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School's out: Appeals address education cases

“A teacher affects eternity”

      - Henry Adams, “The Education of Henry Adams” (1907)

As teachers join students, administrators and other school personnel in concluding the 2015-16 school year, they head into the summer vacation with a pair of split decisions from the Minnesota Court of Appeals. Shortly before the culmination of the current school year, the appellate court issued decisions in two cases affecting educators in the Twin Cities area.

In one case, the court ruled in favor of an ousted principal in Minneapolis for the second time in the last two years. In the other, it addressed issues relating to the proper bargaining unit for educators in a school district in Ramsey County. Meanwhile, a pair of federal appellate decisions during the school year by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dealt setbacks to disabled students in Minnesota.

Principal prevails

The principal at Washburn High School in south Minneapolis prevailed, for the second time, in litigation against the Minneapolis Public School System arising out of the termination of his employment just a few days after he was hired for the 2013-14 school year. Two years ago, the Court of Appeals overturned a determination upholding the district’s action on grounds of insufficient factual findings by the School Board of inconsistencies in his resume concerning his prior employment in Utah and remanded. Exner v. Minneapolis Public Schools, 849 N.W.2d 437 (Minn. App. 2014). This time around, the former principal obtained a reversal of the dismissal of his defamation claim in Exner v. Minneapolis Public Schools,Minn. App. LEXIS 468 (Minn. App. May 9, 2016)(unpublished).

The case arose from a deprecatory letter sent by the school superintendent to parents of students stating that the principal was being terminated, which then was followed by a statement made by a school administration spokesperson to a newspaper reporter who wrote an article that the district “wants to terminate … [and] was negotiating with [his] union.” The principal sued for wrongful release of private personnel data under the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act as well as defamation. Following a jury trial, the Hennepin County District Court dismissed both claims as a matter of law.

The appellate court upheld dismissal of the data practices claim, holding that the letter sent by the superintendent to parents did refer to “recent issues” but did not constitute wrongful disclosure of any matters but merely disclosed the existence of complaints [to] inform the parents that [the school district] had decided to hire a different principal.

But the defamation claim was a different matter. Treating the principal as a “public official” for purposes of defamation law, the court found that the school district “knew the information was false at the time the statement was allegedly made.” This would constitute “actual malice,” for purposes of satisfying the burden of a public figure under the standard set by the Supreme Court in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964). Despite the district’s demand that the statement was made to the reporter, there was “sufficient, competent” evidence that a representative of the district made the statement to the reporter, recited in an article in the newspaper about the termination.

The school district claimed that it was impaired in presenting a defense because the reporter who wrote the article refused to testify, citing the journalists’ shield law, Minn. Stat. § 595.022, other than to acknowledge that he accurately paraphrased the spokesperson’s statement, along with combining it with information received from other sources. But the district did not raise on appeal the issue of the propriety of his refusal to testify, which precluded appellate review of the district’s argument.

Union undertaking

An undertaking by teachers at the school district serving North St. Paul and neighboring communities to have instructors in the district’s pre-kindergarten program included within their bargaining agreement was unsuccessful in Independent School District No. 622 v. North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale Education Association, Minn. App. LEXIS 37 (Minn. App. May 16, 2016)(unpublished). The association representing the teachers sought the Bureau of Mediation Services (BMS) to clarify whether the instructors in the school district’s pre-K program, which was established in 2010, were included in the collective bargaining agreement for teachers. BMS ruled that it was not because the instructors are not required to hold a teaching license.

The appellate court affirmed, holding that the instructors were properly within the union representing teachers because they were “not required” under state statute to be licensed to perform their duties. Federal law, which was relevant because the pre-K program used federal funds, does not require licensure. While federal law requires that certain teachers at schools that receive federal funds be “highly qualified,” that characterization did not apply to pre-kindergarten instructors in Minnesota because Minnesota is not a state that considers pre-school to be a part of public elementary education under state law.

The union’s claim that the pre-K instructors must be licensed because of the job requirements imposed upon them by school districts also was unavailing. The position description promulgated by the school district “does not require a teaching license.” The evidence presented by the school district that licensure of pre-K instructors is not necessary trumped contradictory evidence submitted by the union to contradict the evidence submitted by the union.

Nor is licensure required as a matter of “public policy.” The appellate court does not determine what is inappropriate public policy, which is left to the legislature. Since the pre-K instructors are not required to be licensed, they cannot be part of the bargaining agreement representing teachers.

Disability decisions

Disabled students lost a pair of appellate court rulings by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals during the school year, including one this spring.

A 6-year-old autistic Somali-American student, who obtained special educational services provided by a private organization, was unsuccessful in suing the entity for racial discrimination in Abdull v. Lovaas Institute for Early Intervention Midwest, Minn. App. LEXIS 6265 (Minn. App. April 6, 2016)(unpublished). The argument by the student’s mother claimed that the student had been treated differentially compared to Caucasian participants in the program, was rejected by U.S. District Court Judge Ann Montgomery in Minnesota.

The appellate court agreed with Judge Montgomery and affirmed dismissal of the lawsuit, because the boy’s mother failed to satisfy the three-part burden shifting test of McDonnell-Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 719 (1973). The contention that Caucasian students were treated differently did not create a prima facie case of discrimination because how the Institute assists students depends on the “individual child’s progress,” which differed among the various pupils. Nor was there satisfactory evidence that the organization treated the mother “less favorably” than it did other parents. Special procedures adopted for her child were not due to discrimination, but were “triggered by the youth’s absences and disruptions in therapy sessions.”

Because there was no racial discrimination on the part of the special learning organization, dismissal was warranted.

Another decision by Judge Montgomery concerning a disabled student also was upheld by the 8th Circuit earlier in the 2015-16 school year in B.S. v. Anoka Hennepin Public Schools, 799 F.3d 1217 (8th Cir. 2015). The case involved a 16-year-old student who had a learning disability requiring an Individualized Education Program (IEP) under the Federal Individual Disability and Education Act (IDEA), 20 U.S.C. § 1415,et seq.

The student’s parents challenged the IEP on various grounds, which entitled them to a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ) with the Minnesota office of Administrative Hearings (OAH). The ALJ ruled in favor of the school district, which triggered an appeal to the 8th Circuit on grounds of due process because the ALJ set specific time limits for presenting the presentation of evidence by both sides.

The appellate court affirmed, holding that the ALJ did not abuse any discretion in overseeing the hearing “with the imposition of enforcement of reasonable time limits.” Because the youth was afforded all statutory rights specifically prescribed by the IDA, the challenge his parents to the hearing process was rejected.

These cases show the diversity of education-related decisions made by the federal and state appellate courts in Minnesota as the 2015-16 school year draws to a close. 


Proving “actual malice” for defamation

  • Publication with “knowing falsity” of the truth.
  • Communication distributed with “reckless disregard” for the truth.
  • Statement made while having “serious doubt” about the truth. 


Originally Published by Minnesota Lawyer