Court Sides with District in Teacher Termination and Vacates Back Pay
The Sixth District Court of Appeals delivered a win to school districts recently when it reversed a lower court’s decision ordering the Perkins Local School District to reinstate a former teacher who had been terminated with an award of $367,202.52 in lost wages and benefits. The case was brought by former teacher and coach Tracey Hiss. Hiss was terminated for cause after the district learned she supplied several members of her girls track team with Lidoderm patches – prescription patches containing lidocaine that help with pain relief.
When the superintendent learned of the allegations, he met with Hiss and subsequently placed her on paid leave pending further investigation. He also reported the allegations to the police, who subsequently charged her with a minor misdemeanor for her actions. The district held a pre-disciplinary hearing and the superintendent sent notice of his intent to recommend termination. Hiss, through legal counsel, objected to some of the reasons listed in the notice because they had not been addressed at the pre-disciplinary hearing. The superintendent subsequently held another pre-disciplinary hearing and again recommended termination which the board approved. Hiss requested a hearing to challenge the board’s intent to terminate before a state appointed referee. At the termination hearing, Hiss introduced evidence of an incident where a prior coach, Crabtree, had given a student Tylenol to help reduce pain. She argued that the board should not have terminated her contract due to the fact that this teacher merely received a reprimand and a brief suspension from coaching, where she was being terminated.
After conclusion of the five-day hearing, the referee issued his report and recommendation that the board terminate Hiss’s teaching contract. In making this recommendation, the referee found that the board had sufficient policies prohibiting teachers from both possessing and distributing controlled substances and medicines to students without a parent’s permission.
Shortly thereafter, the Board adopted the referee’s recommendation and passed a resolution to terminate Hiss’s teaching contract. Hiss then appealed this decision to the common pleas court. The court applied the Daughtry test of good and just cause, concluding that the board lacked cause to terminate Hiss’s contract. The court focused in particular on the fact that Crabtree, who had engaged in similar behavior, received a much less severe discipline. The district appealed, claiming in part that the court of common pleas abused its discretion in applying this new test and effectively usurping the role of the ODE referee.
On appeal, the Sixth District Court of Appeals agreed that the court of common pleas abused its discretion when it substituted its own judgement in place of the board of education. The court of appeals concluded that the court’s reliance on the Daugherty test to define “good and just cause” was misplaced. The court reasoned that, while an arbitrator may use the Daugherty test to determine the standard of good and just cause in a labor-arbitration matter, the Ohio Supreme Court has failed to adopt the Daugherty test in just cause teacher termination cases. Thus, the common pleas court exceeded its authority by relying on the Daugherty test as opposed to the cases interpreting R.C. 3319.16 as to whether good or just cause exists.
Examining the merits of the case, the court also determined that Hiss’s misconduct was , a “fairly serious matter” that falls within the realm of good and just cause for termination under R.C. 3319.16. Hiss repeatedly gave prescription pain medicine to students in direct violation of district policy that could have ultimately caused serious harm to the students. The court opined that this added to the fact that the board of education complied with procedural requirements of R.C. 3319.16 by providing Hiss with two informal hearings as well as a hearing before the referee justified the board’s decision to terminate. Therefore, the board’s earlier decision to terminate Hiss’s teaching contract was reinstated.