Pennsylvania court dismisses school administrator’s suit for improper demotion for failure to exhaust administrative remedies
According to The Morning Call, Lehigh County Judge J. Brian Johnson has dismissed former Allentown School District (ASD) administrator Jim Dotterer’s suit challenging his demotion from assistant principal to a teaching position. Judge Johnson ruled that the proper place to challenge the demotion was before the School Board, not the court.
Dotterer’s demotion resulted in a loss of 20% of his $100,500 annual salary and some of his retirement benefits. His suit sought a temporary restraining order to keep his demotion from becoming final, and a court order requiring the school district to pay back wages and restore his retirement benefits.
The judge ruled that the county court has no authority to decide the case. He rejected Dotterer’s claim that the suit was his only option because the school district dragged its feet. Johnson said the fact that Dotterer retired from the school district before the school board could vote on his demotion does not take the issue out of the Board’s jurisdiction. “If this court were to allow this case to continue … it would establish a precedent that any school district employee in Pennsylvania who is demoted after the age of 55 may immediately retire and circumvent the state School Code,” the judge said.
Dotterer had been an Allen High School assistant principal since 2003 under Principal Keith Falko. In October 2010, Falko was transferred to the central office, and former Central Elementary Principal Michael Rodriguez took Falko’s place at Allen HS. Rodriguez gave Dotterer a poor evaluation in June 2011, while Dotterer was on medical leave for shoulder surgery, court records show, and ASD Superintendent Russ Mayo demoted him on July 1, 2011.
Dotterer requested a hearing, but the hearing was delayed as district officials and Dotterer’s attorney attempted to negotiate a settlement. In the meantime, Dotterer was receiving a teacher’s salary and remained on medical leave following a second surgery. He requested a second demotion hearing in July 2012, and the hearing was set for September 2012. But before the hearing happened, Dotterer retired and withdrew his request for the hearing.
Nonetheless, the School Board in September 2012 officially approved his demotion to teacher and accepted his resignation. Dotterer argued there was no reason for the School Board to hold the demotion hearing.
Judge Johnson said the delay in resolving Dotterer’s case through the proper channels is inexplicable, but at the same time irrelevant. Under state law, school administrators can appeal school district employment decisions to the School Board and then the state secretary of education and the commonwealth court.
Johnson, therefore, concluded: “There is nothing in the evidence or the case law that requires a hearing to be held within a certain amount of time or indicates that, if scheduling of the hearing takes too long, the plaintiff is entitled to circumvent the entire statutory process and file an action with the Court of Common Pleas.” Mayo and ASD Solicitor John Freund said they are satisfied with the decision.
Source: The Morning Call, 3/11/13, By Peter Hall
[Editor's Note: In April 2011, Legal Clips summarized an article in the Oklahoman, which reported that Governor Mary Fallin had signed into law a bill that allowed school boards to dismiss under-performing career teachers without going through a legal appeals process. Then-House Bill 1380 removed the “trial de novo,” or fresh-new trial, portion of due process laws for public school teachers. Under that law, a superintendent could recommend the firing of a career teacher to the local school board.]