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.
Otero-Weaver, General Counsel - Vermont-NEA, Montpelier, for
PRESENT: Reiber, C.J., Skoglund, Robinson and Eaton, JJ., and
Morris, Supr. J. (Ret.), Specially Assigned
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. 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. 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 ...