Court Upholds Termination of Principal While Charged With (not convicted of) Serious Crimes

Buzzell v. Rossford Exempted Village School District Board of Education, Wood County Court of Common Pleas Case No. 12 CV 104 (Oct. 17, 2012), provides guidance for districts that are required to suspend an employee who has been arrested or indicted for a serious criminal offense.  Under R.C. 3319.40, school employees who have been arrested or indicted for certain serious offenses must be suspended from all duties requiring “the care, custody, or control of children.”  However, the statute fails to set forth a board’s options regarding the suspension and/or termination of employees while criminal proceedings – some of which can take years to resolve – are pending.  Buzzell provides helpful guidance because the court upheld the Board’s decision to terminate an employee before the resolution of his criminal case on the grounds that he was incapable of performing his contractual duties due to his suspension and the terms of his criminal bond.

Buzzell, an elementary school principal, was arrested and charged with enumerated offenses under R.C. 3319.40, which required his suspension during the criminal proceedings.  The terms of Buzzell’s criminal bond also prohibited him from entering District property, having any contact with minors, and accessing the Internet.

Shortly after placing Buzzell on administrative leave, the Board notified him that he could: (1) take unpaid leave while the charges were pending; (2) resign; or (3) face termination of his employment.  Buzzell refused to take leave or resign, so the Board adopted a resolution under R.C. 3319.16 and .40 to suspend him without pay and consider termination of his employment, citing the conduct alleged in the indictment and his inability to perform his job duties as grounds for his suspension and termination.

Buzzell requested a hearing to consider whether his inability to perform his job duties constituted good and just cause for termination.  The referee concluded that termination would not be supported by good and just cause without a finding of wrongdoing against Buzzell.[1]  The Board rejected the referee’s recommendation and terminated Buzzell’s contract.  The Board supported its decision by citing Buzzell’s continuing inability to perform his job duties, his acceptance of bond conditions that barred him from the Board’s premises and contact with students, and his filing of multiple continuances that prolonged his criminal case and thus his suspension.

Buzzell appealed to the Wood County Court of Common Pleas.  The court upheld termination because of Buzzell’s inability to perform his job duties due to his bond terms and the restrictions placed on him under R.C. 3319.40.  The court concluded that a pending criminal case should not limit a board’s discretion to pursue suspension and/or termination, stating, “The Board is under no obligation to indefinitely postpone the administrative proceedings until after criminal proceedings were resolved.”  For this reason, the court held that the Board acted within its authority when it suspended Buzzell without pay and terminated his employment while his criminal charges were pending, and his suspension under R.C. 3319.40 served as valid grounds for termination.

Take-Aways. 

This decision offers support for districts that initiate termination of a licensed employee during criminal proceedings that require suspension under R.C. 3319.40.  Boards need not wait indefinitely for the resolution of criminal charges to pursue action.  Instead, this decision establishes that boards may pursue termination when an employee is incapable of performing his required duties, and the restrictions placed on the employee by R.C. 3319.40 alone may establish grounds for termination.

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For more information on this case and
other related legal issues, please attend Julie Martin and Don Scriven’s “Legal
Hot Topics” presentation
on January 16, 2013 (1:15 PM and 3:45 PM) at the 2013 Annual Conference of the Ohio Association of Local School  Superintendents (OALSS) at the  DoubleTree Hotel – Crosswoods in Worthington, Ohio.   

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This Legal Update is intended as general information and should not be relied upon as legal advice. If advice is required, please contact us at (614) 222-8686 or via email: 

Julia A. Bauer                                                  Julia@sswlaw.com
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[1]
Buzzell eventually pled no contest to all charges and was sentenced to four years in prison.