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Williams v. The Board of Supervisors

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Third Circuit

May 15, 2019

PEMELLA WILLIAMS
v.
THE BOARD OF SUPERVISORS, LOUISIANA COMMUNITY & TECHNICAL COLLEGE SYSTEMS, ET AL.

          APPEAL FROM THE FIFTEENTH JUDICIAL DISTRICT COURT PARISH OF LAFAYETTE, NO. 20123844 HONORABLE JOHN D. TRAHAN, DISTRICT JUDGE

          Amanda G. Clark Mason C. Johnson Erica Schirling Aguillard FORRESTER & CLARK, L.L.C. COUNSEL FOR DEFENDANTS/APPELLANTS: The Board of Supervisors of the Louisiana Community and Technical College Systems Phyllis Dupuis

          J. Arthur Smith, III COUNSEL FOR PLAINTIFF/APPELLEE: Alicia Williams, legal successor to Pemella Williams

          Court composed of Billy H. Ezell, Van H. Kyzar, and Jonathan W. Perry, Judges.

          VAN H. KYZAR JUDGE.

         Defendants, the Board of Supervisors of the Louisiana Community and Technical College Systems (the Board) and Phyllis Dupuis, appeal the trial court judgment granting partial summary judgment to Plaintiff, Pemella Williams, [1] finding that Defendants violated Ms. Williams' constitutional right to procedural due process. Defendants further appeal the trial court's denial of their motion for summary judgment, seeking to dismiss all of Plaintiffs claims against them with prejudice, as well as the trial court's denial of qualified immunity as to Phyllis Dupuis. For the following reasons, we affirm the judgment of the trial court in part, reverse in part, and remand for proceedings consistent herewith.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         This matter arose as a teacher/tenure claim after Plaintiff, Ms. Williams, was presented with a termination letter on July 11, 2011. Plaintiff began her employment with Acadiana Technical College (ATC) in 1979. ATC came under the jurisdiction of the Board on July 1, 1999, with a policy that all employees who were transferred to the employment of the Board on July 1, 1999 would retain all property interests and due process interests acquired prior to the transfer of jurisdiction. Phyllis Dupuis was the Regional Director of ATC at all times relevant herein.

         Prior to receiving the July 11, 2011 letter, Plaintiff was the Department Head of Health Occupations at the Lafayette campus of ATC, as well as acting as a classroom/clinical nursing instructor. In this role, Plaintiffs job duties included providing career counseling to students, maintaining program credentials and licensing requirements, and providing academic advice to program students. In the fall of 2010, Plaintiff was made aware that the Louisiana State Board of Practical Nurse Examiners, which is responsible for establishing the minimum requirements prospective nurses must meet before sitting for the national nursing exam, instituted a new requirement that graduating students must obtain FBI background clearance before sitting for the exam. Plaintiff was also made aware that students would be required to request the FBI clearance at least six months before attempting to sit for their nursing exam to ensure all background check results would be timely. Despite this, Plaintiff failed to inform nursing students set to graduate in May 2011 of the new FBI background check requirements, as required by her duties as Department Head.

         ATC and the Board became aware of Plaintiff s oversight in May 2011, when Ms. Dupuis began receiving complaints from students who had not been authorized to sit for the nursing board exams based upon their lack of FBI background clearance. This caused repercussions for both the graduating nursing students and the reputation of ATCs nursing program, as passing nursing boards is a pre-requisite to employment in the field. Ms. Dupuis and Plaintiff met several times regarding the incident, the significance of the incident, and any potential legal ramifications, as many students had threatened legal action. Ms. Dupuis also consulted with the Board's legal counsel, Leo Hamilton, the Board's assistant manager of Human Resources, Francis Killen, and ATCs manager of Human Resources, Trevor Menard.

         Following discussions about the incident over the course of May and June of 2011, Plaintiff received a letter on July 11, 2011, referencing her termination, though advising her that she would be paid wages and benefits through July 29, 2011. Plaintiff requested instead that she be allowed to retire, which request was granted less than a week later. At that point, Plaintiff retained an attorney who asserted that she had suffered a due process violation. ATC determined that the formal procedures required for termination of employment did apply and had not been completed. Thereafter, ATC effectively revoked the July 11, 2011 letter and prepared to conduct the formal process for termination.

         Instead, Plaintiff executed Teacher Retirement System of Louisiana (TRSL) paperwork on July 20, 2011 certifying that she planned to retire from ATC. She was continued on administrative leave with pay and full benefits and retained her title as Department Head until she retired effective August 31, 2011. Before this chosen retirement date, Plaintiffs attorney sent a letter to ATC demanding reinstatement, claiming that Plaintiff was not still employed. On August 25, 2011, Plaintiff notified ATC by letter from her attorney that she would retire on September 1, though she reserved her right to pursue any civil remedies. Plaintiff then filed the instant suit after her retirement date, claiming unlawful discharge without due process.

         Plaintiff filed a motion for partial summary judgment, requesting a finding that the actions of Defendants violated her federal and state constitutional rights to Due Process. Defendants filed a cross motion for summary judgment, seeking the dismissal of Plaintiff s claims with prejudice. Following arguments on the motions, the trial court granted Plaintiffs motion for partial summary judgment and denied Defendants' cross motion. It is from this judgment that Defendants appeal, asserting five alleged errors.

         ASSIGNMENTS OF ERROR

         (1) The trial court committed legal error in finding that plaintiff suffered a deprivation of Procedural Due Process Rights when she was never terminated.

         (2) The trial [court] committed legal error in failing to recognize plaintiffs retirement as a knowing and voluntary waiver ...


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