COULD THE EMPLOYEES ASSERT CONSTITUTIONAL CLAIMS STEMMING FROM THE CLOSURE OF THE CHARTER SCHOOL?
Case citation: Pippinsv. Schneider, 2014 WL 108734 (S.D. Tex. 2014) (unpublished).
Summary: Benji’s Special Education Academy, Inc. was a charter school that was closed by the Texas Education Agency (TEA) on or about September 10, 2010, based on findings that conditions at Benji’s Academy presented a danger to the health, safety, and/or welfare of its students. Following this decision, a hearing was conducted by a TEA hearing officer. The hearing officer found that: (1) school staff instructed students to discard communication to parents notifying them that the school would suspend operations; (2) school staff told students that TEA did not think the students were good enough; (3) school staff directed students to continue to ride buses and attend classes after the closure; and (4) school staff obstructed the superintendent’s access to school records and the school facility. TEA ultimately upheld the school’s closure.
A number of Benji’s Academy employees filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, asserting that the closure of Benji’s Academy deprived them of “due process” in connection with the Academy’s closure and the loss of their jobs. They sued the former superintendents and board members, as well as former Commissioner of Education Robert Scott. The defendants requested judgment in their favor prior to trial.
Ruling: The trial court entered judgment in favor of the defendants. The issue of whether the employees could state constitutional claims stemming from the school’s closure was previously addressed in a companion case, Comb v. Benji Special Educ. Acad., which held that a group of teacher plaintiffs could not claim that the closure of the school violated their constitutional due process rights because their at-will employment agreements established that they did not have a protected property interest in continued employment. The Fifth Circuit upheld the dismissal of that case, stating that evidence that the teachers were employed at-will “supports its conclusion that the teachers did not have a protected property interest in continued employment.” [See, Comb v. Rowell, Fed. Appx. , 2013 WL 5913615 (5th Cir. 2013) (unpublished); Texas School Administrators’ Legal Digest, January 2014].
The employees in this case are simply other instructors who taught at Benji’s Academy and whose employment terminated upon closure of the school. The trial court, therefore, determined that the Fifth Circuit decision in Comb v. Rowell was binding on the claims raised in this lawsuit. The trial court, therefore, granted judgment in favor of the defendants.
WAS THE SCHOOL DISTRICT’S BENEFITS COORDINATOR IMMUNE FROM NEGLIGENCE CLAIMS?
Editor’s Note: This case involves claims that the school district’s benefits coordinator was negligent in setting the employee’s retirement date, resulting in a loss of benefits. Another employee brought a separate lawsuit, raising the same allegations against the benefits coordinator. The court of appeals in that case relied on Newman v. Bryan, discussed below, to reach the same decision. The case citation is Newman v. Bussey, 2013 WL 5576352 (Tex. App. – Texarkana 2013)(unpublished).
Case citation: Newmanv. Bryan, 2013 WL 5576369 (Tex. App. – Texarkana 2013) (unpublished).
Summary: After having taught school for the Mount Pleasant Independent School District (MPISD) for most of her adult life, Mildred L. Bryan chose to retire from her teaching position. Bryan contacted Kimberly Newman, a benefits coordinator for the school district, to determine her monthly retirement income based on a retirement date of May 31, 2011. In accordance with Bryan’s request, Newman provided her with an estimate of benefits. The estimate of benefits, calculated under a retirement date of May 31, 2011, reflected an estimated standard annuity of $5,520.65 per month. On August 8, 2011, Bryan submitted her application for service retirement, reflecting a retirement date of August 31, 2011. Bryan alleges Newman filled out the application for service retirement for her, and in doing so, listed an incorrect retirement date. Bryan contends she informed Newman that she wished to retire on May 31, 2011.
Bryan sued Newman, alleging that Newman was negligent in the completion of Bryan’s application for service retirement by stating an incorrect service retirement date of August 31, 2011. Bryan claims this error resulted in damages equaling the sum of three missed retirement checks for June through August 2011. These damages could have been avoided, Bryan contends, if Newman would have listed Bryan’s retirement date as May 31, 2011, as Bryan requested.
Newman filed a plea to the jurisdiction alleging the trial court was without subject-matter jurisdiction because Newman has “official, governmental, qualified, and/or good faith immunity from Plaintiff’s allegations.” Accordingly, she claimed entitlement to an immediate dismissal of the lawsuit. After a hearing, the trial court denied Newman’s plea to the jurisdiction. Newman then sought an immediate, pretrial appeal claiming “the trial court should have granted Newman’s plea to the jurisdiction because she is immune from suit.”
Ruling: The court of appeals held that Newman was entitled to governmental immunity. The appeals court held that Newman was sued in her “official capacity” as the benefits coordinator for the school district. All of the allegations of negligence by Newman were for actions she allegedly took because of her position as a final benefits advisor for the district and were within the scope of her employment. A suit against a governmental employee in their “official capacity” is the equivalent of a suit against the governmental employer. Thus, the appeals court held that Bryan’s negligence lawsuit was brought against the school district.
The appeals court observed that the district was a governmental unit entitled to assert the defense of governmental immunity. The Tort Claims Act provides a limited waiver of immunity for certain suits against governmental entities. For school districts, the waiver of immunity includes only tort claims involving the use or operation of motor vehicles. The lawsuit, here, did not allege the negligent use or operation of a motor vehicle. Thus, Bryan’s lawsuit did not waive the district’s governmental immunity. The appeals court rendered judgment in favor of the district.
Comments: The suit did not specify whether Newman was being sued “individually” or “in her official capacity.” So the court reviewed the file to determine “the nature of the liability the plaintiff seeks to impose.” The pleadings complained only about Ms. Newman’s performance of her job. The allegations in the suit concerned only things Ms. Newman did as an employee of the school district. Thus the court concluded that the suit was against Ms. Newman in her official capacity and so, “governmental immunity” applied.