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Sanctions

DID THE TRIAL COURT PROPERLY ISSUE SANCTIONS AGAINST THE TEACHER?

Case citation:  Ollie v. Plano ISD, __ S.W.3d __, 2012 WL 5246897 (Tex. App. – Dallas 2012).

Summary:  Dorothy Ollie was a fifth grade teacher for the Plano Independent School District.  Ollie sued the district alleging racial discrimination, hostile environment, and retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, violations of her civil rights, age discrimination under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), and intentional infliction of emotional distress and breach of contract under state law.  The trial court dismissed all but the Title VII and ADEA claims.  The parties mediated the remaining claims and signed a hand-written settlement agreement in which Ollie agreed to settle “all claims” in exchange for 20 months of administrative leave, which the parties believed would allow her to retire with full benefits.

Ollie refused to sign a more formal agreement later and the district filed a motion to enforce the hand-written agreement and dismiss Ollie’s Title VII and ADEA claims.  The district court granted the motion as to the Title VII claim but not the ADEA claim and later clarified that the settlement agreement superseded Ollie’s teaching contract.  The trial court also dismissed the ADEA claim finding insufficient evidence of discrimination.  While the suit was pending, the school district provided notice to Ollie that her employment with the district was terminated on November 28, 2008, in accordance with the settlement agreement.

On appeal, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s enforcement of the settlement agreement, returning that issue to the trial court for review.  The Fifth Circuit also upheld the dismissal of Ollie’s ADEA claim.  [See Ollie v. Plano ISD, Dkt. 08-41082 (5th Cir. 2009); Texas School Administrators’ Legal Digest, June 2009].  When the case returned to the trial court, the court ordered enforcement of the settlement agreement.

In December of 2009, Ollie filed an appeal with the Commissioner of Education arguing that the school district improperly terminated her contract as part of the settlement agreement.  The Commissioner ultimately determined, however, that he did not have jurisdiction over Ollie’s claims.  [See, Ollie v. Plano ISD, Dkt. No. 022-R2-1209 (Comm’r Educ., April 14, 2011); Texas School Administrators’ Legal Digest, July/Aug 2011].

Ollie then sent a demand letter to the district and the district indicated that if she pursued another lawsuit against the district it would seek reimbursement of their attorney’s fees as sanctions for a groundless and/or frivolous suit.  Ollie nevertheless filed suit against the district, but the trial court issued sanctions against her totaling more than $47,000 in attorney’s fees incurred by the district.  Ollie appealed the trial court order.

Ruling:  The court of appeals affirmed the trial court’s award of sanctions against Ollie.  First, the appeals court held that the Texas Tort Claims Act barred Ollie’s claims for interference with an employment contract, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligence, negligent misrepresentation, fraud, conspiracy, and abuse of process.  Under the Tort Claims Act, the district is entitled to immunity from all tort claims other than those arising from the use of a motor vehicle.

Ollie claimed that the executive director of human resources, the superintendent, and board president, were not entitled to official immunity because they were not acting within the scope of their employment when they made decisions concerning Ollie.  The appeals court disagreed, holding that Ollie failed to allege any acts by those individuals that fell outside the general scope of their employment.  Thus, the individual defendants were entitled to official immunity.

The appeals court also held that Ollie had failed to exhaust administrative remedies on her breach of contract and wrongful termination claims.  She acknowledged that she never filed a grievance concerning those issues.  Thus, the trial court did not have jurisdiction over those claims.

The court next considered the sanctions award against Ollie.  Texas Education Code § 11.161 allows an award of costs and reasonable attorney’s fees in a civil suit brought against a school district or a district officer if the suit is frivolous, unreasonable, and without foundation and the suit is dismissed or judgment is entered for the defendants.  The record showed that before filing this suit, Ollie had “specific knowledge of the legal bars to her claims and that this lawsuit was, therefore, frivolous, groundless, and/or brought for an improper purpose.”  Thus, the appeals court upheld the sanctions against Ollie.

Commissioner Jurisdiction

THE COMMISSIONER DID NOT HAVE JURISDICTION OVER THE APPEAL

Case citation:  Cone v. Waller ISD, Dkt. No. 108-R1-0712 (Comm’r Educ. August 31, 2012).

Summary:  Diane Cone worked for the Waller Independent School District.  Cone filed an appeal with the Commissioner of Education claiming that the district coerced her to sign a contract for the 2011-12 school year.  She claimed further that the district had to employ her for the 2012-13 school year because it did not timely propose the nonrenewal of her contract.

By letter dated July 20, 2012, the Commissioner notified Cone of the briefing schedule.  The district responded that the Commissioner did not have jurisdiction over Cone’s appeal because she did not state a basis for the Commissioner’s jurisdiction and because she did not file a brief in support of her appeal.

Ruling:  The Commissioner dismissed Cone’s appeal for lack of jurisdiction.  Cone’s petition for review alleged that the Commissioner had jurisdiction over the appeal based on Texas Education Code § 21.301, which generally applies to terminations, nonrenewals, and suspensions without pay.  According to the Commissioner, the petition for review simply failed to allege facts that would give the Commissioner jurisdiction over this case under Education Code § 21.301.

Jurisdiction also did not exist under Texas Education Code § 7.057.  A case brought against a school district under Education Code § 7.057 is a substantial evidence appeal based on the local record.  In order for there to be a local record, a person must file a grievance so that a hearing can be provided and a record can be made of the hearing.  The district here filed a local record that consisted of four letters between Cone’s counsel and the district’s counsel and the grievance policy.  The record established that Cone did not file a grievance.  Therefore, jurisdiction did not exist under Education Code § 7.057.

In addition, Cone did not file a brief in support of her claims.  The Commissioner observed that the failure to file a brief constitutes a failure to exhaust administrative remedies.  For all of these reasons, the Commissioner concluded that jurisdiction did not exist over Cone’s appeal.