Unreturned Contract. What are our Options?

It may not seem like it at first glance, but that headline was a pun.  In Allen v. Rio Vista ISD, the Commissioner assumes for argument’s sake but does not expressly decide that a term contract is an “option contract.” What does that mean and who cares?  This isn’t pork belly futures we’re talking about, it’s employment futures.  And you need to know this because someday it could happen to you.

Picture this hypothetical scenario:  one of your teachers is just okay at her job.  For better or worse, she is issued a term contract for next school year and somebody goes and drops it off on her desk on April 21st.  In that contract is the familiar language requiring the contract be signed and returned by a certain date.  Let’s say April 30th.  Now imagine that on April 22nd (AKA the day after she gets her contract) allegations against this teacher surface and she is placed on paid administrative leave while an investigation is conducted.  Isn’t it always the way?

We now have a hypothetical teacher who has been given a contract with a deadline for acceptance.  She now doesn’t have access to her campus and her desk where the contract sits unsigned.  Time ticks by.  April 30th comes and goes. You hypothetically purchase but do not yet uncork the sparkling beverage of your choice.  Because, lawyers.

May 5th, you direct her to return to work because the allegations against her are unsubstantiated.  You confirm this in writing.  In another letter on the same day, you point out that because she has failed to sign and timely return her employment contract, she does not have a job for next year.  She files a grievance the same day.  She will later purport to have also signed her contract the same day, but she doesn’t turn it in.  In fact, she only ever turns it in as an exhibit when her grievance is heard weeks later.  Administration and board both hear and deny her grievance.  What happens when she appeals to the Commissioner?

You win, she loses.  Right, right, [you’re thinking] I win, but tell me the really important thing:  does she have an option contract or not?  I can’t pop this bottle until I know! Well the Commissioner isn’t telling us.  The reason it matters, or with the right fact pattern might matter to you someday, is that the doctrine of equitable interference applies to an option contract.  Equitable interference excuses untimely exercise of an option (e.g., signing and returning a term contract) if the failure is due to more than mere neglect.  The actual Petitioner in this actual case, Jeri Allen, argued that her failure to sign and timely return her term contract was due to more than mere neglect, and was in fact due to affirmative steps the District took to prevent her from accessing, reading, signing, and returning the contract.

In analyzing her argument, the Commissioner held that it didn’t matter whether her term contract was an option contract or not, because even if the equitable interference doctrine were applied, it still wouldn’t result in a W for Ms. Allen.  Her contract was due to be signed and returned on a specified date.  Per the Commissioner, her failure to sign and return by the due date “could perhaps be categorized as mere neglect.”  More importantly, though, once notified of her default, she still didn’t return the contract for another 29 days.  That, according to the Commissioner, was willful and constituted more than mere neglect.  Ergo, the doctrine of equitable interference would not apply to require the District to enforce the contract despite Petitioner’s default. The case is Allen v. Rio Vista ISD, TEA Dkt. No. 033-R10-08-2017.


Tomorrow: Wildcard Wednesday