Federal Court Supports Board’s Administrator RIF

Mason v. Bexley City School District (S.D.Ohio, Mar. 15, 2010), Case No. CIV A 2:07-CV-654, addresses significant legal issues for public schools facing administrative personnel reductions.  Mason, the Board’s former network manager, alleged three broad categories of claims: contract claims; due process/public policy claims; and tort claims.  In sum, the Court ruled in favor of the school district and school officials on all of the claims, providing future guidance on administrative reductions in force (RIFs) under R.C. 3319.171.

Contract Claims.

Mason alleged the Board breached his written contract when it reorganized its technology department, and he was laid off pursuant to a RIF and later non-renewed.  Based on Mason’s job duties, the Court found he was, indeed, an administrator.  The Court concluded the Board was authorized to adopt its administrator RIF policy under R.C. 3319.171 and implement the RIF for non-disciplinary reasons.  The Court also concluded the Board properly non-renewed Mason while he was on layoff, thereby cutting off his recall rights.

Due Process/ Public Policy Claims.

Mason claimed the Board violated Due Process when it terminated his employment.  He also claimed his layoff violated public policy because the Board’s reasons reorganization of positions) exceeded those in R.C. 3319.171.  The Court concluded  Mason was not entitled to Due Process because he had no expectation of employment exceeding the administrator RIF law, and he was not prejudiced by the non-disciplinary reasons for the RIF.  The Court also concluded the Board did not “terminate” his employment or violate public policy, because it was authorized by its policy to lay off Mason for lack of need or work.

Tort Claims.

Mason alleged several tort (i.e., wrongful act) claims.  Mason alleged the defendants defrauded him into believing his employment contract form was a binding agreement.  However, the Court found no one intended to mislead him.  Mason alleged a payroll clerk said he could maintain his ex-wife’s health insurance at Board expense.  However, the Court concluded this statement did not bind the Board.  For similar reasons, the Court concluded the Board properly withheld money from Mason’s final pay to recoup his ex-wife’s premiums.

Mason also alleged the individual defendants defamed him when they called the police and reported a hard drive that was missing the morning after his layoff.  The Court concluded the defendants enjoyed qualified immunity, because they acted in good faith and without malice to protect the Board’s computer systems.  Mason also claimed the defendants intentionally inflicted emotional distress upon him.  However, the Court
found the defendants’ actions were reasonable, and concluded an employer is not liable for an employee’s emotional distress when exercising its legal rights.   

Take Aways.

Given the proliferation of administrator and other employee layoffs caused by the recession, this opinion raises significant issues for boards, including: 

–     Boards should review their administrator RIF policies.  A well-written policy gives the board broad discretion to lay off administrators.  The reasons for a RIF may exceed those in R.C. 3319.171, if they are reasonable.[1]
–     If a board issues contract forms for administrators, the forms should be reviewed periodically.  However, a school district may not be bound by the terms of a form contract that has not been officially adopted by the board.
–     Administrators can make tough personnel decisions and exercise management prerogatives with confidence.  When acting in good faith, they enjoy broad protection under Ohio’s sovereign immunity law.

[1] If a board adopts or modifies an administrator RIF policy, R.C. 3319.171(C) requires the board to develop the policy with input from its administrators.

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: 

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