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Important Takeaway: A Louisiana appellate court upheld a superintendent’s decision to terminate a non-tenured teacher during an active contract. The court held that the superintendent did not abuse his discretion when terminating the teacher because the superintendent had substantial evidence to support his reasons for termination.
Facts: Ms. Richard was a non-tenured teacher for the Natchitoches Parish School Board (NPSB) for 5 years. In 2020, she was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer and in August 2021 started teaching virtually at NPSB’s virtual academy. In December 2021, a conflict arose between Ms. Richard and Ms. Irchirl, the virtual academy’s principal, when Ms. Richard was not transferring grades from one online portal to another twice a week. Ms. Richard knew she had to do this because of the training she had received before she began teaching at the virtual academy. Parents started reaching out to Ms. Irchirl with concerns about their children’s grades. One parent indicated she had also reached out to Ms. Richard with no reply.
Ms. Irchirl sent multiple email reminders to Ms. Richard between December 2021 and March 2022 regarding grade entries. In March 2022, Ms. Richard failed to get grades in for the term, so Ms. Irchirl entered them for her. Ms. Irchirl received emails from a student concerned about one of her grades and said Ms. Richard had not been responding to emails. When Ms. Irchirl contacted Ms. Richard, Ms. Richard said she had received the student’s emails while in the hospital.
On April 8, 2022, Ms. Irchirl emailed Ms. Richard to ask if she would come to the virtual academy in person to sign her letter of intent to return for the next school year. On April 11, 2022, Ms. Richard emailed Ms. Irchirl and expressed distress about their meeting that day because Ms. Irchirl told her she was going to be terminated because of her illness. Ms. Irchirl responded and advised Ms. Richard that she had not terminated her during their meeting.
On April 20, 2022, Ms. Irchirl forwarded another email from a parent concerned about grades to Ms. Richard. She also reminded Ms. Richard that report cards would be printed on April 25, so grades must be in by then. Ms. Richard said she would take care of the issue. Later that day, Ms. Irchirl emailed Ms. Richard again to advise her of all missing grades and ask her how she could assist to ensure this does not keep happening. Ms. Richard replied that she would have the grades in by the deadline.
In May 2022, Ms. Richard signed a contract for the 2022-2023 school year. Ms. Irchirl also input Ms. Richard’s evaluations for the previous year that day, noting that she struggles to input grades and she had received complaints from parents and students about communication. In June 2022, the Human Resources Director, Ms. Page, offered Ms. Richard an opportunity to resign or take a leave of absence and return when her health improved. Ms. Richard sent Ms. Page an email after their meeting saying that she had been told if she did not resign, she would be fired. Ms. Page responded that was a mischaracterization of the event. In August 2022, the superintendent, Dr. Eloi, wrote a letter to Ms. Richard outlining multiple reasons for which she might be subject to discipline, including failure to put in grades and failure to communicate with the Principal. Ms. Richard was put on administrative leave and given seven days to respond to this letter. Dr. Eloi said he would notify Ms. Richard of his decision at the end of the seven days. Ms. Richard responded that the claims were unsubstantiated but gave no further detailed response to each claim.
On August 15, 2022, Dr. Eloi sent Ms. Richard a follow-up letter stating he was terminating her employment effective the next day. Ms. Richard sought judicial review of this decision, maintaining that she was fired because of her illness. Ms. Richard further argued that she was denied a meaningful opportunity to respond because her gradebook had been locked by NPSB. Ms. Richard also said her rights had been violated because Dr. Eloi had considered eight reasons for her termination, but she had not been given notice of the eight reasons. The initial letter Dr. Eloi provided only specified seven possible reasons for discipline. Ms. Richard alleged these actions violated her due process rights under state law and the 14th Amendment. The trial court upheld Dr. Eloi’s decision.
A Louisiana appellate court upheld the trial court’s decision. The court held that the exchanges of emails between Ms. Richard and Ms. Irchirl, and other evidence, were substantial evidence to show Ms. Richard was terminated on proper grounds. They also held that Ms. Richard did not provide any substantiated competent evidence in her favor. The court explained their role was to determine if the superintendent abused his discretion when handling a personnel matter involving a nontenured teacher. The Court found he had not. They found that even if Dr. Eloi had relied on an unnamed 8th reason, he did not abuse his discretion because the other 7 reasons provided to Ms. Richard were proper grounds for termination. Further, state law did not require the written reasons for disciplining a nontenured teacher to include all documentation the superintendent relied on to make their decision.
The court also held that Ms. Richard did not need access to her gradebook to adequately respond to Mr. Eloi’s original letter, because the emails between her and the administration contained all of the information about unentered grades that she needed. They explained that their role is not to second-guess the decisions of superintendents as that is beyond their expertise. The Court must determine if the superintendent’s decisions are arbitrary or capricious by determining if substantial evidence supports the superintendent’s decision.
What this means: In Montana, state law says that the trustees of a school district can terminate a teacher before their contract is up only for good cause. If an administrator recommends to the board that a teacher be terminated for good cause, they must give the trustees and the teacher written notice. This notice must clearly and explicitly state the reasons for recommended dismissal. There is then a hearing in front of the trustees where both the person recommending the dismissal and the teacher present their cases. The trustees then vote to accept the recommendation for dismissal or not. The teacher then has 20 days to appeal the dismissal. Montana Code Annotated § 20-4-207. Unlike in Louisiana where this case took place, a superintendent cannot terminate a non-tenured teacher’s active contract. Termination of a non-tenured or tenured teacher’s active contract is a decision only the trustees can make, and they can only terminate if they can show good cause.
About this case: In Re: Rockeeta Richard, State of Louisiana Court of Appeal, Third Circuit, January 24, 2024. Read it here.
As you consider these and other issues, we recommend you speak with your school lawyer or contact Bea, Megan, Beth, Kevin, and Kali at 406-542-1300 to discuss these issues.