Ruling May Limit Use of Federal Courts for Dismissal Suits
In what some observers have called an "unprecedented decision," a federal appellate court has ruled that a New Jersey teacher may not seek a federal-court injunction against her dismissal until she has exhausted state administrative and legal appeals.
The decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit will very likely make it more difficult for teachers to seek immediate relief from school-board dismissal actions in federal courts, according to some lawyers involved in the case.
Lawrence A. Poltrock, general counsel to the American Federation of Teachers (aft) described the effect of the decision on teachers seeking such federal relief as "disastrous." But other teacher-organization lawyers contend the number of teachers affected by the decision may be limited.
The appellate court ruled in the case after a U.S. District Court judge last January refused to hear a request by Portia Williams, a Red Bank, N.J., teacher, for an injunction prohibiting her school board from continuing dismissal actions against her.
Ms. Williams had sought the injunction--as well as monetary damages, legal fees, and the removal of the charges from her record--under a federal statute allowing individuals to seek such relief in instances where constitutional rights are alleged to have been violated.
Ms. Williams contended that her constitutional rights to free speech and due process had been violated.
The key element of the appellate court's decision, according to Deputy Attorney General Jaynee LaVecchia, who represented New Jersey Commissioner of Education Fred G. Burke in the case, is the expansion of the so-called "abstention doctrine" first outlined in the Supreme Court's opinion in the 1971 case of Younger v. Harris.
In Younger and subsequent decisions, Ms. LaVecchia said, the Supreme Court declared it would not, as a federal court, involve itself in criminal or civil proceedings when the same matters were being treated in state courts.
In the case involving Ms. Williams, Williams v. Red Bank Board of Education, the Third Circuit Court upheld the decision of the lower federal court to "abstain" from the case. In that ruling, the court took the unprecedented step, Ms. LaVecchia asserted, of adding state administrative proceedings--in particular, teacher-dismissal actions--to the "abstention doctrine" established in Younger.
(However, the Third Circuit Court directed the district court to hear Ms. Williams's request for damages and attorney fees once state administrative and court appeals are completed.)
"The opinion has dispelled the notion that teachers can go directly to federal court [to stop dismissal proceedings]," Ms. LaVecchia said.
"Teachers in the Third Circuit will certainly have a more difficult time getting [federal] injunctions," acknowledged Arnold M. Mellk, who represented Ms. Williams in the case. (The Third Circuit includes New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and the Virgin Islands.)
However, lawyers representing the aft and the National Education Association asserted that, although they do not know exactly how many teachers seek such relief in federal courts, the number of teachers affected by the decision may be relatively small.
"It is not common for tenured teachers to go to federal court to seek damages for or injunctions against dismissal proceedings," said Mr. Poltrock, the aft counsel. "Most times state administrative procedures are acceptable."
'Great Deal of Impact'
Mr. Poltrock emphasized, however, that the Williams case will have "a great deal of impact" on teachers who do seek federal injunctions against school-board dismissal actions.
An nea lawyer, who asked that his name not be used, added that, while "it is not uncommon for teachers to seek due-process relief in federal court," they usually do not seek injunctions against ongoing dismissal actions, but rather damages--such as back pay--after dismissal proceedings have been completed.
Ms. LaVecchia contended, however, that the practice of "enjoining" school-board dismissal proceedings is "widely used" among teachers.
Officials of teacher organizations say it is impossible to determine the number of teach-ers nationwide currently facing dismissal action. Mr. Poltrock estimated that there are 12 aft-affiliated teachers currently facing such charges in Illinois. The aft represents approximately 50 percent of the nearly 110,000 classroom teachers in the state.
Lawyers involved in the case say that while the appellate court's decision will have the greatest impact on future cases within the Third Circuit, its strength as a precedent in other federal circuit courts will depend on how those courts view the fairness of other state teacher-dismissal procedures.
The appellate court supported the district court's use of the abstention doctrine, the lawyers say, in part because it concluded that the state's dismissal procedures offered Ms. Williams adequate protection of her due-process rights--with the exception of her claims for damages and attorney fees.
"The [Third] Circuit Court said [in effect] in this case that the New Jersey teacher-dismissal procedures are adequate," said the lawyer for the Red Bank school board, who also asked that his name not be used. "The case will have have a broad impact in states where there are similar procedures."
Ms. Williams--whose legal defense has been provided and paid for by the New Jersey Education Association, a state affiliate of the nea--had been charged by the Red Bank school board with inflicting corporal punishment on students, humiliating students, and making allegedly racist and anti-Semitic comments at a school-board meeting.
At the time she filed in federal court for an injunction to stop the school board's dismissal proceedings, her case was pending before a state administrative law judge.
The judge dismissed the charges that she humiliated a student and behaved in a manner unbecoming for a teacher, but found Ms. Williams guilty of violating the state's prohibition against corporal punishment.
As a penalty, he decided that Ms. Williams should be denied a pay increase for the 1980-81 school year. (Ms. Williams was initially suspended with pay by the Red Bank board, but has since been temporarily reinstated.) Commissioner Burke upheld these rulings.
Both Ms. Williams and the Red Bank school board have appealed the commissioner's decision to the state board of education. The school board is arguing for Ms. Williams's dismissal; Ms. Williams is seeking to have her corporal-punishment charge overturned.
A New Jersey State Department of Education official said the state board will not rule on the joint appeals until next February at the earliest.