Board Meeting Minutes – Specificity Needed

The Eleventh District Court of Appeals was recently faced with the issue of whether Ohio’s Open Meetings Act requires the meeting minutes of a public body to be accurate enough to show the specific reasons a Board has entered into executive session.

In State of Ohio ex rel. Ames v. Brimfield Township Board of Trustees, Ohio App. 11th Dist., No. 2019-P-0017, 2019-Ohio-4926, Ames alleged that the board wrongfully entered into executive session for matters not contained in the exceptions listed in R.C. 121.22(G). The basis of Ames claim was that the Board’s meeting minutes failed to state the specific purpose for which they entered into executive session. The Board argued that they were only required to make a specific reference to the reason for entering into executive session in the motion and the vote held during the open meeting, but were not required to provide a description of the applicable exception in their meeting minutes.

The Open Meetings Act requires all public officials to take official action and conduct all deliberations in open meetings unless excepted by law. R.C. 121.22(A). These exceptions are listed in R.C. 121.22(G), which allows a Board to enter into executive session in order to consider any of the matters listed in R.C. 121.22(G)(1)-(8). In this instant case, the Board claimed they entered into executive session in accordance with R.C. 121.22(G)(1) in order to consider the appointment, employment, dismissal, discipline, demotion, promotion… of a public employee. Furthermore, if a board enters into executive session pursuant to R.C. 121.22(G)(1), the motion and vote to do so must state the purpose for doing so. In this case, a member of the Board testified that at each of the meetings referenced in the complaint, the Trustee making the motion to move into executive session referenced the relevant exception stated in R.C. 121.22(G)(1). Thus, the Board believed that they were in compliance with the Open Meetings Act.

However, not only does the motion and vote to enter into executive session need to state the purpose for doing so, Ohio law requires the Board’s meeting minutes to reflect the “general subject matter” of discussions in executive session. R.C. 121.22(C). Thus, the court in this case was required to determine whether the meeting minutes must reflect the specific reason a Board entered into executive session, or whether the action taken properly in the meeting was enough to prove legality. The court determined that the meeting minutes must reflect the specific reason for entering into executive session. In doing so, they concluded that when a Board enters executive session, not only must the motion and the vote to enter into executive session need to state the purpose for doing so, the Board’s minutes must specifically reference each of the purposes for which the executive session was held. Therefore, if the Board enters into executive session pursuant to one of the exceptions listed in R.C. 121.22(G), the minutes should reflect one or more of the eight purposes listed therein, but need not provide any further specificity.

This case serves as a great reminder for school boards of education, and school treasurers, to ensure that the reason(s) for entering executive session are explicitly stated upon the motion and vote to enter into executive session, and for such reasons to be included with the same specificity in the meeting minutes.  The failure to include the permissible reasons for entering into executive session within meeting minutes, even if appropriately motioned and voted on in a meeting, could result in technical violations of the Open Meetings Act, which may result in unfavorable court decisions and awards of attorneys fees.

Facebook and First Amendment Rights

Like students, teachers do not shed their constitutional right to free speech while at school. However, their rights are not without limits as the Sixth Circuit demonstrated recently when it issued a ruling upholding termination of a teacher. In Sensabaugh v. Halliburton, the District’s head football coach posted concerns on Facebook about the conditions he found when visiting an elementary school (a visit unrelated to his job). One of these posts included photos of a classroom and one included the faces of several students. District officials tried to contact Sensabaugh in an effort to explain their concern that this post could violate school policy as well as FERPA. However, they were unable to get in contact with him.

Meanwhile, Sensabaugh posted a separate entry on Facebook discussing his concerns with prisoners working at the high school. Again, school administration reached out to Sensabaugh to discuss their concerns over the posts. During their conversation, the administration informed Sensabaugh that he did not need to delete the post, but instead asked him to remove only the picture of the students accompanying the post. Sensabaugh yelled at members of the administration and informed them that he would not take the post down.

Following the conversation, administration drafted a “Letter of Guidance” which addressed Sensabaugh’s failure to remove the photos from Facebook, his conduct during the phone call, and other previous misconduct. This letter stated that the administration was not requiring Sensabaugh to remove his comments from his posts but directed him to remove the picture displaying the minor students. The letter clearly stated that failure to follow its directives could lead to discipline up to and including termination. Finally, Sensabaugh agreed to remove the photos from Facebook.      

Following the Letter of Guidance, Sensabaugh’s behavior and actions continued to cause problems in the District. This led the administration to issue a Letter of Reprimand which placed Sensabaugh on administrative leave pending investigation. It was alleged that Sensabaugh accused the Athletic Director of coming to work under the influence of prescription pills, as well as threatening a football player and athletic trainer. The administration hired an independent law firm to investigate the alleged misconduct.

The investigator’s report concluded that Sensabaugh had engaged in unprofessional, insubordinate, threatening, and retaliatory behavior towards supervisors, students, and staff. It concluded that Sensabaugh’s actions had intimidated and undermined his coworkers and supervisors. The investigators went on to conclude that Sensabaugh’s repeated, belligerent, and confrontational speech to coworkers made it inconceivable for them to maintain an ongoing employment relationship. As a result, the investigator recommended that Sensabaugh’s employment with the district be terminated.

Administration notified Sensabaugh that the independent investigator had submitted their findings and recommended his termination. Sensabaugh was offered the opportunity to provide any statement or evidence in support of a less severe punishment. However, Sensabaugh never responded. The District then terminated Sensabaugh’s employment.

Sensabaugh sued, arguing that the District retaliated against him for exercising his First Amendment right to free speech. In order for a teacher to prevail on a First Amendment retaliation claim, he must show that: 1) he engaged in protected conduct; 2) an adverse action was taken against him that would deter a person of ordinary firmness from continuing to engage in that conduct; and 3) that the adverse action was motivated at least in part by the protected conduct. Bell v. Johnson, 308 F.3d 594, 602 (6th Cir. 2002).

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals first determined that the Letter of Guidance was not an adverse action. The letter did not impose any discipline, but instead simply imposed directives that Sensabaugh needed to follow in order to avoid discipline. Likewise, the Court also found that the Letter of Reprimand was not an adverse action. Though the letter resulted in paid administrative leave, this still did not result in an adverse action. Ehrlich v. Kovack, 710 F.App’x 646, 650 (6th Cir. 2017).

There is no dispute that the termination was an adverse action. However, Sensabaugh must show that the Facebook posts were a substantial or motivating factor in the adverse employment action. Though the Letter of Guidance, Letter of Reprimand, and termination came within six months after the Facebook posts, temporal proximity alone is rarely, if ever, sufficient to establish the causation requirement. Here, there was no other indication to demonstrate that Sensabaugh was terminated because of his Facebook posts. The court noted that at no time leading up to the termination did the administration ask or require Sensabaugh to remove the Facebook posts. Instead, the letters acknowledged Sensabaugh’s right to comment on public concerns. He was asked to remove the content from his posts that violated FERPA. Additionally, the independent investigation substantiated other allegations of misconduct that supported termination.

Ultimately, the court determined that when deciding to end Sensabaugh’s employment, the District relied on several instances of misconduct which were unrebutted by Sensabaugh. There was no indication that the viewpoints expressed in his Facebook posts (other than the FERPA-protected images of students) played any part in the District’s decision to terminate. Therefore, the District did not violate his constitutional rights.

Sensabaugh v. Halliburton, 937 F.3d 621 (6th Cir.2019)

Records of Deceased Student and Mass Shooter Case Decided

Recently, in State ex. rel CNN, Inc. v. Bellbrook-Sugarcreek Local School Dist., 2019-Ohio-4187, the Second Appellate District ruled that the death of a student does not remove the legal protections of the confidentiality of student records.

In August 2019, an adult gunman killed nine people and injured twenty-seven others in a mass shooting in Dayton. Following the incident, several media outlets requested public records of the gunman’s educational records, including disciplinary records, from the School District from which he graduated.

The district released directory information concerning the student but declined to release any other records. The media outlets sued, filing a mandamus action seeking the release of the records. Ohio Revised Code (R.C.) Section 149.43 requires a public agency to release public records upon request, unless an exception applies. That section provides that records are not “public records” subject to release if a state or federal law prohibits the release of them.
The district argued that the Ohio Student Privacy Act limits access to records concerning students, specifically, that “[n]o person shall release, or permit access to personally identifiable information other than directory information concerning any student attending a public school … without the written consent of each such student who is eighteen years of age or older.”

The court concluded that, based on the plain language of R.C. 149.43, the district is barred from releasing the records requested, rejecting the news media’s argument that the district was compelled to release the requested records because the former student’s right to privacy expired with his death. The case has been appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court.

Attorney General Dave Yost filed a brief to the Supreme Court of Ohio. His brief is in support of the media outlets that are suing in order to have rights to view the student’s records. Yost argued that neither Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act nor Ohio Student Privacy Acts protects the records of students who die after becoming an adult. A local TV station and other news organizations filed briefs amicus curiae in support of CNN.

Yost’s brief states that the attorney general’s office has a duty to “ensure transparency in all levels of government.” One of the duties involved is to provide training and guidance on Ohio’s Sunshine Laws. This duty, the brief reads, is being directly impacted because the Public Records Act is being violated in not allowing access to the student records

District’s Termination of Superintendent Upheld

The Court of Appeals in Logan County, Ohio recently upheld a decision of the Indian Lake School District Board of Education terminating its superintendent after he was arrested for gross sexual imposition of a minor.

The superintendent was placed on paid administrative leave the day following his arrest. The Board adopted a resolution nine days later that initiated the termination process based on the nature of the charges, including that the arrest required a report to the Ohio Department of Education and suspension from all duties during the pendency of criminal action. The resolution also noted that the arrest generated extensive media coverage that resulted in staff, parents, students, and community members becoming aware of the charges. The Board determined that the superintendent was thus unable to effectively perform his duties.

The superintendent elected to have a hearing on his termination before a state appointed referee. After a five-day hearing, the referee issued a report and recommendation concluding the Board failed to provide reliable, probative, and substantial evidence that just cause supported the superintendent’s termination. The referee focused on the fact that the Board failed to demonstrate that the superintendent engaged in any conduct warranting termination. Instead, the Board alleged that it was the fact of his arrest that rendered him unable to perform his duties. The referee believed this could not support a termination order and recommended that the superintendent remain on unpaid leave pending the criminal proceedings.

The Board rejected the referee’s recommendation, and in accordance with R.C. 3319.16 terminated the superintendent. The superintendent appealed to the court of common pleas. As it turned out, the superintendent was convicted and sentenced during the pendency of his appeal. He subsequently filed a motion to strike the Board’s reference to his conviction in his appeal. The court denied that motion and upheld the Board’s decision to reject the referee’s recommendation and terminate the superintendent.

The court specifically found that the nature of the allegations, in light of his position and loss of community trust, prevented him from effectively performing his duties. The court also held that it could not ignore the fact that the superintendent was convicted while his appeal was pending. The court also found that the Board did not need to indefinitely postpone the termination action until after the criminal proceedings were resolved, meanwhile suffering the damage caused by the turmoil created by the uncertainty and doubt as to the strength of the school system’s integrity.

Despite his conviction, incarceration, and inability to work as a superintendent or teacher under law, the superintendent appealed to the court of appeals. The court of appeals noted that courts cannot substitute their judgment for the judgment of the Board if substantial and credible evidence is presented to support the charges. The court of appeals held that the lower court did not abuse its discretion in upholding the Board’s decision. The superintendent was required to be suspended from all duties requiring the care, custody, or control of children pursuant to R.C. 3319.40 and 3319.31. The court noted that he was unable to perform his job duties based on that fact alone. As a result, the lower court’s conclusion that the superintendent was terminated for good and just cause was not an abuse of discretion and the termination was permitted to stand.

Court of Appeals Disagrees That a Student’s Right to Privacy Ends Upon Death

A dispute over the disclosure of student records has led to the Court of Appeals for Ohio’s Second Circuit to analyze whether a student’s right to privacy in education records extinguishes upon death.

Both federal and state laws protect the confidentiality of student education records and personally identifiable information. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (“FERPA”) protects against the disclosure of education records without the prior written consent of the parent or guardian of the student. Education records are defined by the Act as “those records, files, documents, and other materials which (i) contain information directly related to a student; and (ii) are maintained by an educational agency or institution or by a person acting for such agency or institution.” The right to consent to the disclosure of student records transfers to a student upon reaching the age of 18, unless the student remains a dependent of their parents.  

R.C. 3319.321 also provides protection for student information. This statute is broader in its scope, forbidding the disclosure of any personally identifiable student information other than directory information.

The request at issue surrounded a former student who committed a mass shooting in August of 2019, killing 9 people and injuring 27. The shooter was killed by law enforcement officials at the scene. The Associated Press, among other media outlets, made requests to the school for records of the shooter, particularly discipline records. The school released only directory information, citing to the privacy protections of FERPA and R.C. 3319.321.

The media filed a lawsuit asking the Court to force the school to release the requested records. The media alleged that while a student’s right to privacy protections under the applicable laws transfers to the student into adulthood, there should be an exception that the right to privacy in this regard ceases upon death. 

The Court found the analysis inapplicable due to the school’s obligations under the laws in addition to the individual’s privacy rights conferred by the laws. The two are simply not comparable. The Court, noting that neither FERPA nor R.C. 3319.321 contains an exception for the death of a student, declined to create one from the bench.

State ex rel. Cable News Network, Inc. v. Bellbrook-Sugarcreek Local Schools, 2019-Ohio-4187

A Quick Note About Parental Leave

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers may not discriminate against employees on the basis of several protected classes, including sex. Thus, courts and administrative agencies have interpreted Title VII to prohibit an employer from engaging in discrimination related to pregnancy, childbirth or maternity/paternal leave. Employers must treat a woman who is disabled due to pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions in a similar manner to other disabled employees. However, any additional benefits provided to male or female parents, whether discretionary or mandated by statutes such as the Family and Medical Leave Act, must be made available in a non-discriminatory fashion.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) has stressed the importance of employers clearly explaining the types of leave available to all employees. Employers should distinguish between leave related to the physical limitations due to pregnancy or childbirth and leave related to bonding with or providing care for a child. An employer may limit leave related to the physical conditions of pregnancy or childbirth to the women affected by these conditions. However, if an employer extends leave to new mothers beyond the recuperation period of childbirth in order to care or bond with the baby, an equivalent amount of leave must be available to fathers for the same purpose.

This guidance was put into practice in 2017 when a class of male employees filed a lawsuit against JP Morgan Chase (“Chase”). A group of male employees alleged that Chase’s parental leave provisions were discriminatory in violation of Title VII. Chase allowed a parent to take 16 weeks of paid parental leave if they were the primary caregiver to the child. Chase automatically granted this additional leave to women. When male employees applied for this leave, however, they were required to prove that their partner had returned to work or was incapable of caring for the child. If the male employees could not make this showing, Chase provided a mere 2 weeks of paid leave. In May of 2019, Chase ultimately agreed to settle the dispute for $5 million and agreed to maintain a gender-neutral leave policy moving forward.

If your district offers maternity leave strictly to women who are disabled due to pregnancy, childbirth or related conditions, you do not need to offer the same kind of leave to men. However, if your district offers additional leave to allow the mother to bond or care for the child, then the father is entitled to the same leave as the mother would be. Lastly, regardless of the district’s parental leave policy, it is important that all districts ensure that they do not discriminate hen determining who is eligible for parental leave.

You can review guidance on this topic from the EEOC. EEOC Enforcement Guidance on Pregnancy Discrimination and Related Issues, Number 915.003, (June 25, 2015). Click here to access it.