Budget cuts lead to personnel cuts lead to litigation.

Five police officers in San Benito CISD thought that the school district was violating the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) by failing to calculate overtime pay properly. They filed a complaint about this with the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL).  While that complaint was pending, the officers had their pay cut.  Hmmmm. They saw a connection, and filed suit, accusing the district of retaliating against them for filing the DOL complaint.

But the court ruled in favor of the school district and now the 5th Circuit has affirmed that ruling. The case is a good illustration of how budget cuts from the state lead to hard decisions at the local level, which might lead to litigation.  The case also provides a great example of how districts can marshal the evidence to prove that the real reason for a tough decision was a good one.

San Benito, like every other school district in Texas, was hit hard by budget cuts from the state after the 2011 legislative session.  The state reduced funding to the district by $5 million.  Meanwhile, insurance costs were on the rise.  The district had to make some tough decisions.  The court described the district’s response to the financial crisis:

It cut funds to and reduced eligibility for the pre-kindergarten program.  It dissolved 23 teaching positions. It left nine maintenance positions vacant. It cut the day care program.  It eliminated employee convenience leave.  And, while the officers’ DOL complaint was pending, it reduced the work days for all the officers in its police department from 226 days to 187 days, essentially cutting the officers’ summer hours.

It was largely the sweeping cuts that the district made in multiple departments, including cutting the hours of all of its police officers, that convinced the court that this was not an act of retaliation. Key Quote:

The School District offered legitimate reasons for why it made cuts to the police department in particular. Importantly, it cut the hours of all the officers in the department, not just the ones who had engaged in FLSA protected activity.  (Emphasis in original).

A plaintiff in a retaliation case is like a baseball player trying to get around the bases and score.  Our plaintiff gets to first base by showing that he has engaged in “protected activity.”  Here, the DOL complaint was protected activity.  He advances to second base by showing that he has suffered some “adverse employment action.”  These five cops were reduced from 226 days to 187—that’s a pretty large pay cut. So our runner is now on second base.

Almost all plaintiffs in retaliation cases make it to second base. But that accomplishes nothing.  You have to get around third base and come home safely. To do that, you have to prove causation—that the adverse employment action happened to you BECAUSE you engaged in protected activity.  That’s where the five police officers fell short.  The district persuaded the court that these five police officers were simply swept up in a much larger budgetary adjustment.  It wasn’t retaliation.  As Michael Corleone once observed (in a very different context) “it wasn’t personal. It was business.”

The case of Espinoza v. San Benito CISD was decided by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals on October 12, 2018.  We found it at 2018 WL 5018491.  I’m pleased to report that the excellent lawyering in this case was done by Mike Saldaña, Stacy Castillo and Leandra Ortiz of our firm’s Rio Grande Valley office.


 Tomorrow: can an IEP be overly ambitious?