Supreme Court Declines Review in School Employment Cases

By Mark Walsh — January 13, 2014 3 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to take up appeals stemming from two cases related to school district employment practices.

One involved a Georgia district’s layoff of 54 instrumental music teachers who were categorically let go regardless of their tenure status or performance records, in contrast to the layoff of other employees for whom those factors were taken into account.

The Fulton County district in 2010 laid off hundreds of employees to deal with a $140 million budget shortfall, with most-vulnerable positions being analyzed through a five-step analysis based on tenure and performance. But two groups, the music teachers and paraprofessionals in 1st through 3rd grades, were categorized as non-essential, and all members were subject to layoff. However, some of the paraprofessionals kept their employment by taking other paraprofessional positions within the district.

The music teachers sued under the 14th Amendment’s equal-protection clause, arguing that the district had no rational basis for treating the two groups of laid-off employees (the music teachers and the paraprofessionals) differently.

They lost in both a federal district court and in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta. The appellate court held last year that the district had multiple rational bases for the disparate treatment, including that Georgia law treats teachers and paraprofessionals differently and that there were no other music teaching positions for the teachers to move into, while there were other paraprofessional slots.

The appeals court also held that it was not bound by a separate Georgia state court decision that sided with one of the music teachers on an equal-protection claim.

That fairly technical claim, known as collateral estoppel, was the basis for the other music teachers’ appeal to the Supreme Court. But the justices declined without comment to hear the appeal in Demaree v. Fulton County School District (Case No. 13-307).

The second case stems from a dispute in the Prince George’s County, Md., school district over the district’s employment of temporary classified workers for more than 60 days, in violation of a collective-bargaining agreement.

After the classified workers’ union, an affiliate of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, filed a grievance, an arbitrator ruled that the district had violated the CBA by creating a “second class” of employees who performed permanent-employee work without the full benefits of the labor contract.

The union and district then negotiated a $1 million agreement to settle the matter, but none of that money was distributed to the affected employees. Five of the affected workers sued the district and the union in state court, seeking class action status to retrieve back pay.

Like the first case, the Maryland case turned on a technical area of the law. The Prince George’s County district sought to move (remove, in federal legal parlance) the case to federal court. It also asserted that the union consented to the removal of the suit from state court. The defendants asked a federal district court to dismiss the suit.

The temporary employees sought to keep the dispute in state court, arguing that the union had not properly consented to the removal to federal court. Both a federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, in Richmond, Va., upheld the removal of the case to federal court. They both also ruled that the case should be dismissed.

In their appeal to the Supreme Court in Mayo v. Prince George’s County Board of Education (No. 13-309), the temporary employees focused on the removal issue, arguing that there was disagreement among the federal courts of appeals about whether all parties to a dispute must consent to such a removal.

The justices declined without comment to hear that appeal, as well.

Both appeals were filed by Eric Schnapper, a law professor at the University of Washington who frequently argues on behalf of workers before the high court.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.