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.

School District Transgender Policy Violates Title IX

On August 9, 2019, a federal judge in Virginia ruled in favor of a transgender student in holding that a school district’s policy violated his rights under Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause. The Grimm v. Gloucester County School Board case stemmed from a school district’s policy requiring students to use restrooms and locker rooms that corresponded to their “biological genders.” The district provided alternative facilities for transgender students.

The court initially ruled that claims of discrimination on the basis of transgender status for gender-stereotyping are actionable under Title IX. The court further found that denying Grimm the ability to access the facilities corresponding with his gender identity were not only actionable but did in fact result in a violation of Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause.

The Board argued that it had not engaged in discrimination and that Grimm had not suffered any harm as a result of its policy. The court found this argument to be unconvincing. The court determined that the district’s policy subjected transgender students to discriminatory treatment by excluding them from places similarly situated students had access to. Further, Grimm did suffer emotional harm due to the fact he was unable to comfortably access restrooms at school. Grimm was further subjected to harm when the school district refused to update his school records in order to reflect his male identity. Failure to do so has negated his male identity and marked him different than other males any time he provided a copy of his transcript to another entity.

This ultimately led the court to grant a permanent injunction against the school district’s restroom and locker room policy. The injunction further awarded Gavin nominal damages and ordered the school district to change his school records to conform with his gender identity.

While the decision from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals is not controlling on Ohio school districts, the Sixth Circuit did rule on a very similar case back in 2016. In Dodds v. United States Department of Education, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with a lower district court decision and determined that an eleven-year-old transgender girl had a strong likelihood of success in her claims against the school district and should therefore be allowed to use the school restrooms conforming with her gender identity.

It is important to note the decision in Dodds relied on guidance from the United States Department of Education that has since been rescinded. The current position of the USDOE is that they will not accept any complaints alleging a transgender student was denied access to restrooms and locker rooms and will only accept complaints of harassment or bullying for failing to conform to sex-based stereotypes. Thus, in light of this new guidance, it remains unclear how an Ohio court would rule on this issue today.

What this means for your district:
The issue of providing accommodations to transgender students remains unclear and is a matter that will doubtless be subject to further litigation before any clarity is provided. Districts should proceed with caution when faced with these issues. For additional advice on handling requests for accommodations for transgender students, please contact an Ennis Britton attorney for assistance.