Teachers’ Union Could Not Arbitrate the Termination of a Teacher with Fewer Than 90 Days in School District

The Massachusetts Appeals Court held yesterday that a public teachers’ union could not arbitrate on behalf of a former teacher who had worked for fewer than 90 days in the school district. Under the state statute governing teacher dismissals, G.L. c. 71, § 42, the former teacher was an employee at will and, as such, had no statutory due process rights controlling his termination from employment. The case is Spencer-East Brookfield Reg’l High Sch. Dist. V. Spencer-East Brookfield Teachers’ Ass’n, 17-P-103 (June 4, 2018).

In 2016, the Spencer-East Brookfield Regional School District (the “District”) terminated a teacher after only 44 days of employment. Four days after the teacher’s termination, the Spencer-East Brookfield Teachers’ Association (the “Association”) filed a grievance asserting that, prior to the teacher’s termination, the District had failed to provide him with proper mentoring and evaluation, as required by the parties’ collective bargaining agreement. To remedy the purported violation, the Association sought to have the teacher reinstated.

The court premised its decision with a summary of G.L. c. 71, § 42, which lays out three levels of procedural and substantive due process requirements and protections for teachers. The remedies in § 42 are “the exclusive remedies available to teachers for wrongful termination,” irrespective of the provisions of any applicable collective bargaining agreement. The court reviewed the three categories of requirements.

First, under § 42, teachers with professional teacher status (“PTS”) are afforded the greatest degree of due process rights and protections. PTS teachers may not be terminated except for “inefficiency, incompetency, incapacity, conduct unbecoming a teacher, insubordination or failure on the part of the teacher to satisfy teacher performance standards . . . or other just cause.” PTS teachers have the right to receive written notice of the intent to terminate employment with an explanation and documentation of the reasons sufficient to allow the teacher respond. PTS teachers also have the right to seek review of a termination at an arbitral hearing, where the school district carries the burden of proof.

Second, a lesser degree of due process protection is afforded to non-PTS teachers who have been teaching in a school district for at least 90 calendar days. Such teachers are entitled, prior to termination, to receive written notice of the district’s intent to dismiss them from employment and an explanation of the grounds for the dismissal in sufficient detail to permit the teacher to respond. Such teachers also have the right to review the decision to terminate with the principal or superintendent and to present information pertaining to the basis of the decision and to the teacher’s status. The teacher may have an attorney or other representative at the meeting.

Third, non-PTS teachers who have taught for fewer than 90 calendar days are deemed employees at will and have no statutory protections under § 42. Employment at will is terminable by either the employee or the employer without notice, for almost any reason or for no reason at all.

Here, the Association argued that, despite the teacher’s at-will employment status, it could still arbitrate purported violations of the collective bargaining agreement that preceded his termination. The court disagreed, noting that the 1993 Education Reform Act subjects all collective bargaining agreements to § 42. Moreover, the teacher had been terminated from employment before the Association filed its grievance, meaning that the teacher was no longer entitled to any benefits the collective bargaining agreement might have conferred upon him. Therefore, the Appeals Court affirmed the Superior Court’s judgment permanently staying the grievance arbitration proceeding commenced by the Association before the Department of Labor Relations.

The court did not address the question of whether, had the grievance been filed before the teacher’s termination, the purported contractual violations would have been arbitrable.

If you have questions about this decision, or about school law generally, please contact any of our attorneys.

This update is provided for informational purposes only and should not be considered legal advice.