A federal appeals court has ruled that it lacked jurisdiction to decide a key claim by a New York state principal who lost her job with the Chester Union Free School District, allegedly because of her military service. The case was returned to a lower federal court for further proceedings.
Jacqueline J. Morris-Hayes, who also is a major in the U.S. Army Reserves, sued school officials in 2003 under the federal Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 and the New York Military Law, which protects public employees who take leave from their jobs to perform military service. (“Iraq Deployments Being Felt in the Schools,” March 23, 2005)
In 2001, Ms. Morris-Hayes had been hired as the principal of the 550-student Chester Elementary School, but after she requested and took leave for several short periods of military training, the district did not renew her employment contract.
The reasons for the non-renewal, which occurred during her probationary period for the principal’s job, were disputed. Ms. Morris-Hayes alleged that it was retaliation for not accommodating a school board member’s request to transfer his child to a certain class.
She charged in her suit that the district and individual school officials violated the federal and state job protections for members of the armed services.
District officials’ reasons for her dismissal, according to court papers, included allegations that Ms. Morris-Hayes was inaccessible to staff members and parents and was deficient in preparing schedules and curriculum plans.
The school district argued that it was immune from the suit in federal court under the 11th Amendment, which bars lawsuits for damages against a state unless it consents to being sued. In some states, school districts are the same as the state under the 11th Amendment. The school district’s lawyer also argued that the school officials were immune individually.
A federal district court in New York City upheld both claims of immunity, but permitted Ms. Morris-Hayes to amend her case to sue the individual officials for discrimination against the military, as an implicit protection of USERRA. The school district argued to the appeals court that the officials had “qualified” or limited immunity from that new claim, because the courts had never recognized such a claim.
The appeals court agreed to dismiss the claim but sent the case back to the lower court to consider others of Ms. Morris-Hayes’ claims, including a free speech claim. The appeals court also suggested that the district court may reconsider the 11th Amendment immunity claim.
The judges on both the appeals court and the district court expressed sympathy, however, for Ms. Morris-Hayes, with the district judge suggesting that the Chester school officials’ alleged actions were “foolish” and “uninformed.”
A version of this article appeared in the October 26, 2005 edition of Education Week