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Appeals Court Confirms Rights of Tenured Teachers

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The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has ruled that a school district's failure to provide tenured public-school teachers with a hearing prior to dismissal violates the teachers' due-process rights under the 14th Amendment.

In ruling on the due-process question, the appeals court overturned a district court's decision to dismiss the case, which involved a San Antonio science teacher's claim that he was "constructively discharged"3from his position without a hearing prior to his dismissal.

But the three judges stopped short of ruling in favor of the teacher, stating in their decision that it was unclear whether he actually had been dismissed or had resigned; they returned the case to the federal district court for a ruling on that issue.

In 1983, the district-court judge had ruled in favor of the school district, noting only that the teacher's due-process rights had not been violated because "the courts of the state of Texas provide full and due process for plaintiff's breach-of-contract claim."

Significant Case

According to the teacher's lawyer, Catherine Quinones, the decision marks the first time an appeals court has examined a tenured teacher's due-process rights since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Parratt v. Taylor in 1981.

Prior to the Parratt decision, the Supreme Court consistently interpreted the due-process guarantee to require that, except in "extraordi-nary situations where some valid governmental interest is at stake that justified postponing the hearing until after the event," some form of hearing must be provided to an individual before he or she can be deprived of a federally protected property right.

However, in Parratt, which involved a Nebraska state prisoner whose hobby materials worth $23.50 were "negligently" mislaid by prison officials, the Court concluded that due process did not necessarily mandate a "predeprivation" hearing when a state law would provide adequate redress to a wronged individual.

Hearing Required

In the San Antonio teacher's case, Charles Findeisen v. North East Independent School District, the appeals-court judges found that Mr. Findeisen's position as a tenured teacher was a federally protected property right, and that, even in light of Parratt, a tenured teacher must be provided with a hearing prior to dismissal.

Writing the opinion for the court, Judge Henry Politz maintained that the Supreme Court made a careful distinction in Parratt between situations in which "due process requires a predeprivation hearing before the state [may interfere] with any liberty or property interest" and those in which "either the necessity of quick action by the state or the impracticability of providing any meaningful predeprivation process can ... satisfy the requirements of procedural due process."

Career at Stake

The judges held that in Mr. Findeisen's case, a hearing prior to dismissal was required for four reasons.

First, Texas law provides procedural guidelines for the dismissal of a tenured teacher and "a pretermination hearing is essential to assure that the state's statutory guidelines are followed," the court ruled.

In addition, the termination affected Mr. Findeisen's professional standing and livelihood. Unlike the prisoner who sued in the Parratt case, Judge Politz wrote, Mr. Findeisen's claim "is not for a few dollars worth of hobby goods which were negligently lost; it involves his career."

The court also found that there was no necessity for hasty action in the case and that no "emergency" existed.

Emergency Condition

Without such an emergency condition, Judge Politz stated, a school board can "easily" hold a meaningful predeprivation hearing to consider properly whether to discharge a tenured teacher.

Judge Politz concluded that "one threatened with the deprivation, under color of state law, of a federally protected property interest must be given 'an opportunity ... at a meaningful time and in a meaningful ... manner for [a] hearing appropriate to the nature of the case.'

"Where the property interest is the employment of a tenured public-school teacher, the teacher must be provided timely notice and an opportunity to answer charges so as to minimize the likelihood of an erroneous discharge," he wrote.

Dismissal Questioned

Based on the facts of the case, however, the judges found that it was not clear whether Mr. Findeisen actually had been dismissed.

The school district claims that the teacher resigned from his position, while the teacher claims that he was forced to resign under pressure from the school district and thus received a "constructive discharge."

The appeals court returned the case to the lower court for a ruling on that issue. Late last month, the court denied a petition for rehearing filed by the school district.

The case will go to trial if the school district does not appeal the case to the Supreme Court, according to Ms. Quinones.

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