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Northfield School Board v. Washington South Education Association and Paul Clayton

Supreme Court of Vermont

April 12, 2019

Northfield School Board
Washington South Education Association and Paul Clayton

          Supreme Court On Appeal from Superior Court, Washington Unit, Civil Division Mary Miles Teachout, J.

          Bernard D. Lambek of Zalinger Cameron & Lambek, P.C., Montpelier, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

          Wanda Otero-Weaver, General Counsel - Vermont-NEA, Montpelier, for Defendants-Appellants.

          PRESENT: Reiber, C.J., Skoglund, Robinson and Eaton, JJ., and Morris, Supr. J. (Ret.), Specially Assigned

          SKOGLUND, J.

         ¶ 1. Paul Clayton and Washington South Education Association (the Association) appeal the trial court's decision to grant Northfield School Board's (the Board) motion to enjoin arbitration. Clayton and the Association argue that the trial court erroneously held that Clayton was barred from utilizing the grievance-and-arbitration procedure contained in the collective-bargaining agreement (CBA) entered into by the Association and the Board. We conclude that, because Clayton and the Association failed to exhaust statutory remedies as required by 16 V.S.A. § 1752, the trial court properly enjoined arbitration, and thus, we affirm the trial court's ruling.

         ¶ 2. Prior to addressing the specific facts in this case, we find it beneficial to briefly introduce the central statutory provision at issue in this case-16 V.S.A. § 1752. Titled "Grounds and procedures for suspension and dismissal," § 1752 outlines just that, the grounds for which "[a] teacher under contract to teach in a public school" may be suspended and ultimately terminated, and the pre-termination administrative procedures that both a school district and a teacher must follow prior to the ultimate disposition. Sections 1752(c)-(d) explain that "[a] superintendent may suspend a teacher under contract on the grounds of . . . conduct unbecoming a teacher," and that "[t]he suspension shall be in writing and shall set forth the grounds therefor." Once the teacher receives a written notice of their suspension, they "shall have the right to appeal to the board of school directors" and can initiate that appeal by "[f]iling a written notice of appeal with the clerk of the school board within seven days of the effective date of their suspension." Id. § 1752(e).

         ¶ 3. Once the teacher initiates an appeal, the school board "shall hear the appeal within [ten] days of receipt of notification," notifying both the teacher and the superintendent of the hearing "at least three days before the date of hearing." Id. § 1752(f). "Upon hearing, or if no appeal is taken, the school board shall affirm or reverse the suspension or take such other action, including dismissal, as may appear just" in writing within five days and shall "within three days notify the superintendent and the teacher in writing of the decision." Id. § 1752(h-i).

         ¶ 4. Section 1752(j) explains that "[n]o action shall lie on the part of a teacher against any school district for breach of contract by reason of suspension or dismissal unless the procedures herein described have been followed by said teacher." And further, "[e]very teacher's contract shall be deemed to contain the provisions of this section and any provision in the contract inconsistent with this section shall be considered of no force or effect." Id. § 1752(k).

         ¶ 5. With this statutory framework in mind, the relevant facts of this case are as follows. The Association was the representative of all licensed teachers within the Northfield schools.[1] The Board and the Association negotiated and entered into the CBA, which was in effect from July 1, 2017 to June 30, 2018. Clayton was a middle-school physical-education teacher at the Northfield Middle High School (the School) and was a member of the Association. Therefore, Clayton's employment was subject to the CBA.

         ¶ 6. In late fall 2017, administrators at the School received complaints about Clayton's workplace conduct. The complaints alleged that Clayton created a hostile work environment by intimidating his colleagues and advised a student (his daughter) to punch another student in the face. In response to the allegations, Clayton was placed on paid leave while the administrators investigated the complaints and interviewed a number of the School's staff. Upon the conclusion of their investigation, the administrators wrote a letter to the School's superintendent describing their findings and noting that while they gave Clayton the opportunity "to respond to the claim that his actions had created a hostile work environment," Clayton first declined to respond to the allegations during an initial follow-up meeting and then declined to attend a second meeting scheduled to receive his rebuttal a few days later. After receiving the administrators' letter, the superintendent wrote a letter to Clayton offering him an opportunity to meet with her to discuss the matter, and attached to the letter a summary of the allegations against Clayton. About a week later, the superintendent met with Clayton and his Association representation.

         ¶ 7. On December 1, the superintendent, Clayton, and his Association representation met for a second time. At this meeting, the superintendent delivered a letter to Clayton, advising him that he was being suspended in accordance with 16 V.S.A. § 1752. The letter explained that the superintendent found the allegations against Clayton to be well founded and was thus suspending Clayton because his actions demonstrated "conduct unbecoming a teacher," per § 1752(c). The letter also notified Clayton of his right to appeal the suspension decision to the Board and outlined the § 1752(e) procedures and deadline to bring such appeal.

         ¶ 8. Neither Clayton nor anyone on his behalf filed a notice of appeal. As required by § 1752(h), the Board met in a warned executive session to review the superintendent's decision to suspend Clayton and recommendation in favor of dismissal. On December 14, the Board informed Clayton, via written letter per § 1752(i), that they unanimously affirmed his suspension and dismissed him from employment at the School, effective immediately.

         ¶ 9. Shortly thereafter, Clayton and the Association, now represented by the Vermont affiliate of the National Education Association (Vermont-NEA), submitted a grievance alleging a violation of Article 6.1 of the CBA.[2] On the same day that they submitted the grievance, Vermont-NEA also sent a letter to the School's principal, requesting that the parties proceed directly from Step One (forwarding a written copy of the grievance to a school's principal) to Step Four (entering final and binding arbitration). The Board responded to Vermont-NEA's letter and declined to accept the grievance, explaining that Clayton waived his right to file a ...

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