As previously discussed on this blog, recent holdings of an administrative law judge (ALJ) of the State Tenure Commission (STC) declared that layoff, recall, and evaluations were not within the jurisdiction of the STC after the 2011 amendments to the Teachers’ Tenure Act (TTA). The STC, however, has since changed course a bit from this position on the issue of layoff. Specifically, in two recent decisions the STC recently held that it has jurisdiction to hear a claim by a tenured teacher that the decision to lay that teacher off was made in bad faith. Those cases are Baumgartner v. Perry Public Schools, STC # 12-13 (11/29/12), and Aubert v Reed City Area Public Schools, STC # 12-16 (12/14/12).
The TTA, along with the Revised School Code and the Public Employment Relations Act, was amended in July of 2011 through a group of four tie-barred acts – 2011 Public Acts 100-103. In response to those amendments, an ALJ of the STC held in Karabajakian and Valdez v. Madison District Public Schools, STC # 12-8 and 12-9 (07/16/12), that decisions regarding layoff were no longer within the jurisdiction of the STC. Similarly, in Volpe v Madison District Public Schools, STC # 12-21 (10/11/12), the ALJ again held that layoff decisions were not within the jurisdiction of the STC, including decisions where the tenured teacher claimed that the decision to lay them off was made in bad faith or as a subterfuge. Similar holdings were made in other cases, including by the ALJs in Baumgartner and Aubert. Specifically, in both Baumgartner and Aubert the ALJ held that the legislature “removed the subject of layoff” from the TTA through the 2011 amendments and that the STC did not have jurisdiction to hear such claims even when they included a claim of bad faith or subterfuge. The STC, however, disagreed and reversed the ALJ’s holding in each case.
In so doing, the STC held that despite the amendments of the TTA, it retains jurisdiction to hear appeals where the appealing teacher claims that a layoff was not made in good faith. In other words, the STC may still hear claims where the teacher claims that the layoff was not a legitimate reduction in personnel, but rather was done as a subterfuge to dismiss the appealing teacher. The basis of this decision is that a claim of subterfuge amounts to a discharge claim by the teacher.
There is no question that a district must still follow the procedures of the TTA when seeking to discharge a tenured teacher (albeit now with the lesser arbitrary or capricious standard). The STC held that where a school district, in bad faith, manipulates schedules or the layoff procedure to target a specific teacher, that teacher is being discharged without the necessary protections of the TTA. As such, while decisions regarding the procedure for laying off teachers has been added to the Revised School Code, the STC held that tenured teachers still have the right to a hearing to ensure that they are not being discharged through that layoff by being the target of a bad faith decision of the school district.
Neither the Baumgartner nor Aubert decisions were unanimously decided by the five member commission. In both cases, member David Campbell dissented from the majority decision. In Aubert he expressed why he chose to dissent from the majority stating that while he saw merit in the STC’s position, he did “not believe the Commission has jurisdiction in this situation.”
The cases were both heard on a motion for summary disposition (a motion to dismiss based on the pleadings) and remanded back to the ALJ for a hearing. Thus, if either case is to be appealed to the Michigan Court of Appeals, that process will likely take a good deal of time in that the parties must now have a hearing and must then appeal from that hearing to the STC before appealing to the court. While the cases only allow jurisdiction for claims that layoffs were made in bad faith or as a subterfuge, the Baumgartner and Aubert decisions are somewhat troubling in that they now open up for review decisions resulting in the layoff of tenured teachers to both the STC as well as to Michigan circuit courts under section 1248 of the Revised School Code.