Court tosses out teachers' case; Orleans employees laid off after storm will appeal
The lead attorney [Willie Zanders] for 7,500 New Orleans public school employees who lost their jobs after Hurricane Katrina said he will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to take up their case, after the Louisiana Supreme Court on Friday dismissed the long-running litigation.
The vote at the state court was 5-2, with Chief Justice Bernette Johnson and Associate Justice Jefferson Hughes dissenting.
The ruling was a stunning, wholesale reversal of trial and appeals court decisions that found for the plaintiffs, with damages to the Orleans Parish school system and the state estimated as high as $1.5 billion to pay the employees' back pay and benefits.
The plaintiffs said the school system did not follow teacher tenure law in the layoffs, and that they should have been systematically rehired as schools reopened, either in the Orleans system, in the state Recovery School District or as charters.
But the case had ramifications beyond the public purse, and beyond the emotional and financial hit experienced by the employees, whose termination letters were in some cases delivered to houses that had been washed away in the storm.
It became a symbol for people who felt disenfranchised when the state, saying the Orleans Parish School Board had failed its children, took over four-fifths of the city's public schools in the fall of 2005.
Many teachers objected that they were all painted with the same brush as incompetent. And analysts such as former Loyola University professor Andre Perry said the layoffs knee-capped the city's African-American middle class.
All the state takeover schools that reopened after Katrina have become independent charter schools and are still under the auspices of the Recovery School District. Most of the Orleans Parish system's own schools became charters, leaving only six conventional schools directly controlled by the elected School Board.
The defendants in the suit the School Board and the state together argued that there were no jobs for employees to resume: Charters control their own hiring, and the Recovery system was required only to give the Orleans system's laid-off employees "priority consideration" not to hire them.
That was not why the state Supreme Court dismissed the case, however. The majority invoked the principle of res judicata, which holds that a case cannot be argued if it covers the same people and arguments as a previous case.
Indeed, most of the individual plaintiffs were members of the United Teachers of New Orleans. That labor union in 2007 settled several similar lawsuits against the School Board for $7 million, about $1,000 per union member. The Supreme Court decided those settlements sufficiently addressed the plaintiffs and questions in the current case.
But the majority also accepted the defendants' arguments across the line. Even if the case had not been dismissed, "neither the OPSB nor the state defendants violated plaintiffs' due process rights," Justice Jeffrey Victory wrote.
The 4th Circuit Court of Appeal had found that the School Board should have created a recall list and systematically used it to hire back employees. The Supreme Court, on the other hand, while deciding that an employee hotline set up after the storm did not constitute an official recall list, determined that "imperfect" post-Katrina responses were good enough to satisfy the state Constitution given the circumstances.
Furthermore, the fact that almost all the jobs disappeared permanently made a difference, Victory wrote: "The Teacher Tenure Laws did not envision, nor provide for, the circumstance where a massive hurricane wipes out an entire school district, resulting in the elimination of the vast majority of teaching positions in that district. It would defy logic to find the OPSB liable for a due process violation where jobs were simply not available."
Nor would the state have been liable for not systematically hiring the Orleans Parish employees, Victory wrote, because the Legislature gave the Recovery School District the authority to hire whomever it wanted.
He noted that the Orleans Parish system did eventually restock the vast majority of its employees from its former payroll. And he cited evidence that the Recovery District did test and consider Orleans system applicants separately from the rest.
Act 1 of the 2012 legislative session, pushed by Gov. Bobby Jindal, has since eliminated many of the tenure protections that existed at the time of the storm.
Johnson, the chief justice whose election district includes New Orleans, dissented on all points. She wrote that the United Teachers of New Orleans case and the current suit "clearly involve entirely separate claims." Moreover, "I also believe the principle of res judicata should be balanced with the interests of justice," she wrote: The case should not be dismissed due to the state law that "exceptional circumstances" may allow for reconsideration.
Johnson agreed with the 4th Circuit that the employees were not treated legally in the layoffs. "In my view, the record supports plaintiffs' claims of due process violations," she wrote.
Orleans Parish interim school Superintendent Stan Smith said he was surprised that the ruling came so swiftly, less than two months after attorneys made their arguments before the court.
"We obviously were surprised and pleased at the same time," he said. Brent Barriere, the school system's attorney, did not immediately return a call for comment.
Louisiana Federation of Teachers spokesman Les Landon said the union, which included United Teachers of [New Orleans] as an affiliate, was "extremely disappointed by the Supreme Court ruling." Lead plaintiffs' attorney Willie Zanders, too, said, "We believe that the ruling of the two lower courts was correct."
Zanders said it was too early to discuss the grounds on which the plaintiffs would appeal. And he did not immediately clarify why the plaintiffs would go next to the U.S. Supreme Court, instead of a lower federal court.
The state Supreme Court's decision stuck to legal arguments and principals. But Justice Greg Guidry added an unusual addendum that acknowledged the emotions in play:
"The impact of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath upon the citizens of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana was devastating and will be long-lasting. Equally affected were the plaintiffs, dedicated teachers and employees of the Orleans Parish School Board," he wrote. "Nevertheless, the facts of the case before us, and the law of this state, compel the result reached by the majority."
Copyright 2014, The Times-Picayune
From: Danielle Dreilinger, "Court tosses out teachers' case; Orleans employees laid off after storm will appeal," The Times-Picayune, New Orleans, November 1, 2014,
Fired New Orleans school workers go to U.S. Supreme Court
ASSOCIATED PRESS The Louisiana Supreme Court's dismissal of a lawsuit claiming that 7,500 New Orleans public school employees were wrongfully fired after Hurricane Katrina has stirred renewed resentment among some who lost their jobs. Fired employees say they were treated badly after losing homes and belongings.
A lawyer for the estimated 7,500 former New Orleans public school employees who lost their jobs after Hurricane Katrina is going to the U.S. Supreme Court in hopes of reviving a lawsuit over their firings.
Willie Zanders on Monday released copies of his application to have the high court review the case involving teachers, aides, service workers and others.
Levee failures when Hurricane Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005, led to catastrophic flooding that shut down businesses, school and other institutions and prompted the evacuation of the city. The school employees' litigation began later in the year as an effort to prevent dismissals. It progressed as the state moved to take over most New Orleans school from a board plagued by corruption, poor financial management and low performance by students.
The lawsuit evolved into a wrongful termination action that took years to even come to trial.
In 2012, a state district judge ruled in favor of employees who said they were wrongfully fired, awarding more than $1 million to seven original plaintiffs and setting the stage for class-action damages that a lawyer for education officials said could cost the state and the local school board more than $1 billion.
An appellate court largely upheld that ruling. But the state Supreme Court dismissed the suit in October, in part on the grounds that the issues had been dealt with in a separate settlement with the New Orleans teachers' union. The court also found that employees' due-process rights were not violated.
The employee's application to the U.S. Supreme Court presses the case that employees' due process rights were violated because, among other reasons, fired workers were not offered priority consideration for re-employment as schools reopened. That, the employees say, violated local school board policy and state law.
The employees also argue that the settlement in the teacher union case cited in the October opinion involved compromises to which the plaintiffs in the class action suit were not a party.
"In fact, a substantial number of petitioners were not members of any collective bargaining unit, were neither noticed of nor participated in the collective bargaining arbitration, litigation or settlement," the employees' petition said.
The state, through its Recovery School District, still oversees most New Orleans public schools. All of the RSD schools are operated by independent charter groups. The Orleans Parish School Board oversees fewer than two dozen schools. Many of the board's schools are charters as well.
The state takeover and the move to charter schools have been hailed by education reform advocates around the nation as a grand experiment that has led to steady, if incremental and uneven improvements in student performance. The changes still have critics in New Orleans who are skeptical of the improvements and unhappy with the disruption of many neighborhood schools and what they see as unfair treatment of fired employees.
Some of the fired workers have returned to work in public schools. Others have retired or found jobs outside of education.
Copyright 2015, NOLA.com
From: Gerald Herbert, Associated Press, "Fired New Orleans school workers go to U.S. Supreme Court," NOLA.com, March 9, 2015, http://www.nola.com/education/index.ssf/2015/03/fired_new_orleans_school_worke.html, accessed March 9, 2015. Reprinted in accordance with the "fair use" provision of Title 17 U.S.C.