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California and the West

Ruling Makes It Easier for Teachers to Fight Dismissals

Court: Justices overturn law that forces instructors to pay half of hearing cost when they lose appeal of firing or suspension.

May 11, 1999|MAURA DOLAN | TIMES LEGAL AFFAIRS WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — The California Supreme Court on Monday made it easier for tenured public school teachers to challenge dismissals and suspensions.

Current state law requires that teachers who challenge disciplinary actions and lose pay half the cost of a state administrative hearing. The court, ruling 4-3, overturned that law, finding that it violated the due process clause of the Constitution by discouraging teachers from exercising their legal rights to challenge dismissals and suspensions.

Chief Justice Ronald M. George, writing for the majority, said the state law, adopted in 1976, deters teachers from seeking a review hearing "by making it expensive to do so."

The law "poses a tangible risk that teachers will be dismissed or suspended--and that baseless charges against teachers will stand--simply because the teacher fears incurring liability for the cost" of a hearing, George wrote.

But Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar contended in a dissent that state law already gives tenured teachers "substantial protection" against arbitrary dismissal.

Joined by Justices Ming W. Chin and Janice Rogers Brown, Werdegar said the state's need to remove teachers who are unfit or commit serious misconduct justifies measures that prevent delays and hold down expenses.

Deputy Atty. Gen. Karen Leaf, who represented the state in the case, warned that the ruling will cause more teachers to challenge disciplinary action. "They will just fight it, even if it is likely the discipline will be sustained," she said.

But Priscilla Winslow, a staff attorney for the California Teachers Assn., said teachers will now "be able to more freely exercise their right to have those hearings without being faced not only with unemployment, but with a huge bill from the state of California."

The case before the court stemmed from the 1986 dismissal of Stockton teacher Gary Daloyan. Daloyan, certified to teach since 1971, had been transferred out of his high school journalism class to a middle school in the Lincoln Unified School District.

He and his attorney said district officials transferred him because they disliked critical stories in the high school newspaper about the school administration. Daloyan filed a federal civil rights suit against the district in 1986 to protest the transfer and received notification four months later that he was to be fired.

The district charged him with immoral conduct and unfitness for service. The morals charge permitted the district to suspend him immediately without pay.

The allegation was triggered by an incident in which Daloyan called a student "a foul-mouthed little slut" and another in which he wrote swear words on the chalkboard, according to Daloyan and Leaf, who represented the state in the Supreme Court case. Daloyan said he wrote the words to ensure his students knew they were forbidden.

Daloyan asked for a hearing to challenge the dismissal. Under the law, hearings to decide whether a tenured public school teacher should be dismissed or suspended are held before a three-member commission. One member is a teacher chosen by the school board, another is a teacher selected by the instructor who is challenging the discipline and the third is a state administrative law judge.

After a 13-day hearing, the commission unanimously decided that the district failed to prove that Daloyan engaged in immoral conduct but also concluded that he was unfit for service and should be dismissed. Neither the teacher nor the district asked a court to review the decision.

The state later billed Daloyan nearly $8,000 for half the cost of the hearing, including the cost of the administrative law judge. When Daloyan did not pay the bill, his state income tax refunds were offset against the debt.

He and the California Teachers Assn. then challenged the bill in court.

Daloyan said Thursday he was "tickled pink" by the decision but added that "it is a long time coming." The Stockton district eventually settled his federal civil rights suit for $65,000, and he received another $75,000 in workers' compensation, he said.

But he said he has applied for more than 350 teaching positions unsuccessfully since his firing. "The district has effectively destroyed my teaching career," he said.

Locally, United Teachers Los Angeles attorney Rick Schwab said he does not expect the ruling to affect districts adversely.

He said that hearings over discipline can cost $1,200 a day. "On a teacher's salary, having to pay half that amount could mean the difference between making the mortgage payment or not," Schwab said.

Statewide, officials estimate that the teachers' share of the cost of hearings runs between $50,000 and $100,00O a year. School districts pay the other half.

Margaret Farrow, an attorney with the state Office of Administrative Hearings, which provides administrative law judges in teacher discipline disputes, said the ruling leaves "well over" $300,000 in hearing costs that have been billed to teachers but not paid. She said her office will consider proposing that school districts pick up the full cost of the hearings in the future.

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