Fighting over class rank….

The Court of Appeals concluded its opinion by complimenting the “exemplary academic efforts” of two students from Vela High School in Edinburg.  The Court also extended its “admiration to their parents who have clearly supported and encouraged these students in their commendable efforts.”  Comments like that from a court are usually a consolation prize. That’s what happened here. The court complimented the parents and students as it ruled against them.

The whole thing was unfortunate. According to the lawsuit, a school counselor advised one of the students that Dual Enrollment Computer Science would be a class that was positively “weighted” so that the student’s grade would automatically have ten points added to it.  The student got a perfect score in the class, and expected that this would be counted in her GPA with the additional ten points—thus, a 110 grade rather than 100.

It turns out the counselor was mistaken.  The school administration determined that state law, regulations and local policy (EIC Local) required that class rank be based only on grades in English, Math, Science, Social Studies and Languages Other Than English.  The Computer Science class did not fit into any of those categories, and so the “plus ten” was taken away.  Parents appealed to the board to no avail.

Then the parents went to state district court and obtained an “ex parte temporary restraining order” against the district. TROs are very short in duration—just two weeks.  The next step for the parents was to convert that TRO into a Temporary Injunction.  They succeeded.  After hearing testimony over three days, the local district judge issued a temporary injunction that effectively required the school to give the student the extra ten points.  Keep in mind that this is all happening just weeks prior to graduation.

ECISD immediately appealed to the Thirteenth Court of Appeals for Corpus Christi-Edinburg. There, the arguments moved away from interpretation of EIC Local to legal doctrines of governmental immunity. The Court held that both the district and its administrators were immune from suit.  Thus the lower court actually lacked the jurisdiction to issue the injunction.

For the lawyers, this case is worth studying for the court’s analysis of governmental immunity and the limited circumstances where the “ultra vires” doctrine comes into play.

For school administrators, the case provides comforting news along with a caution. The comfort is that as long as you are acting within the scope of your employment and exercising your lawful discretion, you are generally protected not only from personal liability, but also from a lawsuit.    The caution is that we really need to be accurate in what we tell the kids about how grades will be calculated.

The case is Edinburg CISD v. Smith, decided by the Court of Appeals for Corpus Christi and Edinburg on May 26, 2016.  We found it at 2016 WL 3068119.


 File this one under: LIABILITY AND IMMUNITY