In a recently decided case, Pennsylvania’s top court had the opportunity to make several rulings in the area of law regarding the employment of school Superintendents.
The rulings involved the broad concept of constructive discharge, while the narrower ruling examined the definition of a resignation, the applicability of the statutory procedure for removal once the court has determined a resignation has been tendered and the entitlement of mandamus relief where the School Board decides to follow the contractual procedure negotiated between the parties.
In Kegerise v. DeGrade, the former Superintendent brought a mandamus action seeking reinstatement with back pay following her alleged constructive discharge. Kegerise, the Superintendent, filed the complaint in federal court following her notification to the school board that she would be taking an extended, indefinite medical leave.
Kegerise’s basis for the discharge was that previous hostile actions by the Board had made it impossible for her to do her job. Upon receiving the letter and later the same day, the Board passed a motion to accept her resignation on the grounds that Kegerise’s resignation was implicit in the assertion and filing of her “constructive discharge” claim.
Upon being notified of the acceptance of her resignation, Kegerise filed an amended complaint seeking her reinstatement. Of note, was the fact that the parties had negotiated the terms of Kegerise’s employment contract, required of Pennsylvania School Superintendents, to grant her the ability to resign if the Board breached the contract.
In reversing the holdings of both lower courts, the Supreme Court first tackled the broader issue reaffirming the long held requirement that a resignation was, indeed, necessary for a plaintiff to assert an actionable constructive discharge claim.
The court then turned to the narrower issue of whether a contractual modification of the School Code regarding termination applied where a “resignation” was found to have occurred. In response to this legal question, the Court explained that the statutory procedure for removal did not apply where a superintendent had resigned, particularly, where Kegerise had negotiated to her benefit, the right to resign without notice and had acted in a manner consistent with a resignation.
Lastly, the Court determined that Kegerise was not entitled to mandamus relief because her actions failed to demonstrate that she had been removed for cause rather than having resigned. The Court found the fact that though Kegerise had never formally tendered a resignation, her forwarding of a demand for damages for her lost wages before the Board had even voted indicated that Kegerise considered herself to have resigned.
The court reasoned to hold otherwise would allow a claimant to negotiate away statutory requirements, act consistent with the newly negotiated terms and then insist upon the application of the termination statute in any event.
The Court held that such a reading would be absurd, especially since the termination statute never “speaks of resignations” or requires the removal procedure be applied when the Board accepts the resignation. In short, the Court prevented the plaintiff from having her cake and eating it, too.
Bottom Line for Schools
The take away from this case is that when negotiating employment contracts, School Boards, as well as Superintendents, should be cognizant that the court will not allow a contract term to force an inconsistent interpretation of the School Code. Words matter. Take caution when drafting resignation agreements and, if any questions arise, contact your legal counsel or one of our education attorneys at KingSpry.
This School Law Bullet is a publication of the KingSpry Education Law Practice Group. John E. Freund is our editor. It is meant to be informational and does not constitute legal advice.