Cristina Esparza was principal of Barrientes Middle School in Edinburg CISD when she took a nude selfie and sent it to her husband. And only to her husband. However, someone hacked into the principal’s account, found the picture and disseminated it to the students in the school. Oh boy.
The school board fired Ms. Esparza. The independent hearing examiner who heard this case did not recommend termination, but the board disagreed with that and fired the principal. Now, Commissioner Morath has affirmed the board’s decision.
The case is not only colorful, it’s important. The Commissioner’s decision includes a lengthy discussion about the standards for “good cause” and the power of the school board to override the hearing examiner’s recommendation. Some key points:
- “Conduct sufficient to warrant termination may be unintentional conduct.” You can be fired if you are unable to perform the essential functions of the job, and this might happen through no fault of your own. The Commissioner provides an example. If a teacher is injured in a car accident that was not his fault, but that renders him unable to communicate with students, the board would have “good cause” to terminate the teacher’s contract. Key Quote:
In determining whether good cause exists, what is essential is whether the employer-employee relationship has been destroyed, not whose action destroyed the employer-employee relationship.
2. There is a difference between the “hard facts” of the case and the “interpretive facts.” It’s almost impossible for the board to alter the “hard facts” as determined by the hearing examiner. But with this decision, the Commissioner gives his approval to the board changing the “interpretive facts.”
3. The “hard facts” are about what happened. Here, the hard facts were 1) the principal took the picture; 2) she sent it to her husband; 3) some unknown party got access to it; 4) it was disseminated to the kids in the school, and well known in the community. The critical interpretive fact was: has the principal lost her effectiveness? The hearing examiner said no. The board said yes.
4. The Commissioner makes two important “conclusions of law” in this decision that lawyers will be citing in the future:
Good cause to terminate a term contract exists when an employee’s effectiveness is significantly diminished.
Good cause to terminate a term contract can exist even when an employee’s effectiveness would not have been diminished but for the actions of a third party, even the illegal actions of a third party.
Very interesting case on many levels. This is a good one to review with your teachers, warning them about the dangers of social media, even when you think you are only sending a loving message to your spouse. The case is Esparza v. Edinburg CISD, decided by the Commissioner on March 17, 2017.
DAWG BONE: POLAROIDS WERE SAFER.
Tomorrow: a case about the ADA….