Law Update

December 03, 2003 5 min read
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Political-Retaliation Claim Revived by Appeals Court

A Kentucky school administrator who claims to be a victim of political payback has won an appeal in federal court.

Anna Lea Justice sued the Pike County, Ky., school board and its superintendent after she was demoted to an elementary school teaching position from her job as the director of the 10,000-student district’s grants office.

Although a U.S. District Court judge granted a summary judgment in the district’s favor, that 2001 ruling was unanimously reversed last month by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati.

Ms. Justice had strongly supported a former superintendent of the district, who resigned in 1998 after allegations were raised that he had closed a public school in order to benefit a private school run by his son, according to court papers. The former grants administrator was a director of that private school and had defended the former schools chief’s actions in the local newspaper.

After a school board election yielded a shift in the political winds, a new superintendent was hired in 1999. Contending that the grants office “was not an efficient use of resources,” he “prevailed upon the board to abolish” Ms. Justice’s job in 1999, according to the 6th Circuit court’s Nov. 4 opinion. He then reassigned her to the classroom at a pay cut, and Ms. Justice applied for and received a disability retirement from the state.

She later sued, alleging that her reassignment was politically motivated and violated her constitutional rights to political expression and association. She also claimed a violation of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act because she was not up to a classroom assignment.

Ms. Justice said she was unable to teach because of injuries from a car accident and chronic depression “triggered by a confrontation with a student” that made “her unable to handle classroom stress,” according to court papers.

But U.S. District Judge Joseph M. Hood of the federal court in Pikeville, Ky., agreed with the school district that neither of Ms. Justice’s claims held water.

The reprisal claim didn’t fly, he concluded, because she was in a position not covered by general protections against politically driven employment decisions. And she had effectively forfeited her stance as a qualified employee, he said, by taking a disability-related retirement.

The 6th Circuit panel reversed Judge Hood on both those points, holding that Ms. Justice’s “claims were not precluded by the alleged political nature of her position and her request for a disability pension.” The panel sent the case back to the lower court for further proceedings.

School Death

The parents of an 8th grader who was stabbed to death in a Houston middle school have lost their appeal of a federal court decision that cleared the school district of liability in the apparently gang-related killing.

Samuel Avila, 13, was stabbed with a screwdriver by another student in a hallway of Houston’s Deady Middle School during a fight involving several students, according to court papers.

In their suit, the boy’s parents claimed that the 210,000-student Houston school district effectively tolerated gang-related activity. They contended that their son was subjected to a “state-created danger” that violated his rights under the due-process clause of the 14th Amendment.

A U.S. District Court judge granted summary judgment in favor of the district. On Nov. 10, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, in New Orleans, unanimously affirmed that ruling.

Noting that Deady Middle School “is located in a part of Houston where there is significant gang-related activity,” the panel cited several district policies and practices designed to combat the problem. Those include the assignment of two district police officers to the school, a student tip line, and random drug and weapons searches.

While the parents presented evidence that certain teachers did not adequately respond to rules infractions involving gangs, the appellate panel said that there was “no evidence that the [school] board knew of this behavior or condoned it.”

Even if the board “was not assiduous at fighting gang activity,” the 5th Circuit panel continued, that shortcoming would not rise to the level of “deliberate indifference” needed to prove the parents’ claim.

To hold the district responsible for the “ultimate ineffectiveness” of its anti-gang policies, the court said, would go against U.S. Supreme Court precedents establishing that the U.S. Constitution generally does not require governments “to protect individuals from private violence.”

For that reason, the appellate panel concluded, the parents failed to identify a policy or custom of the district that effectively created an opportunity for the student’s killing that would not otherwise have existed.

Snow Days

Snowstorms may be a blessing for Pennsylvania’s popular Pocono Mountain ski resorts, but they’ve been a source of labor-management strife for one school district in the area.

The North Pocono district in Moscow, Pa., recently lost its appeal in state court in a dispute involving wages during school closings caused by bad weather and the days scheduled to make up for them.

Under their contract with the 3,200-student district, members of the North Pocono Educational Support Personnel Association do not have to work on snow days. The contract stipulates that "[a]ny such loss of time due to emergency or inclement weather shall result in no loss of pay,” according to court papers.

District officials did not pay the support staff for snow days during the 1999-2000 school year, but did pay the employees who worked on the subsequent makeup days. The union filed a labor grievance, and the following school year employees did get paid for days when schools closed for bad weather, but not for the makeup days. A second grievance was filed.

David P. Dolan, a lawyer for the district, said officials reasoned that the workers had already been compensated for the makeup days by the wages they received for the snow days, so any extra money would amount to a windfall or bonus.

But neither the arbitrator who heard the grievances nor the Lackawanna County judge who handled the district’s challenge of the arbitration award agreed.

The district appealed again, and on Nov. 7 a three-judge panel of the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania issued a split decision that again sided with the union. Despite a dissent arguing that the workers would suffer no loss of pay if they got no extra wages for the makeup days, the majority ordered the district to pay up for both the snow days and the makeup days.

With the district and the union currently negotiating a new contract, Mr. Dolan said district leaders have decided not to pursue any further appeals.

Caroline Hendrie

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