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Legal Update: CA Court of Appeals Upholds Board Decision to Terminate Regardless of Technical Error

Garcia, Hernández, Sawhney & Bermudez, LLP recently prevailed on behalf of the firm’s client, the Hueneme Elementary School District, in a published case before the California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, Division 6 — DeYoung v. Commission on Professional Competence (7/30/14) 2d Civil No. B248502. In DeYoung, the California Court of Appeal confronted the issue of whether to uphold the termination of Vincent DeYoung, a tenured teacher at the Hueneme Elementary School District for physically and abusively disciplining his elementary school students.

At issue was the District’s Commission on Professional Competence (“Commission”) and Ventura Superior Court decisions upholding DeYoung’s termination. DeYoung contended that the termination should be overturned because the District’s Governing Board based its decision to dismiss him on oral charges presented to it during closed session. DeYoung maintained that Education Code § 44934 required the governing board to review written charges prepared by the district or formulated by the board itself and its decision to terminate his employment should therefore be overturned.

The Court of Appeal, however, rejected DeYoung’s argument because the Board’s decision to initiate termination proceedings based on oral charges was a non-substantive procedural error under Education Code § 44944(c)(2). Expressed differently, DeYoung failed to demonstrate that he was prejudiced by the fact that the Board did not review written charges when it authorized his dismissal.

The facts of DeYoung established, among other things, that on March 25 2010, DeYoung became angry and frustrated with his elementary school students who were talking and laughing during a classroom movie. As a result, DeYoung told them to “shut up,” called them “stupid,” struck a student in the foot with a chair, hit three students on the top of the head with a yardstick or metal desk leg, and threw a pencil or pen at three students. DeYoung’s conduct caused some of his students physical pain and he frightened them.

During a closed session meeting in October 2010, the Board voted to dismiss Mr. DeYoung based on the assistant superintendent’s oral presentation of the charges. The District then sent DeYoung a letter advising him of the Board’s decision and outlining the charges against him. In December 2010, the District served Mr. DeYoung with a written accusation communicating the grounds for DeYoung’s dismissal.

DeYoung requested a hearing before the Commission. He claimed that the proceedings against him should be dismissed, arguing that the governing board violated Education Code section 44934 by basing its decision to dismiss him on oral charges instead of written charges. The Commission upheld the District’s decision to terminate DeYoung for evident unfitness for service. DeYoung subsequently brought an action in the Superior Court of Ventura County. The Superior Court rejected DeYoung’s contention that his dismissal should be overturned as a result of the board’s consideration of oral charges. The Superior Court concluded that although the failure to prepare written charges was an error, it was non-substantive and non-prejudicial and, therefore, did not constitute grounds to overturn the Commission’s decision upholding DeYoung’s termination.

DeYoung appealed the Superior Court decision to the California Court of Appeal. The Court of Appeal affirmed that Education Code § 44934 requires a school district governing board to review written charges or to formulate written charges before approving the recommendation to dismiss a teacher. However, that the Board based its decision to dismiss DeYoung solely on oral charges presented by the assistant superintendent did not merit overturning DeYoung’s dismissal.

The Court of Appeal reasoned that Education Code § 44944(c) (2) prevents a commission from professional competence overturning a disciplinary action on the basis of a non-substantive or non-substantive error. Read in conjunction with Education Code § 44934, the Court of Appeal reasoned that DeYoung would have been within his rights to have his dismissal overturned only if he could show a substantive or prejudicial error that resulted from the Board’s action. DeYoung could not demonstrate prejudice because he was ultimately provided written charges , participated in the discovery process, and was given several opportunities to explain his version of events, culminating in a full blown evidentiary hearing during which he was represented by counsel.

The Court of Appeal also concluded that the fact that Education Code § 44934 did not specify a remedy for not complying with the requirement that a school district governing board review written charges or formulate written charges before dismissing a teacher renders the requirement directory (permissive) rather than mandatory. As a result, not strictly complying with the statute did not merit reversing the decision to dismiss DeYoung.

The DeYoung case involved the application and intersection of various technical legal arguments and principles. The firm is elated that substance prevailed over form so as to uphold a termination that was supported by undisputed facts of physical abuse of elementary school students while, at the same time, ensuring that the teacher was provided the fullest opportunities consistent with due process to put on his defense.

Chaka Okadigbo of GHSB’s Glendale office handled the case at the writ stage before the Superior Court and at the appellate stage before the California Court of Appeal. Nitasha K. Sawhney, Esq. prosecuted the case before the Commission on Professional Competence. Should you have any questions regarding this matter or about the disciplinary process, please do not hesitate to call Mr. Okadigbo at (213) 347-0210 or Ms. Sawhney at (510) 695-2802