DID THE PRINCIPAL’S RESIGNATION RENDER HER CLAIMS MOOT?
Case citation: Pate v. Edwards, 2014 WL 172509 (Tex. App.– Tyler 2014) (unpublished).
Summary: Pam Edwards worked for the West Sabine Independent School District as an elementary school principal. When Mike Pate became superintendent in 2009, several conflicts arose. According to Edwards, Pate wanted to replace her with a male. She also contended that Pate used an “illegal survey” as part of Edwards’s performance evaluation. Pate told Edwards that many in the community were adverse to her. Edwards was told that Pate was reassigning her to serve as an assistant principal at another West Sabine campus for the following school year.
Before the end of the 2009-10 school year, Edwards sued Pate, claiming that Pate violated her rights under the Texas Constitution. She sought and was granted a temporary restraining order that prohibited Pate from (1) taking any action disparaging or deleterious to Edwards’s career, livelihood, or employment and (2) destroying or failing to preserve any records, data, or documents related to his evaluation of Edwards. The trial court then extended the temporary restraining order until it could preside over a temporary injunction hearing.
At the temporary injunction hearing, the parties agreed that Pate would not destroy any documents or evidence related to Edwards and would not base any decision with regard to Edwards on anonymous surveys. Although the trial court referenced the parties’ agreement in its temporary injunction, the trial court’s temporary injunction went further than the parties’ agreement and enjoined Pate from disparaging or harming Edwards’s reputation or career as well.
Three months later, Edwards voluntarily resigned from the district to pursue other employment opportunities. Pate accepted Edwards’s resignation, and the district’s school board approved Pate’s action. Pate then filed a plea to the jurisdiction in which he argued that Edwards’s claims became moot when she resigned. The trial court denied Pate’s plea to the jurisdiction and Pate filed an immediate, pretrial appeal.
Ruling: The appeals court held that Edwards’s constitutional claims were moot, but the request for attorney’s fees was not. The appeals court observed that a court cannot decide a case that becomes moot during the pendency of the litigation. A case is moot if “there has ceased to exist a justiciable controversy between the parties.” No justiciable controversy exists if the issues presented are no longer “live” or if the parties lack a legally cognizable interest in the outcome. A “live” issue in controversy exists when there is a question about whether a party has a legally cognizable interest in recovering attorney’s fees and costs.
The appeals court held that Edwards’s underlying constitutional claims against Pate became moot when the district accepted Edwards’s resignation. When Edwards resigned, Pate no longer could violate her constitutional rights. Edwards argued that a justiciable controversy continued to exist after her resignation because she could return to work for the district in the future. However, a court has no authority, even as part of a declaratory judgment action, to resolve a hypothetical or contingent controversy. Because Edwards’s underlying constitutional claims against Pate were moot, the trial court should have dismissed Edwards’s constitutional claims against Pate based on lack of jurisdiction and vacated its previous orders.
Even though Edwards’s underlying constitutional claims were moot, her claim for attorney’s fees was not. Edwards obtained a ruling in her favor before the case was rendered moot. The trial court awarded her a temporary restraining order and a temporary injunction. Because a question remained about whether Edwards had a legally cognizable interest in recovering attorney’s fees and costs, her claim for attorney’s fees was a live controversy and not moot. Thus, the appeals court denied Pate’s appeal as to Edwards’s claim for attorney’s fees. The appeals court rendered judgment in favor of Pate on the constitutional claims and affirmed the trial court’s order denying the plea to the jurisdiction on the issue of attorney’s fees.
DID THE SCHOOL BOARD IMPROPERLY DENY THE TEACHER A GRIEVANCE HEARING?
Case citation: Morgan v. Denton ISD, Dkt. No. 099-R8-0811 (Comm’r Educ. December 19, 2013).
Summary: Valda Morgan worked for the Denton Independent School District when she resigned her employment on March 9, 2010. On June 28, 2011, Morgan filed a grievance claiming that the district coerced her to resign. She also raised violations of the Texas Whistleblower Act, as well as state and federal civil rights statutes. The board informed Morgan that it would convene a board meeting and consider the timeliness of her grievance. At the meeting, Morgan was not allowed to present evidence before the board. Instead, the board went into closed session and voted to dismiss the grievance. By letter dated July 27, 2011, the board informed Morgan that the board voted to dismiss the grievance. The district’s DGBA policy provided that a complaint may be dismissed at any time by providing the employee with written notice and that the employee may appeal a dismissal by seeking a review of the dismissal in writing within ten days of receiving the notice. Here, Morgan did not request in writing to appeal within ten days of the decision to dismiss her grievance. Instead, she appealed the board’s decision to the Commissioner of Education.
Ruling: The Commissioner held that the district improperly denied Morgan a grievance hearing and returned the case to the district to restart the grievance process. The Commissioner held that the appeal was valid because he could have jurisdiction over the underlying claim that the district had coerced her resignation.
As to timeliness, while district policy required grievances to be filed within fifteen days from the date the employee knows or should have known of a violation, the record did not contain sufficient evidence to consider whether the grievance was, in fact, timely. Further, because the board went into closed session and did not give Morgan a fair hearing as to timeliness, the board’s decision to dismiss the grievance was arbitrary and capricious. The Commissioner returned the case to the school district to restart the grievance process.
Comments: In a footnote, the Commissioner notes that “it can be seen why [the district] might have believed the complaint was untimely.” Indeed, on the face of it, the complaint seems untimely since the events complained of happened, at a minimum, three months before the grievance was filed. But the Commissioner holds the board at fault for not allowing the employee to present evidence to explain the delay. Presumably, the board could have heard evidence on that point, and, if unconvinced by it, denied the grievance as untimely. Note also that this decision includes a lengthy and helpful discussion of the doctrine of exhaustion of administrative remedies.
WAS THE DISTRICT’S GRIEVANCE POLICY INCORPORATED INTO THE COUNSELOR’S CONTINUING CONTRACT?
Case citation: Woods v. Houston ISD, Dkt. No. 069-R10-0611 (Comm’r Educ. December 19, 2013).
Summary: Joyce Woods worked as a counselor for the Houston Independent School District under a continuing contract. During the 2009-10 school year, she had a salary of $82,500. By let- ter dated July 2, 2010, the district informed Woods that for the 2010-11 school year, she would be assigned a ten-month teaching position with a salary of $69,500. Woods filed a grievance contesting the reassignment and salary reduction. The grievance was denied at Level I, but granted at Level II by an independent hearing examiner assigned to the grievance. The Level II decision granted Woods’s requests for a return to her counselor position at another school, and that she not suffer retaliation as a result.
Under the school district’s DGBA(LOCAL) grievance policy, “If at any level of the dispute resolution process the employee is granted the relief he or she has requested, the dispute shall be deemed resolved. A resolved dispute shall be provided in writing and may not be appealed to the next level of the process.” Nevertheless, Woods received notice that the superintendent had rejected the Level II decision and would not enforce it. Woods then filed a second grievance contesting the superintendent’s failure to honor the Level II decision that had granted her requested relief. Both grievances were presented to the school board. The board denied the first grievance concerning her reassignment, and took no action on the second grievance that challenged the superintendent’s failure to honor the Level II decision. Woods appealed the board’s decisions to the Commissioner of Education, arguing that the district violated her contract.
Ruling: The Commissioner granted the appeal, finding that the DGBA policy was incorporated into Woods’s contract and the failure to comply with the policy violated the contract. The Commissioner determined that jurisdiction existed over Woods’s claim that the school district violated her contract. Woods argued that her continuing contract incorporated the terms of the district’s DGBA(LOCAL) policy. The Commissioner held that if a policy is “closely linked to the employment relationship,” it will be incorporated into the employee’s contract. According to the Commissioner, the DGBA policy at issue was closely linked to the employment relationship here “because it sets out the procedures for how a grievance concerning wages, hours, and conditions of work will be considered.” Thus, the district’s DGBA(LOCAL) was incorporated into the continuing contract and a violation of that policy could result in a breach of contract.
The Commissioner next concluded that the district violated DGBA(LOCAL) when the superintendent did not honor the Level II decision that granted Woods the relief she requested. The policy made the Level II decision final and the superintendent’s failure to enforce that decision violated Woods’s contract. The district argued that the superintendent was justified in disregarding the Level II decision, because the hearing examiner who presided over it used the wrong legal standard and made incorrect factual findings. The Commissioner stated that “whether or not Respondent is correct does not matter. Respondent’s Resolution Policy [DGBA] ends a grievance when a teacher prevails at any level of the grievance.” When the teacher prevailed at Level II, the matter was over and not subject to appeal. The Commissioner granted Woods’s appeal and determined that she was entitled to back pay, benefits, and reassignment.
Comments: Not all school board policies are “incorporated” into employment contracts. The standard the Commissioner declares here is that the policies that are “incorporated” are those that are “closely linked” to the employment relationship. That is not a very precise standard. However, it is safe to say that the policies that are most likely to fit that description will be located in the D Section of the policy manual adopted by most districts, that being the “Employment” section under the TASB Policy system. This is the first time that the Commissioner has expressly stated that Policy DGBA, the most common grievance policy adopted by districts, is “closely linked” to the employment relationship. Expect more cases in which employees claim that the district violated DGBA, and thus violated the employment contract. If that be the case, and the employee has asserted monetary damage, the Commissioner will have jurisdiction.
Editors’ Note: The cases reported below concern the jurisdictional authority of the Commissioner of Education. The Commissioner has jurisdiction over violations of the “school laws of this state” and the regulations adopted under those laws. The Commissioner also has jurisdiction over violations of employment contracts that caused, or would cause, monetary harm. To establish jurisdiction, petitioners also must exhaust administrative remedies at the district level. Recently the Commissioner dismissed a number of cases for lack of jurisdiction. The cases are summarized briefly below.
THE PETITIONERS DID NOT ALLEGE A VIOLATION OF THE SCHOOL LAWS OF TEXAS OR A VIOLATION OF AN EMPLOYMENT CONTRACT
Citation & Summary: Child v. Queen City Independent School
District, Dkt. No. 009-R10-10-2012 (Comm’r Educ. December 19, 2013). The parents filed an appeal with the Commissioner of Education, claiming that the Queen City Independent School District violated its policy concerning student assaults and failed to report an assault through PEIMS. According to the parents, their child was assaulted by another student and the district did not follow district policy FNCH(LEGAL) which addresses student assaults. The Commissioner concluded that jurisdiction did not exist over the appeal. The Commissioner does not have jurisdiction over a claim that a school district violated its own policy. The parents also claimed that the district violated Texas Education Code § 42.006(c)(1), which addresses the Commissioner’s review of PEIMS data and rule-making authority. The parents failed to show how the school district could violate Education Code § 42.006(c)(1). Because the parents failed to allege a violation of the school laws of Texas, the Commissioner dismissed the appeal for lack of jurisdiction.
Citation & Summary: Alvarez v. Donna Independent School District, Dkt. No. 092-R10-0711 (Comm’r Educ. December 19, 2013). Beatriz Alvarez filed an appeal with the Commissioner of Education challenging the Donna Independent School District’s decision to nonrenew her contract. The claims Alvarez made could have been brought under Subchapter G, Chapter 21 of the Education Code. The Commissioner’s jurisdiction under Texas Education Code § 7.057 is limited to violations of written employment contracts and violations of the school laws of this state. Education Code § 7.057 does not apply to a case to which Subchapter G, Chapter 21 applies. Despite a number of opportunities to amend the appeal and assert a proper basis for jurisdiction, Alvarez failed to do so. Thus, the Commissioner dismissed the appeal for lack of jurisdiction.
Citation & Summary: Emanuel v. Bastrop Independent School District, Dkt. No. 041-R3-1211 (Comm’r Educ. December 19, 2013). Charlene Emanuel filed an appeal with the Commissioner of Education complaining of undisclosed actions taken by the Bastrop Independent School District. However, her petition for review did not identify a section of the Texas Education Code or title 19 of the Texas Administrative Code that the district may have violated. The appeal also failed to allege a violation of a written employment contract. Although Emanuel was provided an opportunity to amend the petition to cure those deficiencies, the amended petition was not filed within the deadline provided by the Commissioner. The Commissioner concluded that jurisdiction did not exist over the appeal.
Citation & Summary: Verma v. Humble Independent School District, Dkt. No. 047-R8-0112 (Comm’r Educ. December 19, 2013). Anand Verma filed a grievance with the Humble Independent School District, but the district denied the grievance. After the district denied the grievance, Verma appealed to the Commissioner of Education. However, Verma did not allege a violation of the school laws of Texas or a violation of an employ- ment contract that caused or would cause monetary harm. Thus, the Commissioner dismissed the appeal for lack of jurisdiction.
Citation & Summary: Maldonadov. San Felipe Del Rio Consolidated Independent School District, Dkt. No. 072-R10-0412 (Comm’r Educ. December 19, 2013). Marisela Maldonado filed a grievance with the San Felipe Del Rio Consolidated Independent School District, but the district denied the grievance. Maldonado appealed to the Commissioner of Education but failed to allege a violation of the school laws of Texas or a violation of an employment contract that caused or would cause monetary harm. The Commissioner provided Maldonado an opportunity to amend, but she failed to do so. As a result, the Commissioner dismissed the appeal for lack of jurisdiction.
THE PETITIONERS FAILED TO EXHAUST ADMINISTRATIVE REMEDIES
Citation & Summary: Child v. Fort Bend Independent School District, Dkt. No. 103-R10-0712 (Comm’r Educ. December 19, 2013). The parents of a student filed a complaint against the Fort Bend Independent School District, claiming that the district does not allow her to attend school in the district, and that during the time she did attend school in Fort Bend ISD, the district improperly took action against her for truancy. The parents raised constitutional claims, violations of 42 U.S.C. § 11302 (the McKinney Vento Act), and violations of Texas Education Code, Chapter 25. The Commissioner held that jurisdiction did not exist over the claims because federal statutes and rules are not considered “the school laws of this state.” Jurisdiction could exist for certain violations of the McKinney Vento Act because its compliance is required under Texas Education Code § 25.001(b)(5). However, the parents had not pled a potential violation and had not exhausted administrative remedies on that claim. The parents also failed to exhaust administrative remedies on the other alleged violations of Education Code, Chapter 25. The Commissioner dismissed the appeal for lack of jurisdiction.
Citation & Summary: Ripleyv. Donna Independent School District, Dkt. No. 025-R3-1110 (Comm’r Educ. December 19, 2013). Sylvia Ripley worked for the Donna Independent School District, when she filed a grievance complaining that she had been demoted. When the district denied the grievance, she appealed to the Commissioner of Education. The Commissioner issued briefing deadlines to the parties. However, Ripley’s counsel did not file a brief in support of the claims. Counsel for Ripley also did not request an extension of time within which to file the brief and did not explain why the brief had been filed, when asked to do so by the Commissioner. The Commissioner, therefore, dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction.