Court of Appeals: Terminated Teacher Cannot use Mandamus to Overcome a Failure to File an Administrative Appeal

The Third District Court of Appeals of Ohio has affirmed the decision of a trial court granting summary judgment in favor of a board of education against a teacher seeking reinstatement through a mandamus action. Click here to see the case.

The teacher was in the Resident Educator Program. At the time, teachers were required to obtain passing scores on five different tasks.  Teachers were permitted to repeat failed or uncompleted tasks in subsequent years of the program and there was also an ability to obtain an extension for one year, in the event the teacher was unable to complete the tasks in time.  Here, the teacher was granted such an extension. 

During the extended year, the teacher completed the final two tasks and submitted them for scoring.  The scores were to be released on June 30.  This put the school board in a pickle because it needed the scores to determine if it wanted to offer the teacher another contract but also needed to inform the teacher by June 1 that it intended not to renew the teacher’s contract or it would be forced to offer a contract.  The Board chose to offer a one-year contract to the teacher at its meeting in May. 

Subsequently, the teacher found out he failed one of the tasks and would not be issued a license.  The teacher was unable to obtain another extension by law and ODE did not grant the teacher a substitute license.  Accordingly, the teacher was without a teaching license for the coming school year.  The Board of Education held a special meeting on June 7th at which it terminated the teacher’s employment for the teacher’s failure to pass the exam and obtain a professional license.  The Board did not follow any of the teacher termination procedures contained in R.C. 3319.16, including providing written notice of the Board’s action, time for a hearing, etc.

Subsequently, the RESA regulations were revised and ODE deemed that under the new program requirements, the teacher would have been issued a license.  ODE issued a license to the teacher retroactive to July 1, a little less than a month after the Board took its action to terminate. The teacher, through the union, demanded that he be reinstated, and by letter the Board refused. A grievance ensued and proceeded to arbitration which was decided in favor of the Board because it had just cause to terminate.

The teacher then filed the mandamus action that is the subject of this case. A mandamus action is a lawsuit whereby a person requests a court to force a public entity or officer to do an act it has a clear legal duty to perform.  The teacher asked the court to either require termination proceedings in accordance with 3319.16 or to reinstate the teacher with a one-year contract.

As a quick reminder, per R.C. 3319.16, a board of education may terminate a teacher contract for “good and just cause.”  Before terminating the contract, the Board must provide written notice of its intent to do so, it must afford the opportunity for a hearing before the board or a neutral referee, it must then publicly adopt an order of termination setting forth the grounds for termination.  A teacher has 30 days to appeal an order of termination by a Board of Education. Note that you may have collective bargaining agreement provisions that place additional procedural requirements or limitations on this process.

The issue on appeal was whether mandamus was an appropriate action because the teacher could have filed an administrative appeal of the board’s decision to terminate under 3319.16 and thus had an “adequate remedy at law” negating the applicability of a writ in mandamus.  This is not a novel question and the outcome here is not much of a surprise.  The Court ruled that an administrative appeal under 3319.16 is an adequate remedy at law and so mandamus was not appropriate.  The teacher should have filed an administrative appeal to challenge the decision of the Board.

However, there are several insights in the case into how courts may interpret the requirements of R.C. 3319.16 in a termination appeal, particularly where there may be procedural defects:

1.       Actual notice of the Board’s action is all that is required to trigger the 30-day appeal period. 

Even though the Board did not provide official written notice of its actions, there was sufficient evidence in the record, that the teacher knew of his termination well before he filed his mandamus action, and thus could have filed an appeal.  The Court only assumed for purposes of the case but did not decide, that merely hearing from a third party who attended the board meeting that the termination had occurred constituted sufficient notice. In any case, do not rely on others to inform the employee of the Board’s action. You want that appeal period to begin to run as soon as possible so get written notice to the employee as soon as possible.

2.       Even if the Board ignores completely the procedural requirements for termination, the termination is subject to an administrative appeal.

The right to the appeal is based on what the law requires the Board to do, not what it actually does.  So even where there are procedural defects or no procedure at all, the employee still must be vigilant in filing an appeal or the trial court will not have jurisdiction.

3.       A court has the authority to remand a matter back to a board of education for further proceedings.

It is therefore possible that rather than reinstate a teacher, a court could remand back to a board of education to conduct appropriate termination proceedings.

A question that went unanswered was whether ODE backdating the license it granted to the teacher to July 1 would have negated the Board’s just cause for terminating the teacher when it was apparent in June that the teacher would not have a license as of July 1, the first day of the contract.  Had the teacher filed an administrative appeal, this may have been addressed by the court.

What this means for your district:

While it is always a good idea to follow applicable procedural requirements, failure to do so may not delay the employee’s time to appeal.  However, failure to follow procedures in a timely filed appeal may be cause for reinstatement or remand for further proceedings by the Board.