed to proceed with that claim.
The trial court also let stand Washington’s due process claim that one board member was biased against him when she voted to terminate his contract. The trial court observed that the “basic requirement of constitutional due process is a fair and impartial tribunal. . . .” The record here showed that one board member had filed a defamation suit against Washington, which was pending when she voted to terminate Washington’s contract.
The trial court, however, dismissed claims against the district regarding post-termination due process. The record showed that, following the vote to terminate his contract, Washington was afforded a hearing before the board. In addition, he could have pursued the termination by appealing to the Commissioner of Education and filing suit in state court, but he declined to do so. Thus, the trial court held that Washington had been afforded all requisite post-termination due process.
The trial court also rejected Washington’s claims under the Open Meetings Act. Washington claimed that the public notice regarding his proposed termination was not adequate because it did not state that the board might actually vote on the termination. The trial court observed that generally a notice is sufficient if it informs the reader that some action will be considered with regard to the topic. The district’s notice stated: “Consider recommendation to propose the termination of the contract and employment of the LMISD Chief of Police.” According to the trial court, the district’s notice was sufficient under the Act to provide notice that the board would be discussing the possible termination of Washington’s employment. Thus, the Open Meetings Act claim was without merit.
Things to Remember: The court notes that in a small governing body, the bias of one member can taint the entire board. To show bias, the plaintiff must prove one of three things: 1) that the decision maker has a “direct personal, substantial, and pecuniary interest in the outcome of the case”; 2) where the person has been “the target of personal abuse or criticism from the party before him”; or 3) when the person has the dual role of investigating and deciding disputes and complaints.
DID THE TERMINATION VIOLATE THE AMERICANS WITH DISABILITIES ACT OR USERRA?
Case citation: Bennett v. Dallas ISD, 2013 WL 1295338 (N.D. Tex. 2013).
Summary: Rodney Bennett worked for the Dallas Independent School District as a police officer. Between March of 2005 and June of 2006, and again between May of 2007 and March of 2009, Bennett was called to active duty as a member of the United States Army in Afghanistan and Iraq. While in Iraq, Bennett was seriously injured when a rocket-propelled grenade hit his vehicle. As a result, he was transferred to Georgia.
Bennett informed the school district of his injuries. When he returned from military duty, he suffered from a knee injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. The district requested that Bennett complete an Essential Functions Form (EFF) and a psychological fitness for duty exam. According to the EFF, Bennett could not perform all of the essential functions of his job for six months.
In June of 2009, Bennett returned to work in a light-duty position as an unarmed security officer, with no reduction in pay or benefits. In January and April of 2010, Bennett provided EFF’s indicating that certain physical restrictions had been extended. As a result, the district’s Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Committee determined that it would accommodate Bennett by assigning him to a police dispatcher position, with the same salary and benefits. However, before he could return, the district asked that he complete a psychological fitness for duty exam. In addition, the district informed him that it would no longer maintain his police commission, which allowed him to carry guns at all times, on or off duty.
In May of 2010, Bennett submitted his physical exam, clearing him for all essential functions of his original police patrol officer position. Instead of reinstating Bennett to the patrol officer position, the district continued to request the psychological evaluation. Bennett refused to submit to one, and did not report to work after June 23, 2010. The school district ultimately terminated Bennett for job abandonment and insubordination for his failure to undergo the psychological evaluation. Bennett filed a grievance complaining of discrimination, as well as a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). After receiving a notice of right to sue, Bennett filed suit against the school district claiming violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA). The district sought judgment in its favor on each of the claims prior to trial.
Ruling: The trial court granted the district’s request for judgment prior to trial. Bennett argued that the district discriminated against him by placing him in a security officer position in June of 2009, reassigning him to the dispatcher position, and then terminating him. The district produced evidence of legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for each employment decision. With respect to the security officer and dispatcher assignments, the district’s evidence showed that his documented physical restrictions prevented him from returning to the patrol position. As a result, the district accommodated those restrictions by assigning him first to the security position and then to the dispatcher job. According to the district, it ultimately terminated him because he refused to undergo a requested psychological evaluation and failed to return to work.
According to the trial court, Bennett failed to provide evidence that would permit a reasonable jury to find that the district’s reasons for its employment decisions were false and that discrimination was the real reason. Bennett claimed that employees made statements about his inability to return to work, but the statements did not establish a discriminatory motive on the part of the district for the reassignments or termination. Bennett also alleged that other employees who had been on medical leave were allowed to return to their police officer positions. However, the record showed that Bennett had physical limitations that prevented his return to his original patrol officer position. Bennett’s evidence was insufficient to raise a genuine issue of material fact on whether the district discriminated against him in violation of the ADA. He also failed to produce evidence to support a claim that the district failed to accommodate his disability, subjected him to a hostile work environment, or retaliated against him in any way. The district offered legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for each of its decisions and Bennett failed to produce sufficient evidence to dispute those reasons.
The trial court also rejected Bennett’s USERRA discrimination, harassment, and retaliation claims. USERRA prohibits denying benefits of employment on the basis of membership or performance in a uniformed service, or if such membership or performance is a motivating factor for the employment decision. Bennett failed to provide sufficient evidence that his military service was a motivating factor in the district’s decisions regarding his reassignments, termination, and the demand that he relinquish his police commission. Rather, the evidence demonstrated that the district had legitimate reasons supporting their employment decisions. The trial court, therefore, entered judgment in favor of the district on each of Bennett’s claims.
Things to Remember: DISD had a policy in place that required all police officers to submit to a psychological evaluation after being involved in a traumatic event, on or off campus, in which the officer’s life was threatened. Here, the traumatic event occurred while Bennett served in Iraq.
DID THE SCHOOL DISTRICT FAIL TO ACCOMMODATE THE TEACHER’S DISABILITIES?
Case citation: Siegle v. Northside ISD, Dkt. No. SA-11-CA-00704-OLG (W.D. Tex 2013) (unpublished).
Summary: Lisa Siegle worked as a fourth-grade teacher for the Northside Independent School District when she requested medical leave in 2009. When the district declined to let Siegle resume her duties on a part-time basis following the medical leave, Siegle sued the district. She alleged that the district violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The district requested judgment in its favor prior to trial arguing that Siegle was not a “qualified individual with a disability” because: (1) plaintiff could not perform the essential duties of the job; (2) the school district provided reasonable accommodations; and (3) the school district had legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for its actions. The district also asserted that there was no evidence to support a claim of retaliation.
Ruling: The trial court granted judgment in favor of the district. The ADA prohibits discrimination “against a qualified individual with a disability because of the disability of such individual in regard to job application procedures, the hiring, advancement, or discharge of employees, employee compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment.” The term “discriminate” is defined, in part, as “not making reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified individual with a disability who is an applicant or employee, unless such covered entity can demonstrate that the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the operation of the business of such covered entity.”
To establish her ADA claims, Siegle first had to show that she was a qualified individual with a disability and that the negative employment action occurred because of the disability. The ADA defines a qualified individual as someone who has a disability but who, “with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position that such individual holds or desires.” Here, the district argued that Siegle was not a qualified individual with a disability because she could not perform the essential elements of the job. Specifically, she could not work a full eight-hour day. The trial court agreed, finding that the district presented sufficient evidence that the district had a policy since 2005 by which teachers in all but the pre-school program were not permitted to work on a part-time basis. The district determined that having teachers work part-time would have a negative impact on student achievement and performance. Thus, the trial court concluded that working a full eight-hour day was an essential function of Siegle’s elementary school teacher position. Further, because her disability prevented her from working a full day, she was not a “qualified individual” as contemplated by the ADA. Thus, Siegle failed to establish her claims under the ADA.
The record showed further that the school district provided a reasonable accommodation, which Siegle refused. It was undisputed that the district offered Siegle a position as a teacher in its half-day pre-school program, which was the only position in the district in which a teacher was not required to work a full eight-hour day. Siegle argued that this was not an acceptable accommodation because she was not qualified and she did not want to teach a pre-school class. However, the ADA requires an employer to provide an effective accommodation, but not necessarily the “best” accommodation nor the accommodation that the individual would find ideal. The trial court also observed that an employer does not have to modify or eliminate essential functions of the job as a reasonable accommodation.
The trial court also rejected Siegle’s retaliation claims. Siegle failed to show that she suffered any adverse employment action. Siegle only claimed that the offer of the accommodation to teach a pre-school class, and the school’s refusal to provide information to her loan officer, was in retaliation for filing a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). However, the trial court found no evidence that those alleged actions were “adverse” as contemplated by the ADA, and therefore, the retaliation claim failed as a matter of law. Siegle did not raise a fact issue on either of her ADA claims, and the trial court entered judgment in favor of the district.
Things to Remember: This case is a good illustration of the concept of “essential functions of the job.” Note that the district did not simply declare that fulltime status was essential, it justified it by noting student achievement and performance. The case also shows that reassignment can be a “reasonable accommodation” even if the person is not immediately qualified for the new job. The court noted that “even if plaintiff’s claim that she was not qualified for the offered position is true, nothing prevented her from obtaining additional certification or training to teach in such a position.”