As the 2012-13 school year draws to a close, pupils and educators are sorting out the results of six recent rulings of the Minnesota Court of Appeals and its federal counterpart.

Three were defeats for students in a variety of settings.

But educators fared better. Teachers prevailed in two appellate actions, but other school employees lost their cases.

Student setbacks

A disgruntled high school hockey player in Duluth suffered a setback when her case was dismissed by the Minnesota Court of Appeals in Albert v. Ind. Sch. Dist. No. 709, 2013 WL 1500986 (Minn. App. April 15, 2013) (unpublished). The player, a member of the combined girls hockey team for three public high schools in Duluth, sued the school district for various tortuous intentional and negligent inflictions of distress claims due to abuse and maltreatment by her coach. The St. Louis County District Court dismissed the case and refused to allow it to be amended to add claim for violation of constitutional rights.

The appellate court affirmed on both points. Alleged procedural flaws in the dismissal process were rejected. On the merits, the tort claims were properly thrown out because they did not meet the “rigorous requirements” for the type of torts. Although not condoning the coach’s “hurtful conduct,” the kind of “extreme and outrageous” conduct necessary for intentional infliction was lacking, and the student’s “resulting emotional distress does not rise to the requisite severity level,” because there were only “conclusory allegations” … [and] generalized complaints” that do not go “beyond what a reasonable person” could be expected to endure.” She also failed to allege “physical manifestations of emotional distress” to support a negligent infliction claim.

The proffered federal claim under the Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. sec. 1983, also was properly dismissed because there was no assertion that the others were treated similarly or that the district “authorized” the alleged maltreatment by the coach “to such an extent that it became a school district pattern or custom” necessary to sustain a sec. 1983 claim.

Another claimed constitutional transgression by a student was rejected by the 8th Circuit Court of appeals in Burlison v. Springfield Public Schools, 708 F.3d 1034 (8th Cir. 2013).  The case was brought by a high school student whose backpack was seized when a school official decided that all belongings of students be left in a classroom while a trained drug detection dog sniffed the room for suspected contraband. The trial court threw out the claims of 4th Amendment violations against the law enforcement officer who directed the search and school personnel who participated in it.

The appellate court affirmed in a decision written by Judge Diana Murphy of Minnesota. The student did not establish a Constitutional deprivation because the evidence showed that there was a drug problem at the school, which warranted an “immediate need” for the detection procedure.  The student’s “brief separation” from the back pack was not one to warrant a claim against the school officials or the district for which they worked.

The student’s claim against the local sheriff was not actionable because he did not participate in the search procedures. There also was no evidence that he failed to diligently “train and supervise” the deputies who did do so.

A nursing student was refused unemployment compensation benefits in Odell v. Department of Employment & Economic Development, 2013 WL 776815 (Minn. App. Mar. 4, 2013) (unpublished).  The Department of Employment & Economic Development (DEED), which oversees the employment compensation program, denied the claim because the student was not “actively seeking suitable employment” and “available” for it while attending school, as required by Minn. Stat. sec. 268.085, subd. 1. The student’s lack of availability for work or to attend class for a month due to a condition related to her pregnancy scuttled her claim.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that the student’s inability to work due to her medical condition barred benefits. The student’s willingness to rearrange her class schedule to be eligible for work was not persuasive because she had missed work and classes while ill due to pregnancy, which warranted a determination that she was not available for “suitable” employment.

Teachers triumphant

Teachers triumphed in a pair of cases.

In Doran v. Ind. Sch. Dist. No. 720¸ 2013 WL 1707410 (Minn. App. April 22, 2013), a laid-off teacher was entitled to an available position following his school district’s withdrawal from an educational cooperative. The Shakopee School District eliminated a social studies teacher’s position and placed him on unpaid leave after it pulled out of a two-county cooperative learning center in order to create its own center.

But the appellate court reversed, holding that the withdrawal triggered the teacher’s rights under Minn. Stat. sec.123A.33, subd. (c) to claim an open spot, which the district was trying to fill with someone else.  The statutory right to an unfulfilled position arose because the district was trying to provide “by some other means” the same services as the coop previously had.

A union’s demand to arbitrate a dispute about a school district’s compensation plan for licensed teachers was permitted in Education Minnesota Inver Grove Heights Local 1718 v. Ind. Sch. Dist. No. 199 (Inver Grove Heights), 2013 WL 1500879 (Minn. App. April 15, 2013) (unpublished). The Dakota County District Court denied a demand for arbitration of a dispute over the policy of the Inver Grove Heights School District paying licensed teachers in an extended-day kindergarten program less than the rate provided for in the collective bargaining agreement for teachers.

The Court of Appeals reversed and ordered arbitration under the agreement, disagreeing with the trial court’s view that the bargaining agreement did not cover the positions.  The lower court erred in refusing to require arbitration under the Uniform Arbitration Act. But the case should have been resolved under its successor, the Revised Uniform Arbitration Act, which was enacted in 2010, and replaced the old Act. Under the new measure, Minn. Stat. sec.572B.06 (b), grievances arising under a collective bargaining agreement must be decided by “an arbitrator,” and it applies to pre-existing labor agreements.

Workers’ woes

Another Dakota County District Court ruling was overturned in the case of a plumber for the Burnsville School District who was fired because he lost his driver’s license and his job required driving a district vehicle between job sites to perform maintenance work in Maire v. Ind. Sch. Dist. No. 191 (Burnsville), 2013 WL 1705043 (Minn. App. April 22, 2013) (unpublished). He was discharged by the school board after he was arrested for DWI and an open bottle violation, his third alcohol-related driving incident. Because he could not be covered by the board’s insurance, he was fired, even though the criminal and implied consent cases were still pending and not yet resolved.

The plumber, an honorably discharged veteran, sued for reinstatement under the Veterans’ Preference Act, Minn. Stat. sec.197.46. The Dakota County District Court reversed and ordered the plumber, who had regained his driver’s license, back to work.

But the appellate court overturned that ruling and reinstated the board’s discharge decision. The board’s determination was based on “substantial evidence” that the employee had his driving privileges restricted was not dispositive because the board’s action was predicated on the “uncontroverted testimony” of the insurance carrier “refusing to cover [the plumber’s] use of any district vehicles because of his driving record. Therefore, the board’s decision to remove the veteran on grounds of “incompetence or misconduct” under the Veterans’ statute was valid and should not have been overturned by the trial judge.

A pair of veteran school secretaries also suffered the woes of litigation when they failed to obtain unemployment compensation benefits in Gregor v. Ind. Sch. Dis. No. 192, 2013 WL 588743 (Minn. App. April 29, 2013) (unpublished). The full-time employees of the Farmington School District agreed not to work for two months in the summer to accommodate a reduction in their schedules due to budgetary cutbacks for the upcoming school year. Their request for unemployment benefits was denied by the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), the agency that oversees the unemployment compensation system, and the appellate court affirmed.

Their anticipated employment for the school year “was not substantially less favorable than for no previous calendar year” which is necessary for them to obtain benefits under the statute dealing with academic employees, Minn. Stat. sec.268.085 subd. 7 (c). Their only argument, that a similarly situated employee was granted benefits for the summer, was not dispositive because the evidence did not reflect that they would experience a “substantial” diminution in pay.

The varied results from these six school-related cases provide a mixed send-off for school students, teachers, and employees as the 2012-13 year ends.

PERSPECTIVE POINTERS:

Recent drug-dog detection decisions

  • Florida v. Harris (2013): U.S. Supreme Court upholds search of vehicle
  • Florida v. Jardines (2013): High Court disallows search of apartment
  • U.S. v. Grant (2012): 8th Circuit upholds vehicle search for cocaine
  • State v. Khampanyavong (2012): Minnesota Appellate Court invalidates search of duffel bag in car

Originially published by Minnesota Lawyer 6/13/13.