An Illinois Appellate Court recently overturned the 2012 dismissal of a teacher who was terminated for being under the influence while at work. The opinion provides instructive guidance on how courts closely analyze a school board’s policies and rules when determining if conduct is irremediable and cause for immediate dismissal. 

In Kinsella v. Board of Education of the City of Chicago, an assistant principal stopped a tenured kindergarten teacher after noticing the odor of alcohol on her breath. The assistant principal reported the teacher to the principal’s office where she agreed to take a Breathalyzer test that showed her blood-alcohol concentration was 0.053. Based on this test in conjunction with the smell of alcohol on the teacher’s breath, the Board initiated discharge proceedings, charging the teacher with violating the Board’s “Drug & Alcohol Free Workplace” policy, which in part prohibits an employee from being under the influence of drugs or alcohol while on Board property. The policy defines “under the influence” as any “mental, emotional, sensory, or physical impairment due to the use of drugs or alcohol.” Under this policy, an employee is considered under the influence if he/she shows “signs of impairment or intoxication and tests positive on a reasonable suspicion test.” 

In reviewing this case, a hearing officer found that the smell of alcohol on the teacher’s breath justified the Breathalyzer test, but that the test plus the odor on her breath was insufficient to confirm that the teacher was “under the influence” by a preponderance of the evidence. The hearing officer accordingly recommended that the teacher be reinstated with full back pay and benefits. The Board, however, found that the Breathalyzer test was sufficient to show that she was under the influence, and determined that the teacher engaged in irremediable conduct that was cause for dismissal. 

The teacher appealed her dismissal, arguing that the Board’s findings were arbitrary as they presumed she was under the influence based solely on her blood-alcohol level without any evidence that she showed “signs of impairment” as required by the Board’s policy. The Illinois Appellate Court agreed and reversed the Board’s decision. Although the Board argued that its policy and accompanying rules amount to a zero-tolerance policy giving it authority to discharge the teacher for irremediable conduct per se, the Court determined that the Breathalyzer test alone was insufficient to find the teacher was under the influence. Specifically, the Court found that the District’s policy and rules required additional evidence of the teacher’s mental, emotional, sensory, or physical impairment due to the alcohol, not just a positive test result, and that here no such evidence existed.