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Humphries v. Lorain City School District

Court of Appeals of Ohio, Ninth District, Lorain

November 6, 2017

ALICESON B. HUMPHRIES Appellant
v.
LORAIN CITY SCHOOL DISTRICT, et al. Appellees

         APPEAL FROM JUDGMENT ENTERED IN THE COURT OF COMMON PLEAS COUNTY OF LORAIN, OHIO CASE No. 16CV188922

          ANTHONY GIARDINI, Attorney at Law, for Appellant.

          SUSAN HASTINGS and EMILY GRANNIS, Attorneys at Law, for Appellee.

          DECISION AND JOURNAL ENTRY

          JULIE A. SCHAFER J.

         {¶1} Plaintiff-Appellant, Aliceson B. Humphries, appeals the judgment of the Lorain County Court of Common Pleas affirming the decision of Defendant-Appellee, the Lorain City School District Board of Education ("Board"), terminating Ms. Humphries' employment with the Board. We reverse and remand to the lower court for further consideration consistent with this opinion.

         I.

         {¶2} Ms. Humphries was employed by the Board in various positions from approximately 1996 until her termination in 2016. At the time of her termination Ms. Humphries served as the Director of Lorain Digital Academy, pursuant to a two-year administrative limited contract, and also held a continuing teaching contract. The Board's decision to terminate Ms. Humphries stems from her conduct at a Lorain City School District track meet and senior athlete recognition ceremony, which took place on school property at George Daniel Field on May 6, 2015.

         {¶3} Ms. Humphries attended the May 6, 2015 track event along with her sister, Natalie. Natalie's daughter, Ms. Humphries' niece, was a Lorain City School District student being recognized as a senior track athlete. At the track event the niece refused to participate in the recognition ceremony. This angered her mother, Natalie, and the two began to argue. Ms. Humphries intervened in this argument, which ultimately turned physical as a "brawl" ensued, involving Ms. Humphries, Natalie, and the niece. Security officers eventually escorted the niece to the parking lot. While she was being escorted, Ms. Humphries went up and "struck" or "bopped" her niece on the head.

         {¶4} Ms. Humphries was placed on paid administrative leave, but directed to stay off school property as of May 7, 2015 pending the Board's investigation of her conduct during the track incident. Upon the conclusion of the investigation, the Board issued notice to Ms. Humphries of a hearing to address the Board's anticipated recommendation to initiate termination proceedings against Ms. Humphries. After that hearing, which took place on July 22, 2015, the Board approved a resolution to initiate termination proceedings. In addition to finding that she engaged in inappropriate verbal and physical aggression toward a student-her niece-during the track incident, the Board also considered Ms. Humphries' conduct concerning an unrelated incident in June 29, 2009, wherein Ms. Humphries was disciplined for her use of profanities and physical confrontation with a student.

         {¶5} On August 19, 2015, the Board issued a notice of intention to consider termination based on its August 17, 2015 resolution, and suspended Ms. Humphries' contract without pay or benefits. Ms. Humphries made a timely demand for a hearing to be conducted before a referee. The hearing commenced on November 16, 2015, concluded with the parties' submission of post-hearing briefs in January, and the referee thereafter issued a report and recommendation on January 22, 2016. The referee's report summarized the proceedings and the testimony spanning the four-day long hearing, and issued findings of fact. Based on these findings of fact, the referee's conclusion of law stated:

[Ms. Humphries]'s actions in physically involving herself in attempting to get her niece to participate in the recognition ceremony, in involving herself physically in the ensuing brawl at the gate rather than involve security and in "bopping" her niece while the niece was being escorted by the security officer, constitute "just cause" under the statute for discipline.

         However, the referee made a recommendation that, while "[discipline is warranted, " "termination of this high performing administrator is excessive."

         {¶6} The Board considered the referee's report and, by a four-to-one vote, issued a resolution on February 4, 2016 that rejected the referee's recommendation. The Board found that it was "both against the greater weight of the evidence presented and incorrectly concludes that although Ms. Humphries' conduct 'constitutes "just cause" under the statute for discipline, ' 'termination * * * is excessive.'" The Board's resolution also terminated Ms. Humphries' employment contracts effective February 5, 2016. The resolution detailed the Board's consideration of the referee's report and articulated the various reasons for rejecting the referee's recommendation on termination. Essential to its rejection of the recommendation was the Board's conclusion that the referee's findings of fact omitted or ignored a number of "material and undisputed facts concerning Ms. Humphries' misconduct, " and the Board's rejection of many of the referee's findings of facts as being against the greater weight of the evidence.

         {¶7} Ms. Humphries appealed the Board's determination to the court of common pleas. The lower court determined "[i]n this matter, the Board did not reject the factual findings of the referee." In affirming the Board's decision, the court found that the Board can and did reject the referee's recommendation, and that such rejection was not contrary to law. Ms. Humphries now ...


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