Matthews v. Springfield-Clark CTC Bd. of Edn., 2023-Ohio-1304.
Springfield Clark CTC terminated a custodial supervisor for a variety of reasons, including, going into his supervisor’s office and reviewing, copying, and removing documents, all of which were supported by video. The employee had been the subject of prior discipline and had been placed on an improvement plan which was never started.
During the termination process, the employee was given a pre-disciplinary hearing where he was provided with details of all of the allegations. He was also given an opportunity to provide evidence in his defense. Following this meeting, the Superintendent recommended termination, and a hearing was held before the Board of Education from which a transcript was created. The employee did not call any witnesses. Following the hearing, the Board of Education terminated the employee.
The employee appealed to the Common Pleas Court which overruled the termination. As the basis for this reversal, the trial court made several findings. First, the trial court ruled that an employee had a “presumption of innocence” and that the process violated “fundamental fairness” citing that it was the employer’s burden of proving the misconduct. In support, the trial court cited a passage from the letter from the Superintendent that stated “because the allegation of misconduct has not been disproven” and thus it is “determined to be an act of malfeasance”.
The trial court also took issue with the fact that the employee’s supervisor did not testify at the hearing, denying the employee his fundamental right of cross-examination.
Lastly, the trial court gave little to no deference to the Board of Education’s findings and decision, despite the wealth of evidence introduced at the hearing regarding past discipline, the video evidence provided, the Superintendent’s testimony, and the lack of credible evidence in the employee’s defense. Of note, the trial court stated that the Superintendent’s testimony was unreliable hearsay, despite accepting the employee’s introduction of unsupported hearsay testimony. The Board appealed the trial court’s decision.
The Court of Appeals found that all required due process was provided. He was given a pre-disciplinary hearing where he was presented with all allegations against him. He was given the chance to call witnesses and to be represented by an attorney. The Court of Appeals further stated that the standard applied by the trial court of a presumption of innocence was in error, stating the only burden on an employer is to provide evidence sufficient to justify termination. The trial court’s characterization of the language in the Superintendent’s letter was described as flawed reasoning.
Regarding the lack of testimony and ability to cross-examine, the Court of Appeals specifically stated that cross-examination is not an absolute requirement for due process.
As to the lack of deference, after reviewing the record, the Court of Appeals found the trial court gave no deference to the Board of Education’s credibility decisions and resolution of evidentiary conflicts, instead expressing the court’s view of what the discipline should have been. Thus, the Court of Appeals found the trial court erred and reversed the decision.
What this means to your district: It is absolutely pertinent that the appropriate process is followed. In this instance, that adherence allowed the District to obtain a positive result even after receiving a decision from the trial court that relied on “flawed reasoning.”