Constitutional Right to a Basic Minimum Education

Does a Constitutional right to a basic minimum education exist? The question has been repeatedly discussed by the Supreme Court of the United States but never decided. For states under the jurisdiction of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, including Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, and Tennessee, the Sixth Circuit recognized such a right for twenty-six days. A panel of the Sixth Circuit recognized the existence of such a right on April 23, 2020, and the decision remained in place until it was vacated on May 19, 2020. Prior to an en banc panel of the Court providing definitive guidance on the issue, the case settled and has been dismissed. Thus, presently, no such constitutional right is recognized. It is anticipated, nonetheless that this argument will be made in future cases with the vacated decision serving as a roadmap for making such a claim.

In Gary B. v. Whitmer, Nos. 18-1855/1871 (6th Cir. 2020), students in several of Detroit’s worst-performing public schools claimed that the conditions in their schools deprived them of a basic minimum education, meaning one that provided a chance at foundational literacy. The plaintiffs attributed the substandard performance to poor conditions within their classrooms, including missing or unqualified teachers, physically dangerous facilities, and inadequate books and materials. Plaintiffs based all of their claims on the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Plaintiffs argued that while other students receive an adequate education, they did not in violation of their Constitutional rights.

In a 2-1 split opinion authored by Judge Clay and joined by Judge Stranch, the panel agreed that the Plaintiffs had “been denied basic minimum education, and thus have been deprived of access to literacy.” The majority opinion observed:

The recognition of a fundamental right is no small matter. This is particularly true when the right in question is something that the state must affirmatively provide. But just as this Court should not supplant the state’s policy judgments with its own, neither can we shrink from our obligation to recognize a right when it is foundational to our system of self-governance.

Access to literacy is such a right. Its ubiquitous presence and evolution through our history have led the American people universally to expect it. And education—at least in the minimum form discussed here—is essential to nearly every interaction between a citizen and her government. Education has long been viewed as a great equalizer, giving all children a chance to meet or outperform society’s expectations, even when faced with substantial disparities in wealth and with past and ongoing racial inequality.

Where, as Plaintiffs allege here, a group of children is relegated to a school system that does not provide even a plausible chance to attain literacy, we hold that the Constitution provides them with a remedy. Accordingly, while the current versions of Plaintiffs’ equal protection and compulsory attendance claims were appropriately dismissed, the district court erred in denying their central claim: that Plaintiffs have a fundamental right to basic minimum education, meaning one that can provide them with a foundational level of literacy.

After a judge in the Sixth Circuit requested a poll of the other judges in the circuit, on May 19, 2020, a majority of the Judges in the Sixth Circuit in regular active service voted for a rehearing of the case, en banc, or in front of all the judges in the Circuit. By rule, the grant of a rehearing en banc vacated the April 23, 2020, decision by Judge Clay. Thus, the recognition of the fundamental right to a basic minimum education proved to be short-lived. 

Prior to the en banc review of the case, on June 10, 2020, the Court granted a motion to dismiss the appeal on the basis that the case had settled. As part of the settlement, Governor Whitmer of Michigan agreed to:

  • Propose legislation providing Detroit Public Schools with $94.4 million for literacy programs.
  • Send $280,000 for seven students to participate in “high-quality literacy programs.
  • Pay $2.7 million to Detroit schools for literacy programs.
  • Have the state department of education advise districts on literacy programs to improve reading proficiency and reduce economic, racial, and ethnic disparities.

While the Gary B. case is settled with the underlying decision vacated, the issue of the existence of a Constitutional right to basic minimum education is not. We expect this issue to be raised in future litigation with reliance upon the reasoning from the 2-1, albeit vacated, decision. 

Schwendeman v. Marietta City Schools

The United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio recently ruled in favor of a school district when an employee brought disability discrimination and retaliation claims after he was terminated for working for the local police department while being out on sick leave. Schwendeman v. Marietta City Schools, S.D. Ohio No. 2:18-CV-588, 2020 WL 519626 (Jan. 31, 2020).

The Plaintiff in this case was a bus driver employed by the Defendant school district, who also worked as a noon duty supervisor throughout the school day. In August of 2016, the Employee was required to have surgery on his foot. Following surgery, the Employee requested sick leave in order to recover. The Employee’s sick leave request was granted and the Employee returned to work on October 27, 2016. 

When the Employee returned to work, the District set up a meeting because an employee’s wife had seen the Employee walking around in a Belpre Police Department uniform while out on sick leave. The District called the Chief of Police and discovered that the Employee was a volunteer for the police department, hired through a local subcontracting company. The Employee acknowledged that he was volunteering with the police department, but was not specific as to what days he was working and whether or not he was getting paid. After holding two subsequent meetings, the District was unable to determine which days the Employee was working with the police department or whether he was receiving compensation. Shortly thereafter, the Employee sent the District an email asking about the status of the investigation. The District replied stating the investigation was closed because of their inability to confirm whether the Employee was paid by the police department or by their subcontractor or the exact dates in which the Employee was working while out on leave. 

Unsatisfied with the District’s response, the Employee filed Charges of Discrimination against the District with the EEOC and OCRC for the events that transpired throughout the investigation. The Employee’s claims were denied along with his appeals. Shortly after the discrimination charges were filed, the District reopened the investigation in order to defend the allegations stated within the charge. At that time, the District received records from the police department indicating that the Employee had been paid for working six days for four hours a day during the time he was on sick leave. 

Upon learning this information, the District sent the Employee a Notice of Suspension and a Notice of Proposed Discharge for working with the police department during his sick leave. The grounds for termination included violation of O.R.C. § 2921.13 “falsification for the purpose of obtaining governmental benefits”, and O.R.C. § 3319.141 “falsification of an application for sick leave from public school employment.” The notices also stated that the Employee was being disciplined for his dishonesty during the school’s investigation. The District ultimately terminated the Employee’s employment for the reasons stated above.

The Employee then filed Charges of Retaliation against the District with the EEOC and OCRC. Again, these charges and the appeals thereof were ultimately denied. The Employee then filed a grievance in accordance with the collective bargaining agreement. The grievance was ultimately withdrawn in order for the Employee to seek legal help. This suit followed.

Lawsuit
The Employee brought an action alleging disability discrimination, FMLA retaliation, Retaliation, and Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress.

Disability Discrimination under the ADA and Ohio Law
The Court found that the Employee had established a prima facie case of disability discrimination and considered the Employee as “disabled” considering the fact that the Employee had foot surgery and was impaired for three weeks while recovering.

However, the Court agreed that the District had legitimate non-discriminatory reasons for their employment action: falsification of sick leave, falsification of benefits, and dishonesty were legitimate reasons for termination. Further, the Court found that the District had an “honest belief” in the non-discriminatory reason it made in its employment decision and therefore the Employee’s claims were unsupportable. The key inquiry in this regard is to determine whether the employer made a reasonably informed decision before taking action. (Michael v. Caterpillar Fin. Servs. Corp., 496 F.3d 584, 598-99 (6th Cir. 2007).) In this case, the District reopened their investigation into the Employee after receiving charges of discrimination on an honest belief and in pursuit of new information: that the Employee worked with the Belpre PD on six days while on sick leave and had received payment from the subcontractor as a result of working with the Belpre PD while on leave. Upon learning this information, the District sent notices of termination based on these grounds. 

The Court further shut down the Employee’s argument that he did not mislead the District nor did he falsify any documentation regarding his surgery or his need for sick leave. The Court determined that a reasonable jury could not doubt the District’s explanation that they terminated him for falsifying sick leave. The District terminated the Employee because they believed he was dishonest and falsified his sick leave. Additionally, the Court noted that even if the District was mistaken in believing that the Employee had been dishonest of falsified leave, such a mistake is not a sufficient reason to doubt the District’s honest belief. (Clay v. United Parcel Serv., Inc., 501 F.3d at 713-15.) Moreover, the Employee’s assertion that the District wrongly assumed he could perform his duties because he was working during sick leave is insufficient to cast doubt on the District’s honest belief. Furthermore, the Employee also failed to establish any evidence that would establish discrimination as the real reason for the District’s employment decision. Thus, summary judgment on the Employee’s ADA and Ohio law discrimination claims were appropriate. 

Retaliation Under the ADA
The Employee also brought retaliation claims under the ADA. However, the Court found that there was not temporal proximity between the Employee’s protected activity (filing charges with the EEOC and OCRC) and the adverse employment action (termination). When there is some time lapse between the activity and the adverse employment action, the Employee must couple that with some other evidence of retaliatory conduct in order to show causation. (Little v. BP Expl. & Oil Co., 265 F.3d 357, 365 (6th Cir. 2001).) In this case, the Employee was terminated three months after he filed Discrimination Charges with the EEOC and OCRC. Thus, he must point to some other evidence of retaliatory conduct in order to show causation. The Employee attempted to show this retaliatory conduct by the fact that the District reopened the investigation into the Employee because he filed the Discrimination Charges. However, the Court had already previously determined the District properly reopened the investigation in order to respond to the allegations therein and not as a general response to the charges being filed. Thus, the Court ultimately concluded that the Employee failed to establish a causal connection between his protected activity and his termination. Therefore, his ADA retaliation claim failed. 

Ultimately, all of the Employee’s claims failed and were dismissed. This case is support for school districts taking action based on an employee’s dishonest actions while out on leave, even when such action appears in close proximate time to certain protected actions of an employee (e.g. filing charges of discrimination with EEOC and/or OCRC). If a district learns new information it is not prohibited from acting on the new information even though an employee may have sought other legal avenues.

U.S. Supreme Court: Title VII Prohibits Termination Based on Sexual Orientation

On June 15, 2020, in the consolidated matters of Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, Altitude Express v. Zarda, and R.G.& G.R. Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC, et al, the United States Supreme Court ruled in a 6-3 decision that an employer who fires an individual employee merely for being gay or transgender violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Bostock began participating in a gay recreational softball league. Shortly thereafter, Bostock received criticism for his participation in the league and for his sexual orientation and identity generally. Shortly afterward, Clayton County terminated his employment. In Altitude Express, Zarda was fired days after mentioning he was gay. In Harris, an employee was fired after the employee informed the employer that the employee planned to live and work full time as a woman. The U.S. Supreme Court held that Title VII prohibits employers from discriminating against any individual “because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” Looking to the ordinary public meaning of each word and phrase comprising that provision, the Court interpreted it to mean that an employer violates Title VII when it intentionally fires an individual employee based, at least in part, on sex. Discrimination on the basis of homosexuality or transgender status requires an employer to intentionally treat employees differently because of their sex—the very practice Title VII prohibits in all manifestations. While it was argued that Title VII was never intended to be read with such a broad brushstroke, the Court found that the use of the word sex was unambiguous and supported its holding. 

Tenth Appellate District: Workers’ Compensation

Workers’ Compensation practitioners and school benefits employees alike know that temporary total disability, and particularly the concept of voluntary abandonment of employment, are difficult areas of Workers’ Compensation law in Ohio. The Tenth Appellate District could not have framed the difficulty more succinctly than it did in a recent decision wherein the Court stated the issue of the case as follows:

“Can you be accused of assaulting your boss, get fired, be convicted (by plea, no less) of the assault, be at least preliminarily barred by court order from even setting foot in that workplace, and then still gain subsequent temporary disability status under Workers’ Compensation in connection with your (former) job?

The Court’s answer: Maybe.

Temporary total disability (TTD) is a benefit provided by the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation (BWC) to compensate for wage loss due to an injury. Voluntary abandonment is a defense an employer may assert against a claim for TTD. An employee who is terminated for violation of a written work rule may be considered to have abandoned his or her employment. If the employer is successful in raising the defense, the TTD will be denied because the disability due to the workplace injury is not the sole reason the employee is unable to return to the former position of employment. The concept was first used in a case wherein an employee had voluntarily retired. The court held that “If the employee has taken action that would preclude him from returning to his former position of employment, even if medically able to do so, the employee is not entitled to continue to receive temporary total disability compensation, because it was the employee’s own action rather than the industrial injury which prevented him from returning to his former position of employment.” The concept has been applied to employees who are incarcerated as well as those that voluntarily retire.

However, not all separations from employment will constitute voluntary abandonment. Involuntary retirement due to the workplace injury will not preclude payment of TTD nor, to the surprise of many employers, getting a new job. The Ohio Supreme Court has held that the abandonment of employment defense applies only to claimants who voluntarily leave the labor market, not to claimants who quit their former position of employment. Employee discipline situations can fall both ways, which brings us to the importance of this case.

Termination from employment can be considered voluntary abandonment if the employee willingly engaged in acts that lead to the termination. The Supreme Court allowed the defense in a case involving the violation of a policy that prohibited the accumulation of three consecutive unexcused absences. If those absences had been due to the industrial injury that was the basis of the claim, the defense would not have been accepted.

Turning back to the case at hand, here, the employee got into a heated exchange with the employer which lead to a physical altercation. The employee reportedly lunged at the employer, pushing him and causing him to fall back. The employee was terminated and arrested for assault. The employer had a policy against fighting and a policy against criminal convictions other than minor traffic offenses. The employer asserted those policies as the basis for his termination and in turn, attempted to use the termination as grounds to cut off TTD benefits due to voluntary abandonment. At the first hearing, the District Hearing Officer granted TTD for the employee finding that the employer had not set forth sufficient evidence as to when or why the employee was terminated. On appeal, the staff hearing officer agreed and again, found in favor of the employee.

The employee testified that he did not assault the employer. Rather, he acted in self-defense when the employer came towards him. When the employer approached, he put his arms up to stop him and the employer said, “you just assaulted me.” The employee testified that he plead guilty to avoid excessive legal fees and jail time. The staff hearing officer rejected the employer’s position that the employee had willingly engaged in fighting. It appears the employer did not bring any additional witnesses to testify and the hearing officer found the employee to be more credible than the employer. The staff hearing officer also rejected the termination was based on a criminal conviction because it came long after the termination.

The employer appealed the matter to court but by then, it was too late to improve its case. Once on appeal, the court must accept the findings of the hearing officer unless the decision is an abuse of discretion because the hearing officer did not have “some evidence” to reach its conclusion. It is a high bar to overcome. The court noted that the hearing officer is charged with assessing the weight of evidence and the credibility of witnesses and is entitled to deference by the court. The employer lost the appeal.

The moral of the story is to never underestimate the importance of the BWC hearing. These hearings are brief and informal and it can lull an unwary employer into essentially “winging it” when they think they have a strong case. Any and all documentary evidence should be prepared and submitted, and any and all witnesses should be brought to testify. The employer has only one, perhaps two, chances to influence what goes into the record of proceedings (the hearing officer’s decision) and that record sets the basis for a court’s review in the future. Make sure that “maybe” becomes a “yes.” If you have any BWC related questions, please reach out to one of our Workers’ Compensation team members. 

State ex rel. Welsh Ents., Inc. v. Indus. Comm., 2020-Ohio-2801