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Plaisance v. Jefferson Parish School Board

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Fifth Circuit

July 31, 2018





          Panel composed of Judges Susan M. Chehardy, Jude G. Gravois, and Stephen J. Windhorst






         Appellants, ten elementary and middle school principals employed by the Jefferson Parish Public School System, who were demoted by the Jefferson Parish School Board ("the School Board") following the 2011-12 school year, appeal a partial final judgment signed by the trial court on August 21, 2017 confirming their demotions.[1] For the following reasons, we affirm.


         Appellants are Jackie Daniilidis, Simone Duhon, Julie Flattmann, Billie Gassen, Yvette Gauthreaux, Randi Hindman, Amelia Noel, Dodie Plaisance, Cherie Varisco, and Patti Waddell. Originally, on December 4, 2012, twelve principals (appellants plus Gloria Willis and Diane Nowik), filed a Petition for Damages and Declarative and Injunctive Relief against the School Board, alleging that their contracts of employment were breached by the School Board when they were removed from their principal positions following the 2011-12 school year, following a finding by the Superintendent that they were "incompetent" and/or "inefficient," as per La. R.S. 17:444(B). Another principal, Lisa Kendrick, [2] was added as a plaintiff in an Amended Petition filed on December 12, 2013. Ten of the principals are before this Court in the instant appeal; three principals' cases were not decided in the partial final judgment on appeal and thus their claims remain pending in the district court proceeding.[3] Eight of the appellants were removed as principals following the expiration of their contracts at the end of the 2011-12 school year.[4] Two of the appellants were removed as principals also at the end of the 2011-12 school year, but during the unexpired terms of their contracts.[5]

         In their petition as amended, appellants alleged that Dr. James Meza, the Superintendent of Schools for Jefferson Parish, and the School Board, in adopting an initial policy on March 11, 2010 and a revised policy on October 5, 2011 regarding the use of the principals' "targeted growth scores" to determine competency, improperly and impermissibly unilaterally changed or modified their existing contracts, holding them accountable for matters that were not a part of their existing contracts (specifically, the "achievement of" their respective schools' growth target scores, rather than the "facilitation of" their respective schools' achievement of their growth target scores, as found in the policy in effect when their contracts were confected), applied those changes retroactively, and used those changes as a basis to find them incompetent and/or inefficient and to demote them from their positions as principal. Appellants also alleged that they were not given the required 120-days' notice prior to being demoted. Appellants also sought injunctive relief, seeking to enjoin the School Board from "maintaining its policy and/or practice of arbitrarily and capriciously terminating and/or demoting them in violation of state law and/or [the School Board's] own policies." Appellants also sought reinstatement to their positions of principal and damages. In lieu of reinstatement, appellants sought front pay.

         In response, the School Board argued that it has always had the power to remove or demote principals for incompetence and/or inefficiency, terms that are used but not defined in either the contracts at issue or La. R.S. 17:444(B), and that the School Board's decisions to uphold the Superintendent's decisions not to renew appellants' contracts (or respectively remove two of them from their positions mid-contract) complied with all legal and statutory requirements, including notice and due process. The School Board argued that nothing in appellants' contracts suggested that the failure to meet their respective schools' growth target scores could not be considered when determining whether the respective principal was incompetent and/or inefficient and thus had met that criteria for removal. It further argued that the 120-days' notice requirement in La. R.S. 17:444(B)(4)(c)(i) does not apply when the principal is removed from her position for cause under La. R.S. l7:444(B)(4)(c)(iii) in the middle of the contract term, but rather only applied when an expiring contract would not be renewed.

         All ten appellants received "charge letters" from the Superintendent notifying them of their impending removal.[6] Of the ten appellants who are a part of this appeal, six appellants ultimately had a hearing before the School Board regarding the charges of incompetency and/or inefficiency forming the basis for their contracts' non-renewals or their terminations mid-contract.[7] Because the remaining four appellants all elected to retire at the end of the 2011-12 school year in lieu of being removed and reassigned to another position, they were not offered hearings before the School Board.[8] The Superintendent supported his decisions to remove the principals with the introduction of the relevant School Board policies, the principals' respective schools' report cards from the prior 3-4 years, which included whether the principals' respective schools had met their growth targets or had shown progress, and other documentary evidence, as well as testimony from the School System's chief human capital officer and the principals' network executive directors. Appellants' counsel appeared at the hearings, but waived appellants' appearances, called no witnesses, and offered no evidence to refute the School Board's evidence supporting the Superintendent's determinations that the principals were incompetent and/or inefficient as per La. R.S. 17:444(B).[9]

         After the hearings before the School Board resulted in the confirmation of the Superintendent's decisions to remove appellants from their respective positions as principal, appellants filed suit in the district court as noted above. Following a hearing held on April 12, 2016, the trial court in a judgment signed on June 13, 2016 held that the adoption and revision of the policy in question by the School Board during the contract periods in question and the resultant use of State targeted growth scores to determine incompetence and/or inefficiency did not violate the applicable statute (La. R.S. 17:444(B)), or the principals' contracts. The trial court implicitly rejected appellants' retroactivity arguments. The June 13, 2016 judgment was amended on July 25, 2016 to provide that the School was not authorized to remove the eight principals who were removed at the expiration of their contract terms without providing them with 120-days' notice prior to the terminations of their contracts, and that the two principals who were terminated during the terms of their contracts were entitled to a fair hearing and reasonable notice prior to the terminations of their contracts. The subsequent partial final judgment of August 21, 2017 under review herein awarded the eight appellants whose contracts were not renewed 120 days of pay in lieu of proper notice. The judgment also awarded the two appellants who were removed during the terms of their contracts lost wages from the date of their removals (June 30, 2012) through the dates of their respective hearings before the School Board. The trial court also held that appellants' contracts (those whose contracts were not renewed) did not reconduct for another two-year term, thus denying appellants' request for reinstatement and full back pay.

         On appeal, appellants argue that the trial court erred in three respects. First, they argue that the trial court erred in finding that the School Board could unilaterally modify the existing contracts between the School Board and appellants by incorporating the use of State targeted growth scores into their existing contracts. Second, they argue that the trial court erred in holding that the modified contracts could be applied retroactively to hold appellants accountable for the performance of duties and responsibilities that were not part of their existing contracts. Third, appellants argue that the trial court erred in finding that their employment contracts reconducted for a period of only 120 days, rather than the entire contract period of two years.


         In Spears v. Beauregard Par. Sch. Bd., 02-2870 (La. 6/27/03), 848 So.2d 540, 544, the Louisiana Supreme Court explained the standard of review in tenure proceedings, to-wit:

In Howell v. Winn Parish School Bd., 332 So.2d 822 (La. 1976), we held that judicial review of tenure proceedings must be limited to an inquiry of whether the School Board complied with the statutory formalities under Louisiana's Teacher Tenure Law and whether the School Board's findings were supported by substantial evidence. … In conducting such an examination, the district court must give great deference to the school board's findings of fact and credibility. Arriola v. Orleans Parish Sch. Bd., 01-1878 (La. 2/26/02), 809 So.2d 932, 941. Reasons for dismissal are largely in the sound discretion of the school board. Gaulden v. Lincoln Parish School Board, 554 So.2d 152, 157 (La.App. 2 Cir. 1989), writ denied, 559 So.2d 126 (La. 1990). Thus, the school board's judgment should not be reversed in the absence of a clear showing of abuse of discretion. Id. …
The district court may not substitute its judgment for that of the school board or interfere with the school board's good faith exercise of discretion. Howard, 793 So.2d 153 at 153; McLaughlin v. Jefferson Parish School Board, 560 So.2d 585 (La.App. 5 Cir. 1990); Sampson v. Lincoln Parish School Board, 439 So.2d 454 (La.App. 2 Cir. 1983). The district court's responsibility in such a case is to determine whether the school board's action was supported by substantial evidence, or conversely, constituted an arbitrary decision and thus an abuse of discretion. Howell, 332 So.2d at 825; Roberts v. Rapides Parish School Board, 617 So.2d 187, 190 (La.App. 3 Cir.), writ denied, 619 So.2d 1068 (La. 1993). As with the district court, a court of appeal may not reverse the decision of a district court unless it finds the school board's termination proceedings failed to comply with statutory formalities and/or the school board's findings were not supported by substantial evidence. Wiley v. Richland Parish School Bd., 476 So.2d 439, 442 (La.App. 2 Cir. 1985); Cook v. Natchitoches Parish Sch. Bd., 342 So.2d 702 (La.App. 3 Cir. 1977), writ denied, 345 So.2d 52 (La. 1977); Mims v. West Baton Rouge Parish Sch. Bd., 315 So.2d 349 (La.App. 1 Cir. 1975).

         At issue in this case is the application of La. R.S. 17:444(B)(4)(c)(i)-(v), dealing with promotions to and employment by teachers into positions of higher salary and tenure, which provide:

(i) The board and the employee may enter into subsequent contracts of employment. Not less than one hundred and twenty days prior to the termination of such a contract, the superintendent shall notify the employee of termination of employment under such contract, or in lieu thereof the board and the employer may negotiate and enter into a contract for subsequent employment.
(ii) The employee may choose not to enter into subsequent contracts and may either terminate his employment or, if he has acquired permanent status as a teacher, resume employment as a teacher.
(iii) The employee shall be retained during the term of a contract unless the employee is found incompetent or inefficient or is found to have failed to fulfill the terms and performance objectives of his contract. However, before an employee can be removed during the contract period, he shall have the right to written charges and a fair hearing before the board after reasonable written notice.
(iv) The board shall negotiate and offer a new contract at the expiration of each existing contract unless the superintendent recommends against a new contract based on an evaluation of the contractee as provided for in R.S. 17:391.5, or unless failure to offer a new contract is based on a cause sufficient to support a mid-contract termination as provided in Item (iii) of this Subparagraph, or unless the position has been discontinued, or unless the position has been eliminated as a result of district reorganization, provided that should the position be re-created, the employee, if still employed by the board, shall have first right of refusal to the re-created position.
(v) If the contracted employee is removed or not renewed and had previously acquired permanent status as a teacher, he shall be returned to his former position as a teacher or to a position paying the same salary as his former position as a teacher unless he chooses to terminate his employment.


         Breach of employment contract

         Appellants argue that the School Board's use of their respective schools' State targeted growth scores to demote them for cause, "particularly since they were not mentioned in, or made a part of, the existing contract between [Appellants] and the Board," amounted to an impermissible and unlawful unilateral change of appellants' existing obligation under their employment contracts. Appellants argue that they had legitimate, binding contracts with the School Board, setting forth "in great detail" the duties and responsibilities of principals, and as such, the School Board was prevented from unilaterally modifying the contracts.

         In response, the School Board argues that its adoption of the initial policy in 2010 and the revised policy in 2011 did not serve to alter the principals' contracts in any way. The School Board argues that all of the principals' contracts specifically authorize the removal of a principal who is found to be incompetent, a term that is not defined by the contracts or the relevant statute where it appears (La. R.S. 17:444(B)(4)(c)(iii)). The School Board further argues that nothing in the principals' contracts prohibited the School Board ...

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