It’s Still Possible to Lose a Termination Case

Schools don’t lose termination cases that much.  This has a lot to do with the fact that we don’t usually take bad cases to hearing.  The case we are looking at today, North East ISD v. Riou, was not a bad case and yet, at least as of last week’s ruling, it is one the District lost after over two years of fighting and of initially winning.  If you’ve participated in a mid-contract termination hearing anytime recently, it’s likely to be something you never want to do again, win or lose. Sometimes there’s no better option.  In Riou, the District’s options were especially limited because Ms. Riou was employed on a continuing contract. As stated in Texas Education Code Section 21.154, a continuing contract continues until the teacher resigns, retires, is subject to reduction in force, returns to probationary status, or is discharged for good cause as defined in Section 21.156; i.e., nonrenewal is not an option.

Ms. Riou taught kindergarten in the 2014-2015 school year but ended the school year on FMLA leave beginning in April and returned to work the following August.  In September, the District proposed her contract for termination, setting in motion the Chapter 21 termination hearing process, which Ms. Riou lost.  She lost because the District put on evidence that she frequently showed up late to work, failed to turn in documents timely, failed to conduct reading benchmarks, failed to electronically record student progress measures, and failed to maintain the scope and sequence of learning objectives.  Ms. Riou appealed to the Commissioner and she lost there too.

The argument that ultimately carried the day on appeal was first raised in Ms. Riou’s appeal to the Commissioner and it was this:  that Texas Education Code Section 21.156 defines good cause as “failure to meet the accepted standards of conduct for the profession as generally recognized and applied in similarly situated school districts in this state,” and that the District put on no evidence of this.  Per the Commissioner, in order to meet the good cause standard under Section 21.156, it would “normally” require evidence in the form of witness testimony about the standards in other school districts.  However, the Commissioner still found in favor of NEISD because he concluded that, despite the lack of evidence proving up the good cause standard as stated in statute, that Ms. Riou’s conduct was “per se good cause,” essentially so obviously and unquestionably good cause that in the face of the uncontroverted facts, good cause was established as a matter of law.  If it isn’t perfectly clear to you what that last sentence means, don’t worry about it.  We shouldn’t be relying on the per good cause standard too heavily going forward anyway.

Having lost at TEA, Ms. Riou appealed to district court and won, resulting in a final judgment reversing the Commissioner’s Decision and ordering her reinstated with back pay and benefits.  So it is the District’s appeal to the 4th Court of Appeals in San Antonio that resulted in the decision in this case in favor of Ms. Riou.  The 4th Court was unpersuaded by the good cause per se arguments made by the District and accepted by the Commissioner, finding the language of Section 21.156 “unambiguous” and yielding only one reasonable interpretation:  “when a school district seeks to terminate a teacher under a continuing contract for good cause, it must present evidence that similarly situated school districts in this state would consider the teacher’s alleged conduct a failure to meet accepted standards of conduct for the teaching profession.”  This raises an important point.  Section 21.156 sets forth the good cause standard applicable in a continuing contract termination, but it is identical to the standard in Section 21.104 used for mid-year probationary contract terminations as well.  The Texas Education Code does not define good cause as it pertains to mid-year termination of term contracts, however.  The Commissioner has consistently used the common law standard defining good cause in mid-year term contract cases as “an employee’s failure to perform the duties in the scope of employment that a person of ordinary prudence would have done under the same or similar circumstances.”  It doesn’t necessarily make obvious sense why we would have different definitions of good cause in this way, but there you have it.


 Tomorrow: Tinker’s Second Prong