In May, 2010, the Los Angeles County Superior Court surprised the school and legal community when issuing a preliminary injunction ordering the Los Angeles Unified School District (“District”) to reinstate permanent, probationary, and long-term substitute teachers at three middle schools to resolve students’ claims that teacher layoffs disproportionately impacted the students’ right to equal educational opportunities. (Reed v. State of California, etc., Los Angeles Unified School District, May 13, 2010). However, the court of appeal recently reversed this judgment. The court of appeal found that the consent decree potentially abrogated rights of United Teachers Los Angeles (“UTLA”) members, and the UTLA is entitled to a decision on the merit of the claims made by the students. (Reed v. United Teachers Los Angeles (--- Cal.Rptr.3d ----, Cal.App. 2 Dist., August 10, 2012).
The Education Code and the collective bargaining agreement between the Los Angeles Unified School District (“District”) and UTLA requires that lay-offs be based on seniority. The District implemented a reduction in force (“RIF”) in the summer of 2009. However, three of the District’s schools employed a high number of new teachers because these schools were located in areas of high poverty and hard to staff. As a result of the RIF, the three schools lost more to teachers, than other District schools.
Students from the three schools (“Students”) sued the District and the State alleging that the RIFs as implemented deny the constitutional right to equal educational opportunities. The trial court found that the high rate of teacher turnover devastated educational opportunity and that the RIFs had an impact on the Students’ rights. The trial court permanently enjoined the District from instituting teacher lay-offs at the three schools.
The parties next negotiated a consent decree that identified targeted schools which would be “negatively or disproportionately affected by teacher turnover,” including the three schools at issues in the lawsuit, and provided that these schools would be skipped in the event of a RIF. Additionally, to minimize the negative consequences at other schools, the District was required to ensure that no other school was impacted greater than the District average. Over UTLA’s objection, the trial court approved the consent decree and did not hear the merits of the case.
The UTLA appealed on the ground that it was entitled to a favorable judgment because the consent decree potentially affects seniority rights. The court of appeal determined that due process for UTLA members require a full hearing on the merits in the trial court.
The court of appeal concluded that the “cases ineluctably establish that neither a consent decree nor a trial court’s approval of a consent decree can abrogate a third party’s rights.” The appellate court noted that a consent decree entered into between one group of employees and their employer cannot settle the conflicting claims of a second group of employees who did not join in the agreement, even if the second group is a party to the litigation. A consent decree cannot dispose of the claims of a third party who did not consent to the voluntary settlement. In other words, “all parties should have the right to either voluntarily compromise a claim or litigate.”
Turning to the RIF issues, the appellate court noted that if an RIF is implemented, statutory law requires that a district terminate permanent teachers “in the inverse order which they were employed.” The collective bargaining agreement provides the same protection for probationary teachers. A trial court may only alter these seniority rights if there is a proper legal basis. The court of appeal held the trial court must determine the merits of the Students’ claims because the members of the UTLA “are prejudiced by the consent decree because it would alter the system for RIFs by requiring the District to skip less senior teachers and layoff more senior teachers.” The court of appeal concluded that trial court had erred when it approved the consent decree and entered judgment against UTLA because it never reached the merit of Students’ claims.
The court of appeal reversed the judgment of the trial court approving the consent decree. The court of appeal remanded the matter for the trial court to proceed on the merits of Students’ claims.
What This Means To You
Over the past several years, numerous bills have been introduced attempting to “reform” the teacher layoff process in California. However, no such legislation has been signed into law. This ongoing Los Angeles litigation and settlement attempts will nonetheless continue. In the meantime, certificated layoffs should be business as usual without accommodations for disparate impact on certain schools.
If you have any questions concerning the content of this Legal Alert, please contact the following from our office, or the attorney with whom you normally consult.
Christian M. Keiner or Meghan Covert Russell | 916.321.4500