The Louisiana Supreme Court has dismissed a class-action lawsuit challenging the firing of more than 7,000 public school employees in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina — a blow to the many teachers who still seethe over the way they were treated in the storm’s wake.
The court’s 5-2 decision came as a surprise, reversing both the trial court and a unanimous panel of judges on the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal.
Had those rulings survived, thousands of former school employees might have been eligible for damages from the Orleans Parish School Board, which voted to implement the layoffs, and the Recovery School District, a state agency that took over running most of the city’s schools after the storm.
But in a decision released Friday, the Supreme Court ruled that the teachers’ claims already had been settled by previous lawsuits and that even if they had not, their due process rights, as guaranteed by the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, were not violated in the first place.
The mass firings remain an animating force in the debate over education in New Orleans. Many teachers got the news they had been laid off while they were still struggling to rebuild their homes and lives.
And the decision has fostered deep resentments toward the independent charter schools that have largely taken over the school system in the years since the 2005 storm. Often, though not always, those schools have opened without hiring from the city’s pool of veteran teachers, who struggled for decades in a school system wracked by financial mismanagement and revolving-door superintendents.
Friday’s ruling likely will be the end of the legal battle over the firings, which centered on whether education officials broke the law by laying off employees without having a plan for hiring them back in an orderly way.
The last apparent move left open to the plaintiffs would be an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which takes up only a tiny fraction of the cases it is asked to review. Willie Zanders, the lead attorney for the group of teachers and other employees who brought the lawsuit, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Stan Smith, interim superintendent of the Orleans Parish School Board, said Friday’s decision affirmed that the board made a reasonable effort to respect the rights of its employees under extraordinary circumstances. “The court recognized that those efforts, under the circumstances, were a good-faith effort to provide due process,” Smith said.
After the storm, the board initially placed all of its employees on emergency leave, allowing them to collect unemployment benefits. The school district set up a hotline and asked teachers and students to call in and let them know when they planned on returning to the city.
But the Legislature then passed a law known as Act 35, sweeping all but a handful of New Orleans schools into the Recovery District and out of the local board’s control. That decision, combined with the fact that so many students remained displaced, meant the board would receive only a tiny fraction of the funding it used to get.
Neither the trial judge, Civil District Court Judge Ethel Simms Julien, nor the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal ultimately faulted the board for the layoffs that followed Act 35. But those courts found that the board violated its employees’ due process rights by failing to draw up a so-called “recall” list, from which former employees could be rehired as schools came back.
They held the Recovery District culpable as well because state officials did not give former employees of the schools they took over any “priority consideration.”
It’s not clear whether these first two rulings would have actually meant money for teachers. In principle, any laid-off employee of the school district could have applied for damages, claiming lost earnings and benefits. At one point, the school district’s attorney estimated the total could amount to more than $750 million if all former employees got the full amount due them.
But state courts cannot seize assets from other government entities, and the school system would need to have the money to appropriate in the first place. That $750 million estimate is more than is spent on public education in Orleans Parish in a year.
Moreover, it’s not clear whether all of the 7,600 or so employees in question would have been eligible for damages. Even if school officials had drawn from the recall list for a period of two years after the layoffs — as stipulated in the board’s policy at the time — only a few hundred teachers would have been rehired within that time frame.
The Supreme Court, in reversing the lower courts’ decisions, found that a maximum of 526 jobs would have existed for the laid-off teachers to apply for. “There is no legal theory which would allow over 7,000 teachers to recover back pay when only 526 could even theoretically be able to show they would have been hired if a recall list had been in place,” Justice Jeffrey Victory wrote in his majority opinion.
Victory and the concurring justices rendered the point moot, in any case.
They ruled that the basic legal questions involved already had been decided in a series of lawsuits — all either dismissed or settled — brought after the storm by the United Teachers of New Orleans, the local teachers union. And unlike the 4th Circuit judges, they found no “exceptional circumstances” that would allow the present case to go forward anyway.
Going further, the justices ruled that even if the legal dispute between the parties involved had not already been settled, it should be decided in favor of the School Board and the Recovery School District.
“We find that neither the OPSB nor the state defendants violated the class members’ due process rights,” Victory wrote.
He said the School Board met due process standards by setting up the hotline after Katrina, pointing out that a majority of the individuals ultimately hired by the board — which still runs a handful of schools — were former employees.
Addressing claims against the Recovery District, Victory wrote that due process rights do not imply that anyone has a right to “priority consideration” in employment decisions, as the lawsuit claimed, and that the plaintiffs “offered no proof they were not given priority consideration.”
Chief Justice Bernette Johnson and Justice Jefferson Hughes both dissented.
Johnson wrote that she did not believe the previous lawsuits mentioned by the majority involved exactly the same parties or legal issues and, therefore, the present lawsuit should not be considered settled.
And she argued that teachers’ due process rights had in fact been violated. She cited state laws on teacher tenure and school layoff policies, which require procedural steps such as a “grievance hearing or appeal” and a “mandatory recall list.”
Finally, she quoted from the 2012 ruling by Julien, who wrote, “Rather than honoring the vested property interest held by experienced teachers qualified under Louisiana’s standard, the state conducted a nationwide teacher search to fill vacancies with the RSD, and, among other things, contracted with Teach for America to hire inexperienced and non-certified college graduates, thereby preventing the plaintiff class from exercising their legally protected property rights.”