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State ex rel Couch v. Trimble Local School District Board of Education

October 2, 2008

THE STATE EX REL. COUCH
v.
TRIMBLE LOCAL SCHOOL DISTRICT BOARD OF EDUCATION ET AL.



SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

Mandamus - Employee who has attained continuing-contract status can be laid off only for reasons set forth in R.C. 3319.081 - Public employee wrongfully excluded from position is entitled to mandamus to obtain reinstatement, back pay, and related benefits - Writ granted.

Per curiam.

Submitted August 26, 2008

IN MANDAMUS.

{¶1} This is an original action for a writ of mandamus to compel a board of education, its members, and the school district superintendent to reinstate a former employee to the nonteaching position of Safe and Drug Free Schools Coordinator and to pay the employee all back pay and benefits owed from the date of layoff to the date of judgment, plus interest. Because neither the board nor the school district planning and supervision commission was authorized to abolish the employee's position and lay her off after the employee had obtained continuing-contract status, we grant the writ.

Employment as the Safe and Drug Free Schools Coordinator

{¶2} Relator, Deborah Couch, is a licensed substitute teacher who has never held a teacher's certificate in Ohio and has never been authorized to teach on a full-time basis. Respondent Trimble Local School District Board of Education employed Couch as the district's Safe and Drug Free Schools Coordinator on a part-time basis from October 1993 until February 2000, when she was hired as the school district's full-time Safe and Drug Free Schools Coordinator. This position was a nonteaching position. When the board hired Couch as a full-time coordinator in February 2000, it did so by resolution without any written contract, and the position was completely funded by grant proceeds.

{¶3} The board approved a two-year contract for Couch in April 2001 to remain as the Safe and Drug Free Schools Coordinator. Neither the board's minutes nor the contract specified that the position was contingent on the continued receipt of grant proceeds. Two years later, the board approved a five-year contract for Couch. The contract was mistakenly titled a "teachers contract"; because Couch did not have a teacher's license, she could not be employed as a teacher. Although the contract did not specify that it was contingent on funding, the board's vote approving the contract was conditioned on the "pending availability of continued funding."

Financial Planning and Supervision Commission

{¶4} In January 2001, the state auditor declared the school district to be in a state of fiscal emergency, pursuant to R.C. 3316.03(B)(2). As a result of the emergency declaration, a financial planning and supervision commission was created for the school district to direct its return to financial stability. See R.C. 3316.05(A). The commission approved a financial recovery plan for the school district and later approved an addendum to the plan. Neither the plan nor its addendum specified the abolition of Couch's position.

{¶5} In March 2005, the board adopted a five-year fiscal forecast through June 30, 2009, that indicated the abolishment of several positions, including the coordinator position held by Couch. On April 13, 2005, the board abolished the coordinator position "beginning with the 2005-2006 school year due to declining enrollment." Grant funding for the position was not available for that school year, and the school district had lost a significant amount of revenue as a result of enrollment decreases.

{¶6} The state auditor then certified that the school district no longer met the fiscal-emergency conditions and that the financial planning and supervision commission for the school district was terminated as of June 9, 2005, pursuant to R.C. 3316.16. The state auditor relied on the district's forecast to determine that a fiscal emergency no longer existed.

{¶7} Even though its role in the operation of the school district had been terminated, the commission met on June 16, 2005, and purported to adopt the board's reductions in force, which included abolishing the coordinator position, for incorporation into the recovery plan and forecast. The board then suspended Couch's contract as coordinator effective August 22, 2005.

Grievance and Arbitration

{¶8} Although Couch was not a licensed or certificated full-time teacher, she paid membership dues to the Trimble Local Teachers Association that were deducted from her paychecks from March 2000 to August 2004. The association filed a grievance concerning the school district's decision to abolish Couch's position as well as the positions of three other employees. The arbitrator determined that the association lacked standing to pursue the grievance on Couch's behalf because the coordinator position was not within the bargaining unit specified in the collective bargaining agreement.

Mandamus Case

{¶9} In August 2007, Couch demanded that the school district reinstate her to the position of Safe and Drug Free Schools Coordinator and pay her applicable back wages and benefits. The school district refused to do so.

{¶10} Several months later, Couch filed this action for a writ of mandamus to compel respondents, the school board, its members, and the school district superintendent, to reinstate her to the position of Safe and Drug Free Schools Coordinator and to pay all back pay and benefits owed to her from her layoff until the date of judgment, plus interest. Respondents filed an answer. After an unsuccessful mediation, we granted an alternative writ. 117 Ohio St.3d 1474, 2008-Ohio-1841, 884 N.E.2d 1107. The parties have now filed evidence and briefs.

{¶11} This cause is now before the court for our consideration of the merits.

Mandamus: Standard of Review

{¶12} To be entitled to the requested writ of mandamus, Couch must establish a clear legal right to be reinstated to the position of Safe and Drug Free Schools Coordinator and to be awarded back pay and benefits, a clear legal duty on the part of respondents to reinstate her with back pay and benefits, and the lack of an adequate remedy in the ordinary course of the law. State ex rel. Asti v. Ohio Dept. of Youth Servs., 107 Ohio St.3d 262, 2005-Ohio-6432, 838 N.E.2d 658, ¶ 17; State ...


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