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Langdon v. Ohio Department of Education

Court of Appeals of Ohio, Twelfth District, Butler

October 30, 2017

MICHELLE L. LANGDON, Appellee,
v.
OHIO DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION, Appellant.

         CIVIL APPEAL FROM BUTLER COUNTY COURT OF COMMON PLEAS Case No. CV2016-04-0819

          Finney Law Firm, LLC, Christopher P. Finney, Brian C. Shrive, for appellee

          Michael DeWine, Ohio Attorney General, Hannah Stoneburner and Anna M. Seidensticker, Education Section, for appellant

          OPINION

          PIPER, J.

         {¶ 1} Appellant, the Ohio Department of Education, appeals a decision of the Butler County Court of Common Pleas, reversing the Department of Education's decision to deny appellee, Michelle Langdon, her teaching license while permitting reapplication in 2018 after evaluation and training.

         A. Relevant Facts

         {¶ 2} Langdon worked as a licensed professional intervention specialist with the Lakota School District as a teacher of disabled high school students. In 2013, Langdon was placed on paid administrative leave while the school investigated "professional conduct concerns." She was provided a letter by the school informing her that she could be represented at a fact-finding conference to address these concerns. Prior to any formal decision or action by the school following the fact-finding conference, Langdon irrevocably resigned her position for "personal reasons." Langdon then allowed her license to lapse.

         {¶ 3} Langdon applied to renew her license in 2014 and the Department of Education, through the Ohio Board of Education ("the Board"), charged Langdon with eight instances of conduct unbecoming a teacher. The Board stated its intent to consider whether to limit, suspend, revoke, or permanently revoke or deny her pending application. The Department of Education sent Langdon a letter with the eight charges, asserting that Langdon (1) made unprofessional and inappropriate comments about students, staff, and parents, (2) made unprofessional posts on social media pertaining to her workplace, (3) revealed details of a student's Individualized Education Program ("IEP") to other parents and students, (4) made inappropriate physical contact with students, (5) used marijuana and asked for marijuana to be delivered on school property, (6) created a hostile learning and working environment for students, staff, and parents, (7) failed to follow IEP instructions for students, and (8) referred to a private nurse working with a student within the school as a "big, gross, disgusting wildebeest."

         {¶ 4} The Department of Education also notified Langdon that she was entitled to a hearing if she requested one within 30 days. Langdon timely requested a hearing through retained counsel. At the conclusion of a seven-day hearing, both parties submitted written closing arguments with Langdon alleging she was denied due process.

         {¶ 5} The hearing officer issued findings of facts and conclusions of law, which were lengthy and detailed. Specifically addressed was Langdon's claim that she was denied due process, and the hearing officer made an express finding that the Department of Education's notice provided due process and that Langdon "fully participated in the prehearing process" during which time Langdon was permitted to address comments, questions, or concerns. Also during this time, the parties exchanged discovery, including witness lists and exhibits. At the hearing itself, Langdon presented 11 witnesses and 27 exhibits during the seven-day hearing.

         {¶ 6} The hearing officer found that Langdon had engaged in conduct unbecoming a teacher in violation of R.C. 3319.31(B)(1) on five of the six grounds pursued by the Department of Education, and recommended that her then-expired license be revoked, her pending application for licensure be denied, and she not be permitted to reapply for a license for at least five years.

         {¶ 7} Langdon filed objections to the hearing officer's recommendations with the Board. The Board adopted all of the hearing officer's findings and conclusions, but reduced the sanctions such that Langdon would be permitted to reapply for licensure on or after July 1, 2018 provided that prior to reapplication, Langdon complete a fitness to teach evaluation and complete eight hours of anger management training.

         {¶ 8} Langdon then appealed the Board's decision to the Butler County Court of Common Pleas, arguing she was prejudiced by a lack of due process and that the Board's findings and conclusions were not supported by reliable, probative, and substantial evidence. The common pleas court agreed and reversed the Board's decision. The Department of Education now appeals the common pleas court's decision raising the following assignments of error. Given that many of the arguments are interrelated, we will address several assignments of error together.

         B. Due Process

         {¶ 9} Assignment of Error No. 1:

         {¶ 10} THE COMMON PLEAS COURT ERRED WHEN IT FOUND THAT THE APPELLEE WAS NOT AFFORDED DUE PROCESS UNDER THE LAW.

         {¶ 11} Assignment of Error No. 2:

         {¶ 12} THE COMMON PLEAS COURT ERRED WHEN IT APPLIED THE WRONG LEGAL REQUIREMENTS FOR SUFFICIENT PREHEARING NOTICE OF THE ALLEGATIONS UNDER R.C. 119.

         {¶ 13} Assignment of Error No. 3:

         {¶ 14} THE COMMON PLEAS COURT ERRED BY RULING THAT THE BOARD WAS REQUIRED BUT FAILED TO PROVIDE NOTICE OF THE SPECIFIC INDIVIDUALS ASSERTING ALLEGATIONS AGAINST LANGDON IN COUNTS 1, 3, AND 6.

         {¶ 15} Assignment of Error No. 4:

         {¶ 16} THE COMMON PLEAS COURT ERRED WHEN IT RULED THAT 'CONDUCT UNBECOMING' IN R.C. 3319.31(B)(1) IS NOT CLEARLY DEFINED SO AS TO AFFORD DUE PROCESS OF LAW.

         {¶ 17} The Department of Education's first four assignments of error argue that the common pleas court erred in determining that Langdon was not afforded due process.

         {¶ 18} "The Fourteenth Amendment provides that no State shall deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57, 65, 120 S.Ct. 2054 (2000). Ohio also guarantees this right within its Due Process and Remedies Clauses, Section 16, Article I of the Ohio Constitution. The essential components of due process are notice, hearing, and the opportunity to be heard before a competent tribunal. Denier v. Carnes-Denier, 12th Dist. Warren Nos. CA2016-02-012 and CA2016-04-022, 2017- Ohio-334. Opportunity must be afforded the parties in appropriate cases to defend, enforce or protect their rights through presentation of their own evidence, confrontation and cross-examination of adverse witnesses, and oral argument. Id.

         {¶ 19} Procedural due process is a fluid concept; that is "the concept of due process is flexible and varies depending on the importance attached to the interest and the particular circumstances under which the depravation may occur." Ohio v. Hochhausler, 76 Ohio St.3d 455, 459 (1996). Constitutional due process requires that one be advised of the charges and have a reasonable opportunity to meet them by way of a defense or explanation. First Bank v. Mascrete, 125 Ohio App.3d 257 (4th Dist.1998).

         {¶ 20} In order to comply with due process requirements, notice must be given sufficiently in advance of scheduled court proceedings so that reasonable opportunity to prepare will be afforded, and it must "set forth the alleged misconduct with particularity." State ex rel. Johnson v. Perry Cty. Court, 25 Ohio St.3d 53, 58 (1986). Consequently, procedural due process requires administrative agencies to give fair notice of the precise nature of the charges at issue in the disciplinary action. Edmands v. State Med. Bd. of Ohio, 10th Dist. Franklin No. 14AP-778, 2015-Ohio-2658.

         {¶ 21} Ohio courts have utilized the test articulated by the United States Supreme Court to analyze whether due process is satisfied in an administrative context. Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319, 96 S.Ct. 893 (1976). According to Mathews, a court must weigh the following three factors to determine whether the process given in the administrative proceeding is satisfactory: (1) the private interest at stake, (2) the risk of an erroneous deprivation of that interest and the probable value of additional procedural safeguards, and (3) the government's interest, including the function involved and the fiscal and administrative burdens that the additional or substitute procedural requirements would entail. Id. at 335.

         {¶ 22} While an appellate court's review of a common pleas court's decision regarding agency decisions usually includes an abuse of discretion standard, issues relating to constitutionality and procedural due process arising from an agency's action are subject to a less deferential standard of review, as they are questions of law and thus are subject to a de novo standard of review by an appellate court. Krusling v. Ohio Bd. of Pharm., 12th Dist. Clermont No. CA2012-03-023, 2012-Ohio-5356, ¶ 9.

         {¶ 23} According to R.C. 119.07, Langdon was entitled to notice that included "the charges or other reasons for the proposed action, the law or rule directly involved, and a statement informing the party that the party is entitled to a hearing* * *and that at the hearing the party may present evidence and exam ine witnesses appearing for and against the party."

         C. Specific Charges

         {¶ 24} The record indicates that Langdon was afforded due process regarding her licensure request and the Board's ultimate denial of such. The notice included the eight specific charges that the Department of Education levied against Langdon with specific details that would allow her to understand and defend against the charges. The notice also informed Langdon of her right to a hearing as required by R.C. 119.07.

         {¶ 25} Specifically, the eight charges were stated in the notice as follows:

1. During the 2012/2013 school year, while employed at the Lakota Local School District, you made unprofessional, inappropriate and critical comments during school hours about students, staff, and parents, including but not limited to: Students 1, 2 and 3; staff members Michelle Hammond, Kim Crawford and Mike Nicholas; and parents of students 1 and 2. You made these comments to school staff members and students.
2. From 2007 through 2013, while employed at the Lakota Local School District, you exhibited a pattern of writing unprofessional posts about your workplace on your personal social media account.
3. During a school fire drill on or about October 2013, you exited the building with Student 4, displaying a copy of her IEP and complaining loudly about certain details contained in it. Your comments, which were overheard by Student 4, other students, school staff and parents, were demeaning to Student 4 and constitute an inappropriate breach of confidentiality.
4. During your employment at the Lakota Local School District, from 2008 through the 2013 school year, you were inappropriately physical with students. You frightened and upset Student 1 when you grabbed and tore his hand away from student aide, Melissa Meyer. You grabbed Student 5's wrist very hard and yanked/jerked her hand causing pain. You grabbed student 6's wrist/hand very hard and jerked her over to a chair. Once at the chair, you put your hands on Student 6's shoulders and pushed her down hard into the chair.
5. From 2007 through 2010, while employed at the Lakota Local School District, you used an illegal substance, namely marijuana, on more than one occasion. You asked a coworker to provide you the marijuana, including one occasion when you instructed the coworker to bring the marijuana to school and put it in your car, which was parked on school property.
6. During your employment at the Lakota Local School District, you exhibited a pattern of inappropriate conduct that created a negative and hostile learning and work environment at the school for both students and staff. In particular, you yelled at students 1 through 6 and berated, bullied, and made fun of students 1 through 6, staff members, and the parents of Students 1 and 2.
7. From August 2013 through September 2013, while employed at the Lakota Local School District, you did not follow the IEP for Student 2. Although Student 2's IEP indicated that he was not to be kept in his wheelchair for long periods of time, you kept him in his wheelchair for most of the class period and did not allow him out of his wheelchair on a regular basis.
8. During the 2012 and 2013 school year, you referred to a private nurse within the school, Ms. Crawford, as a big, gross, disgusting wildebeest.

         {¶ 26} The Superintendent of Public Instruction included a student key with the notice so that Langdon could identify by name the six students listed in the counts above. The record indicates that Langdon received the notice by certified mail, and thus had specific details as to which students were addressed in the charges.

         {¶ 27} The record demonstrates that fair notice of the precise charges at issue were given within the notice received by Langdon.[1] Langdon argued, and the common pleas court agreed, that some of the dates given in the notice were not correct, and that such resulted in a lack of precise nature of the charges. However, the record is clear that the notice identified each student by name once connected to his or her designated number in the provided key. Each staff member or co-worker against whom Langdon made inappropriate comments was also named in the charges. Therefore, details exist within each count, regardless of date, that allowed Langdon to determine what specific instance was being addressed and what details created the basis for alleging conduct unbecoming a teacher. Given that Langdon herself knew when she was employed with the school, she knew when opportunity for contact with each of the named six students occurred.[2]

         {¶ 28} The due process standard does not require that the allegations pinpoint the exact date and time when an alleged incident was to have occurred. It is well-settled in constitutional law jurisprudence that due process requirements require only fair notice; not perfect notice. There is no indication in the record that Langdon was not able to respond to the charges based on the dates included in the notice, or that she was unaware of the charges because more specific dates were not included. In fact, Langdon mounted a fervent and focused defense to the Department of Education's allegations, which centered on denials, counter-witnesses, and explanations rather than a defense dependent upon a particular date.

         {¶ 29} As will be discussed later, Langdon successfully defended the Department of Education's allegations in several respects, as the hearing officer determined that one charge was unsubstantiated, and several components within other charges were not proven. Although some of the specific dates were not listed in the notice, such did not turn the otherwise fair notice into one that failed to provide due process. The record demonstrates Langdon knew the nature of the charges against her and she was able to reasonably respond to the charges in her defense.

         {¶ 30} The record further demonstrates that Langdon was well-aware of the precise instances of alleged conduct unbecoming a teacher, as she presented evidence or testimony specific to the instances, cross-examined the Department of Education's witnesses, and also made detailed arguments as to why each charge was not an instance of conduct unbecoming. There is no indication in the record that the notice letter Langdon received failed to give a fair notice of the charges against her.

         {¶ 31} For example, as revealed in the transcript, Langdon's attorney questioned Langdon on the substance of the charges sequentially. Langdon's counsel would make reference to the charge and then ask pointed and specific questions. The hearing officer remarked upon the organized flow of the testimony as being in order with the charges. If Langdon was unware of the ...


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