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King-Smith v. Aaron

decided: February 2, 1972.


Van Dusen and Rosen, Circuit Judges, and Becker, District Judge.

Author: Van Dusen


VAN DUSEN, Circuit Judge.

This case involves the alleged right of a blind woman, with exceptional academic credentials,*fn1 to serve as a teacher in the Pittsburgh public school system. In 1968, plaintiff completed a formal application to teach in the Pittsburgh public schools and had several interviews. After passing the required physical examination, she was granted a provisional teacher's certificate by the Department of Public Instruction of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Plaintiff then made a request to take the physical examination required by the Board of Education of the City of Pittsburgh. Although this initial request was refused, plaintiff was permitted to teach on a voluntary basis at a Pittsburgh public high school and was later permitted to take the physical examination. Despite the recommendation of the examining physician that the visual requirement be waived, she was not recommended for employment by the Medical Service Division. Plaintiff was called to act as a substitute teacher on three occasions in 1969, but all requests to be placed on the eligibility list*fn2 were declined. On May 22, 1970, the instant action was filed in the district court based on 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1985, alleging a violation of plaintiff's due process and equal protection rights. After reviewing briefs submitted on defendants' motion to dismiss, the motion was granted by the district court. That court, in its opinion of October 7, 1970, 317 F. Supp. 164, relied on the abstention doctrine in dismissing the action and cited the existence of state law issues which might avoid the Federal Constitutional issues as the predicate for relying on that doctrine. We disagree and remand for a hearing on the merits of plaintiff's complaint.

A federal court should abstain when a decision concerning a question of state law is necessary to a disposition of the case and the answer to the state question involves unclear state law, especially where a matter of paramount interest to the state is involved.*fn3 There is no uncertain state law question in this case.

We do not agree with the district court's determination that a controlling and unclear question of state law was presented due to a conflict in the provisions of 24 P.S. § 12-1209 and 24 P.S. § 21-2102. The theory that the constitutional question could be avoided by a resolution of unclear state law questions is based on the following interpretation of the Pennsylvania School Code:

(1) § 21-2103 grants authority to the Board to set standards for the hiring of teachers.

(2) § 21-2108 extends that authority to disqualifying persons who have physical defects which would prohibit them from successfully performing the duties of a teacher.

(3) However, the authority granted by these sections is expressly made subject to the other provisions of the Act by § 21-2102.

(4) One such provision is contained in § 12-1209, which provides for the certification of teachers having major physical disabilities by the state.

Defendants suggest that since plaintiff, having such a disability, has received a state certification, her disqualification under the physical defects provision of § 21-2108 would controvert the policy expressed in § 12-1209 to hire such teachers and is thus inconsistent with the "provisions of the Act." § 21-2103.

Reading the various provisions of Article XII and Article XXI of the Public School Code of 1949 (Act of March 10, 1949, P.L. 30) as a whole, it is clear that a prospective teacher is required not only to secure provisional approval from the Commonwealth authorities under Article XII of the Act of 1949 but is also required to receive the approval of the City of Pittsburgh Board of Education under Article XXI. The statute, read as a whole, places authority in the local school boards to pass reasonable regulations to insure that prospective teachers are physically qualified to carry out their teaching assignments. Even though a prospective teacher with a serious physical handicap has received her state certification (a prerequisite required by the Act), she is still subject to the independent discretion of the local board as to whether her physical defect would prohibit her from successfully performing her duties as a teacher. Therefore, no conflict among the above-mentioned sections of the Act exists.*fn4 In a case such as this, it is the duty of the federal courts to exercise jurisdiction.*fn5 Plaintiff has alleged that she has been deprived of her civil rights in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 by an arbitrary, discriminatory and unreasonable classification of blind persons as being unfit for teaching ...

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