FROM THE NINTH JUDICIAL DISTRICT COURT PARISH OF RAPIDES, NO.
210, 322 HONORABLE THOMAS MARTIN YEAGER, DISTRICT JUDGE
Lloyd Hammonds Hammonds, Sills, Adkins & Guice, LLP FOR
DEFENDANT/APPELLANT: Rapides Parish School Board
Mildred Ellen Methvin FOR PLAINTIFF/APPELLEE: Patricia Powell
Allison Anne Jones Downer, Jones, Marino & White FOR
PLAINTIFF/APPELLEE: Patricia Powell
Jacques Maurice Roy Attorney at Law FOR PLAINTIFF/APPELLEE:
composed of Elizabeth A. Pickett, John E. Conery, and Candyce
G. Perret, Judges.
E. CONERY JUDGE
Rapides Parish School Board (RPSB) appeals the October 19,
2016 judgment of the district court reversing the termination
of a tenured teacher, Patricia Ellyn Powell (Ms. Powell),
after a hearing before RPSB on September 19-20, 2001. For the
following reasons, we affirm the portion of the district
court's judgment reversing the termination of Ms. Powell
but remand to the district court the portion of the judgment
awarding damages to Ms. Powell to set the amount of damages
with proper decretal language.
AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
be clearly discerned at the outset of this case that it has a
long and involved history, as demonstrated by the district
court's extensive, detailed written reasons for judgment,
including "a timeline of events which began twenty-four
years prior to the termination hearing." We will not
duplicate this portion of the district court's reasons
for judgment, but will summarize the pertinent parts which
led to the district court's judgment on appeal before
this court, as well as pertinent parts of the record on
Powell graduated with a B.A. in English Education and Social
Studies from Louisiana College; earned a Master's Degree
in Creative Writing from the University of Louisiana at
Lafayette; and earned a Master's Degree in Ministry from
Powell began her teaching career in 1977, and continued
teaching in two private Catholic schools in Rapides Parish
until 1988. She began teaching in RPSB public schools in
1989. During her teaching career with RPSB, she consistently
received excellent evaluations. On December 2, 1997, her
performance as a gifted teacher at Tioga Elementary School
(Tioga) was rated as "100% satisfactory, " by her
principal. According to the trial judge's findings, the
principal voiced "no criticisms, or mention of any
dissatisfaction with Ms. Powell's teaching ability."
January 6, 1998, Ms. Powell's photograph and comments
appeared in the local newspaper, the Alexandria Daily Town
Talk (Daily Town Talk), in connection with a settlement
reached in a lawsuit between RPSB and its former
superintendent of schools, Betty Cox (Ms. Cox). Ms. Cox had
been hired by RPSB in March 1994 "but [was] suspended
one year later after she began investigating abuses which
publicly embarrassed certain board members." In response
to her suspension, Ms. Cox filed an intervention in "the
long-standing desegregation case" against RPSB and was
able to secure an injunction blocking her suspension and
later termination. Lengthy litigation ensued, and the case
was finally settled for $1.7 million dollars on January 5,
news of the settlement, the Daily Town Talk published an
article called "Residents Outraged." Ms. Powell was
interviewed for the article and on January 6, 1998, her
comments and photograph were printed in the paper:
Patti Powell-Couvillion, a teacher at Tioga Elementary,
wondered if parish residents will ever know the details of
the agreement. "If the school board members have
violated people's rights to the extent they have to pay
more than $1.5 million, why can't the public know what
was done?" Ms. Powell-Couvillion asked.
after Ms. Powell's photograph and comments appeared in
the Daily Town Talk, she was evaluated once again by her
principal at Tioga on January 15, 1998. This performance
evaluation occurred nine days after the newspaper article and
only forty-four days after her previous evaluation on
December 2, 1997. Despite receiving twenty-two satisfactory
scores and a "100% satisfactory rating" in the
December 2, 1997 evaluation, Ms. Powell received only two
satisfactory scores in the January 15, 1998 evaluation. She
received ten unsatisfactory scores and eight
the January 15, 1998 evaluation and less than a month after
the newspaper article appeared, the following events took
place: First, on January 26, 1998, RPSB closed Ms.
Powell's gifted class at Tioga. Second, on January 28,
1998, the administrator of the Aiken Detention Center (Aiken)
sent a letter to the then Director of Personnel requesting a
certified teacher and referencing a previous conversation
about his having to operate the facility with only substitute
teachers. Finally, on January 30, 1998, Ms. Powell was
notified by correspondence from the Director of Personnel
that, "due to the closure of the gifted class at Tioga
Elementary, " effective February 3, 1998, she was being
assigned to Aiken.
she reported to the administrator of Aiken as instructed on
February 3, 1998, she was told she "must have made
someone downtown very angry." Her position at Aiken did
not involve teaching at all, despite the administrator's
"request" that a certified teacher be assigned. Ms.
Powell's only duty was to monitor students who had been
suspended or expelled from regular classes while they wrote
papers. She was not allowed to review or grade the papers.
25, 1998, Aiken's administrator conducted a performance
evaluation of Ms. Powell and rated her performance
satisfactory in twenty-eight out of twenty-nine areas.
However, in a handwritten note, on the evaluation, the
administrator reprimanded Ms. Powell because she
"disregarded policy by leaving unannounced on one
occasion." Ms. Powell testified that she did not leave
unannounced. On the date in question, there was a bomb scare.
Ms. Powell followed instructions and evacuated her class to a
nearby mall. She did not return to Aiken to sign out at the
end of that day.
Powell was placed on a Level I Intensive Assistance Plan
(IAP) on August 26, 1998. The IAP required her to
"arrive at work by 7:20 a.m. and leave no sooner than 10
minutes after school is out in the afternoon."
October 5, 1998, Ms. Powell arrived at Aiken at 8:30 a.m. She
had already notified administration that she overslept and
was running late. Her 8:30 arrival conflicted with the terms
of the IAP. The Aiken administrator sent a formal letter to
RPSB's Director of Personnel reporting the incident,
which was then deemed a violation of the August 26, 1998
Level I IAP. Because of this violation, she was placed on a
Level II IAP, "which threatened her with
November 5, 1998, Ms. Powell's termination was, in fact,
recommended by the Level II IAP. Subsequently on March 30,
1999, she was suspended with pay "pending a full
investigation." The Superintendent notified Ms. Powell
by correspondence on June 27, 2000, that a tenure hearing was
fixed for August 3, 2000, "to consider the charges
outlined in an attached resolution of the RPSB."
resolution entitled "SPECIFIC REASONS For Charges
Against Ms. Patricia Powell, " which was attached to the
June 27, 2000 correspondence contained two charges. The first
charge, "Section E. Specific reasons for Charge No. 1,
" stated that "[O]n numerous occasions during the
1997-1998 and 1998-1999 school years, Ms. Powell, a tenured
teacher, reported to her work assignments in an untimely
fashion." The charge claimed that she continued to
report late for work, which constituted "willful neglect
of duty on her part" despite being counseled and placed
on two levels of professional assistance.
second charge, "Section E. Specific reasons for Charge
No. 2, " stated that on April 24, 1998, Ms. Powell left
the Aiken campus at "approximately 1:40 p.m. without
notifying the administration or making arrangements for
someone to provide supervision to her class." This
required the school secretary to be sent to Ms. Powell's
classroom, and later another teacher to consolidate Ms.
Powell's class with her own. Leaving her class unattended
constituted "willful neglect of duty." The
"intentional falsification" of the sign in/sign out
sheet constituted "dishonesty on her part."
However, the record shows that when Ms. Powell left the Aiken
campus she signed out at 2:30 p.m. and not 1:40 p.m.
record reflects that between Ms. Powell's suspension in
March of 1999 and before the first tenure hearing fixed for
August 3, 2000, there were negotiations between the
Superintendent, counsel for RPSB, and Ms. Powell's
counsel that ultimately led to her reinstatement in August of
2000. The record demonstrates that these negotiations,
detailed in correspondence dated August 1, 2000, involved an
agreement that Ms. Powell would be given a teaching position
in a high school in her area of certification, English. The
cancellation of the August 3, 2000 tenure hearing was
contingent on her physician providing documentation that her
medication would not interfere with her ability to arrive on
time at her new teaching position.
August 9, 2000, Ms. Powell's treating physician, Dr.
Steven J. Cavalier, sent the requested documentation to RPSB.
The documentation stated that Ms. Powell was not taking any
medication that would interfere with her arriving on time at
a teaching position. It conditioned that opinion with the
caveat that she suffered from multiple sclerosis, which was
presently in remission. But because multiple sclerosis was an
"unpredictable disorder, " Dr. Cavalier opined that
Ms. Powell could suffer a "new attack or exacerbation
[of multiple sclerosis] that would temporarily cause some
August 1, 2000 correspondence also warned that if Ms. Powell
was unable to "arrive at work in a timely fashion or to
perform the essential functions of that position[, the
Superintendent would] reinstitute her recommendation of
termination." Further, there is a discussion that it
might be possible to 'accommodate' Ms. Powell's
"medical problems by assigning her to a high school;
high schools in the parish begin at 8:30 a.m. rather than
7:30 a.m. startup time used in elementary schools."
on the forgoing, the Superintendent formally assigned Ms.
Powell to Peabody Magnet High School, (Peabody) on August 15,
2000. The Superintendent asked Ms. Powell to report to the
principal, Ms. Peggie Davis (Ms. Davis), for her actual
assignment teaching tenth grade English. The Superintendent
further instructed: "As expected of all teachers, you
will be required to report at the time and place assigned by
the beginning of her transfer to Peabody there appeared to
have been a lack of communication between Ms. Powell and Ms.
Davis. In September of 2000, an undated report stating that
Ms. Powell had failed to attend several conferences regarding
a student was placed in her personnel file. On October 3,
2000, a letter from a parent complaining that Ms. Powell had
given her child an "F" in English was placed in her
personnel file. Ms. Powell received a reprimand on an
observation report relating to that child's failing grade
on October 3, 2000.
October 4, 2000, Ms. Powell's teacher observation form
noted seven "Needs Improvement" scores. On October
11, 2000, she was purportedly placed on a Level II IAP
requiring her to "design and implement effective lessons
that are meaningful[.]" Ms. Powell did not sign this
document and did not recall ever reviewing the document.
Subsequently, on October 30, 2000, she was purportedly placed
on a second Level II IAP directing that she "follow
guidelines for makeup work; is to provide accurate
information on students during conferences, and treat all
students with dignity and respect."
November 14, 2000, a complaint was sent to the Assistant
Superintendent about the child who had received the
"F" in Ms. Powell's English class. On November
16, 2000, Ms. Davis erroneously reprimanded Ms. Powell for
arriving late to work. The reprimand was made in error
because of confusion with the time change that had occurred
on October 29, 2000. Ms. Powell had arrived timely.
December 2007, Ms. Powell was placed on a third Level II IAP,
which directed her to "continue to design and implement
effective lessons, communicate and have physical
documentation that parents and caregivers are kept informed
on students' progress." Like the October 11 IAP
form, Ms. Powell did not sign or recall seeing this form
December 11, 2000, Ms. Powell received a negative evaluation
of the October 30, 2000 Level II IAP. The evaluation stated
that she "continues to fabricate information on
discipline behavior reports." No specifics were noted.
January 11, 2001, Ms. Davis hand delivered a letter of
reprimand to Ms. Powell. The letter identified a number of
problems with both the students and other teachers. Ms.
Powell was warned that if she did not comply, Ms. Davis would
make a request to the Superintendent recommending her
Davis eventually sent a letter to the Superintendent on April
4, 2001, recommending that Ms. Powell be terminated from her
position as an English teacher at Peabody. This letter
resulted in Ms. Powell's suspension from her position at
Peabody with pay in April of 2001. On August 22, 2001, the
Superintendent sent a certified letter notifying Ms. Powell
that the school board had unanimously voted to approve a
resolution calling for a tenure hearing to be held on
September 19, 2001, at 5:00 p.m. This certified letter sent
to Ms. Powell advised that she was entitled to legal
representation, could testify herself, and could call
witnesses to testify on her behalf. A copy of the resolution
detailing the charges to be heard at the tenure hearing was
attached to the certified letter.
were four charges made against Ms. Powell which can be
summarized as follows: Charge 1-Tardiness; Charge 2-Failing
to keep student records and progress reports; Charge
3-Improper language; and Charge 4-Use of a cell phone to call
a student's parent during class. RPSB asserts that the
charges brought against Ms. Powell occurred between her
August 21, 2000 start date and her April 2001 suspension and
had nothing to do with her prior suspension or threatened
Charge 1, part E references Ms. Powell's "problems
with tardiness in previous work locations." Further,
Charge 1, part F asked, "Have any such charges
previously been brought against the teacher?" The
response references the charges brought against Ms. Powell
while she was at Aiken, which resulted in her suspension and
original threatened tenure hearing. The response stated,
"Ms. Powell has been charged in a previous school year
with excessive tardies, but the School Board never conducted
a tenure hearing to consider that charge."
inclusion of the reference in Charge 1 to the
"tardiness" of Ms. Powell during the previous
school year at Aiken demonstrates that despite RPSB's
assertions, Charge 1 was clearly a continuation of the
original events that led to the recommendation for her
termination in November of 1998 and subsequent suspension in
March of 1999. Ultimately, Ms. Powell was terminated for
violating Charge 1 through "willful neglect of
duty." The facts as found by the district court clearly
demonstrated the grounds for her 2001 termination were not
limited to only the 2000-2001 year at Peabody.
tenure hearing was held as scheduled on September 19-20,
2001. Although she consulted with counsel, Ms. Powell
represented herself pro se at the hearing. In both
her opening statement and in her testimony, Ms. Powell made
it clear that she felt that she had been a victim of
retaliation for the statement quoted in the Daily Town Talk
criticizing the settlement between RPSB and the former
superintendent. Ms. Powell claimed that the closure of her
gifted class, transfer to Aiken, and the many unfavorable
reviews since publication of the newspaper article were all
part of RPSB's effort to make her resign.
her testimony, Ms. Powell attempted to present her teacher
evaluation forms for the past twenty-two years of her
teaching career, which demonstrated that she had never
received a negative evaluation except in the past two years,
after the article was published. When asked by the president
of RPSB why the documents were "[r]elevant to the
proceedings, " she replied, "Well, it shows, you
know, that I did get good evaluations for twenty something
years prior to being the most horrible teacher that ever
statements made by Ms. Powell at the tenure hearing clearly
informed RPSB of her belief that she had been a victim of
retaliation and that the charges and write-ups in her
personnel file were an attempt to force her resignation.
However, the hearing transcript does not contain any
questions by the members of RPSB or counsel for the
superintendent seeking to inquire further into the
allegations made by Ms. Powell.
hearing began at 5:00 p.m. and continued into the small hours
of the morning. RPSB went into a private session to debate
the four charges and returned at approximately 1:00 a.m. to
vote. RPSB found that Ms. Powell was guilty of willful
neglect of duty on Charges 1, 2, and 4. Tie votes resulted in
an acquittal on Charge 3. The district court ultimately
determined that it could not "impose any disciplinary
action" for Charge 4 because although RPSB found that
Ms. Powell had violated her duty, they did not recommend
disciplinary action on that charge. Therefore, Charges 3 and
4, not considered by the district court, are not before this
court for review.
the voting was concluded and a finding made that disciplinary
action should be taken against Ms. Powell, RPSB voted to
terminate her employment. RPSB sent certified correspondence
to Ms. Powell on September 25, 2001, giving the details of
RPSB's vote on each of the Charges and informing her of
her termination effective September 20, 2001. Ms. Powell,
through counsel, timely filed an appeal for review of the
termination decision made by RPSB. The case languished for
many years in the district court before finally proceeding to
a review. Judgment was rendered in favor of Ms. Powell. RPSB
now timely appeals that judgment.
HISTORY IN THE DISTRICT COURT
necessary to now discuss the procedural history of Ms.
Powell's case once it reached the district court. Ms.
Powell had been terminated by RPSB in September of 2011. The
record demonstrates a long and tortured history in the
Louisiana Ninth Judicial District Court, resulting in many
delays and rulings in four different divisions of that court.
In fact, a number of motions were pending when the district
judge whose judgment is being appealed took over the case at
the end of 2013.
October 4, 2002, the first district court judge assigned
issued a scheduling order mandating the record of the 2001
tenure hearing be lodged. The district court ordered counsel
for Ms. Powell to request the transcript of the hearing and
advise the court within thirty days of receipt of that
transcript if counsel intended to offer additional evidence.
The district court further instructed that evidence would be
closed if it did not receive timely notice from Ms.
Powell's counsel. Counsel was then allowed thirty days to
brief the issue after the transcript was filed. RPSB was
ordered to respond within thirty days after Ms. Powell's
brief was filed.
thereafter, the supreme court issued its opinion in
Spears v. Beauregard Parish Sch. Bd., 02-2870 (La.
6/27/03), 848 So.2d 540, making it clear that Ms. Powell, as
the terminated teacher and the appellant, was required to pay
the cost of preparing the transcript of her tenure hearing.
The district court could not conduct its appellate review
without the transcript. Further, Ms. Powell was required to
pay the court costs associated with the appeal to the
district court. The transcript was not filed within thirty
days in compliance with the district court's order and
the record does not contain a notice from Ms. Powell's
counsel that she intended to offer additional evidence.
However, the record also fails to show that counsel for RPSB
immediately filed a motion and order asking the district
court to conduct a hearing to determine whether the appeal
should be dismissed and/or whether Ms. Powell should be
precluded from offering additional evidence.
on October 10, 2002, Ms. Powell propounded formal discovery
to RPSB, which included interrogatories and requests for
production of documents. On October 31, 2002, RPSB answered
Ms. Powell's petition and submitted its first set of
interrogatories and requests for production of documents to
record contains no other activity in the case until December
20, 2007, when counsel for Ms. Powell requested a status
conference with the district court. As a result of the status
conference the case was fixed as a bench trial on April 24,
2008. However, contrary to the district court's original
scheduling order of October 4, 2002, the transcript of the
tenure hearing had not yet been lodged in the record. On
March 25, 2008, counsel for Ms. Powell requested another
status conference with the district court.
April 7, 2008, RPSB filed a motion to compel the filing of
the transcript of the tenure hearing in to the record, along
with a motion for protective order, a motion in limine, and a
motion for continuance of the April 24, 2008 bench trial. In
essence RPSB sought to compel Ms. Powell to file a copy of
the transcript of her tenure hearing within ten days or
suffer dismissal of her appeal. No rulings on RPSB's
motions appear in the record but the district court did reset
the bench trial for August 28, 2008.
Powell responded with a motion to compel RPSB to answer
discovery propounded on November 13, 2003, September 4, 2004,
and April 19, 2006. A hearing was fixed for June 23, 2008,
but once again no ruling on Ms. Powell's motion or
RPSB's motions is in the record. The minute entry states
the matter was continued without date by agreement. The
August 28, 2008 trial was continued without date.
years later, on October 19, 2011, counsel for Ms. Powell
filed a records request to RPSB. A supplementary request was
filed on October 25, 2011. On November 23, 2011, nine years
after Ms. Powell filed her appeal in the district court, the
record of her 2001 tenure hearing was finally filed into the
district court record along with her objections to the
October 19, 2011, RPSB filed a motion to recuse the presiding
judge, Judge Donald T. Johnson. After a series of motions
pertaining to Judge Johnson's recusal, which eventually
led to the case being assigned to Judge Thomas M. Yeager,
additional counsel enrolled on behalf of Ms. Powell, and on
November 15, 2013, requested a status conference with Judge
Yeager. A status conference with all counsel was set by
conference call for December 5, 2013. A pre-trial conference
was held on February 25, 2014, and a bench trial was
tentatively fixed for July 16, 2014. The July 16, 2014 trial
was continued by joint motion of counsel, which sought an
August 21, 2014 trial date. However, considering the
outstanding, undecided motions, the district court did not
immediately set a new trial date.
19, 2014, the district court heard Ms. Powell's motions
seeking a finding of spoliation of evidence in regard to lost
documents, such as the time cards of other teachers, and a
motion to exclude evidence unsubstantiated by admissible
documentary or testimonial evidence. In its written reasons
signed on July 8, 2014, the district court denied both
motions. It found that the time cards of other teachers were
"not relevant to the appeal process and would be
inadmissible." Further, the district court stated:
Incidents or allegations of a similar nature involving other
employees are irrelevant and are not within the narrow scope
of review by the Court since they do not address the question
of whether there was substantial evidence of record presented
during the tenure hearing to support the decision of the