Merit Decision. No Public Hearing for Terminated Nontenured, Nonteaching Public Employee. Stewart v. Lockland School Dist. Bd. of Edn.

On September 24, 2015, the Supreme Court of Ohio handed down a merit decision in Stewart v. Lockland School Dist. Bd. of Edn.,  2015-Ohio-3839.  In a 6-1 opinion written by Justice Pfeifer, the court held Ohio’s Open Meetings Act does not require a public pretermination hearing for a nontenured, nonteaching public employee. Justice O’Donnell dissented, and would dismiss the case as improvidently allowed. The case was argued March 10, 2015.

Case Background

The Lockland School Board learned that district employees had reported false student attendance data to improve the district’s state report card for the 2010-2011 school year. Adam Stewart, the district’s data co-ordinator, was implicated in the investigation. Stewart was a nontenured, nonteaching employee.

After the investigation, the Board held a meeting in which it adjourned into executive session to determine Stewart’s fate. Stewart’s attorney was present for that executive session. After that meeting Stewart was notified that the Board would consider his employment status at a special upcoming meeting held pursuant to R.C. 3319.081, which governs nonteaching employment contracts.

At the special meeting, the Board announced its intention to adjourn again into executive session. Stewart objected, through counsel, demanding the right to have this hearing conducted in open session. The Board rejected this objection, went into executive session, and then reconvened into open session where Stewart and his lawyer made a public presentation against Stewart’s termination. Following the presentation, the Board again went into executive session, then returned to open session where it publicly voted to terminate Stewart’s contract.

Procedural Posture

Stewart appealed his termination to the Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas, alleging a violation of the Open Meetings Act under R.C. 121.22(G)(1). The trial court granted the Board’s motion for summary judgment. The First District Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed.

Read the oral argument preview in the case here and the analysis of the argument here.

Key Statutes and Precedent

R.C. 121.22 (Open Meetings Act.)(Requires public officials to take official action to conduct all deliberations upon official business only in open meetings. )

R.C. 121.22(G)(1)(creates a personnel deliberations exception to the open meetings requirement and authorizes a public body to meet in executive session to consider matters relating to the employment of a public employee, unless the public employee requests a public hearing, in which case, an open session must be held.)

R.C. 3319.081(C) (Governs employment of nontenured, nonteaching school employees. Contracts for nonteaching employees may be terminated by a majority vote of the board of education. The contracts may be terminated only for violation of written rules and regulations as set forth by the board of education or for incompetency, inefficiency, dishonesty, drunkenness, immoral conduct, insubordination, discourteous treatment of the public, neglect of duty, or any other acts of misfeasance, malfeasance, or nonfeasance.)

R.C. 3319.16 (provides tenured school teachers with the statutory right to demand a public hearing prior to termination.)

Cleveland Bd. Of Education v. Loudermill, 470 U.S. 532 (1985) (An individual who has a property right in his employment is entitled to a pretermination “hearing.” Tenured public employees are entitled to oral or written notice of the charges against them, an explanation of the employer’s evidence, and an opportunity to present their side of the story. The hearing need not be elaborate and need not definitively resolve the propriety of the discharge.)

Matheny v. Frontier Local Bd. Of Education, 62 Ohio St.2d 362 (1980) (R.C. 121.22(G)(1) was intended to bring the Open Meetings Act into conformity with existing statutes that governed teacher employment, not to provide a substantive right to a public hearing where there had been none previously. While R.C. 3319.16 grants tenured teachers a right to a public hearing, no similar right exists for nontenured teachers.)

Merit Decision

There really isn’t a lot to this one. The opinion makes the following points:

  • The Open Meetings Act grants the public broad access to the meetings of public bodies, but R.C. 121.22(G) has a personnel exception, allowing a public body to go into executive session unless the employee requests a public hearing
  • In Matheny the court held that R.C. 121.22(G)(1) was intended to bring the Open Meetings Act into conformity with existing statutes, not to provide a substantive right to a public hearing where none existed before. The school board’s lawyer emphatically made this point at oral argument.
  • Tenured teachers have the right to a public hearing before a contract is terminated. The source of that right is in R.C. 3319.16. But nontenured teachers have no such equivalent right, nor does Stewart as a nontenured, nonteaching employee. In these kinds of cases, a school board may deliberate about such terminations in private.

Court Rejects Stewart’s Argument Under Loudermill

Stewart argued that as a public employee, he had the right to request a public hearing any time a hearing was authorized by law, and Loudermill defines that right. The School Board had to conduct the hearing entirely in public upon his request. The court disagreed with his interpretation, finding that even if Stewart possessed a property right in his employment and was entitled to a Loudermill pretermination hearing, that hearing need not be public, so long as the hearing comported with due process, which Stewart’s did.

“Loudermill does not entitle a public employee to have his or her entire pretermination hearing held in public. Stewart received due process: he had notice of the special meeting regarding his employment status and an opportunity to be heard at that meeting. Nothing prevented Lockland from thereafter adjourning into executive session to deliberate upon its decision…In this case, Stewart may have been otherwise entitled to a hearing, but not a public one,” Pfeifer wrote.

Case Syllabus

None

Concluding Observations

I noted after argument that the justices did not seem to buy Stewart’s argument that his constitutional right to due process was the launch that entitled him to public deliberations in this case. I noted that a majority seemed convinced that private deliberations in executive session were proper here, with an employee other than a tenured teacher. And as expected, the court did clearly state that Matheny only held that R.C. 121.22(G)(1) was intended to bring the Open Meetings Act into conformity with existing statutes, not to provide a substantive right to a public hearing where none existed before.

This was a long shot for Stewart, and the court just wasn’t buying.

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