Teacher termination upheld based on violation of confidentiality agreement.

It sounds like Principal Gober was having a hard time communicating with teacher Sylvia Ortiz.  After multiple students sought a transfer from Ms. Ortiz’s chemistry class in Plano ISD, the principal met with the teacher. The principal directed the teacher to engage in some rapport building exercises with her students.  Ten days later, the principal issued a written memo, outlining the suggested exercises.

This is where the standoff began.  The teacher refused to sign the principal’s memo, and walked out of the meeting sans memo.  So the principal sent it to her by certified mail. That didn’t work. Ms. Ortiz failed to sign for it.  So the principal hand-carried the memo to the teacher, and attempted to deliver it to her outside of her classroom.  Nope--Ms. Ortiz would not accept the paperwork. So the principal went into the teacher’s classroom and left the papers there for the teacher.

Ms. Ortiz then filed a grievance, alleging harassment, verbal and physical aggression, libel, slander, defamation of character, bullying, intimidation, misrepresentation of facts, and the intentional creation of a hostile and intolerable working environment.

The district assigned an investigator to look into all this. The investigator asked Ms. Ortiz to sign a confidentiality agreement, which she did.  The agreement (later referred to by Ms. Ortiz as an unconstitutional gag order) stated that:

you must not discuss this investigation or inquiry, or any information that you and the investigator discuss, with other District employees (except Safety & Security or Human Resources employees) or any other person who is in any way connected to the incident or event under investigation, or who is a possible witness in this investigation. Disclosure of information pertaining to this investigation may result in disciplinary action against the disclosing employee.

The district later sought to terminate Ms. Ortiz’s employment based on numerous grounds, including her violation of this agreement. Evidence of the violation was based on a telephone conversation with a student in which Ms. Ortiz inquired about what happened when the student was interviewed as a part of the investigation.  Ms. Ortiz recorded this conversation, parts of which were used against her in the litigation.

The independent hearing examiner recommended termination of Ms. Ortiz’s employment. Plano ISD’s board voted to terminate the teacher’s contract.  The Commissioner rejected many of the reasons for termination offered by the district, but upheld the termination based on the violation of the confidentiality agreement.  The state district court upheld the Commissioner’s decision, and now, so has the Court of Appeals.

It is interesting to note that what got Ms. Ortiz fired was not related to the original concerns about her performance, but rather, her violation of a confidentiality agreement she signed off on.  Her lawyer attempted to argue that the district was infringing on her free speech rights, but the court noted that constitutional principles do not apply to confidentiality agreements that people sign.

Many school administrators seek confidentiality during an investigation of alleged employee misconduct, or employee complaints.  Here, the district put it in writing, which turned out to be a critical factor in the decision.

The case of Ortiz v. Commissioner of Education was decided by the Court of Appeals in Dallas on March 10, 2016.  Docket Number 05-14-01165-CV.