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BARNDT v. WISSAHICKON SCH. DIST.

August 13, 1979

JACQUELINE BARNDT v WISSAHICKON SCHOOL DISTRICT and WISSAHICKON BOARD OF DIRECTORS and WILLIAM SABIA, MATTHEW COLEMAN, ELIZABETH ALLEN, LOUISE NORTH, ROBERT RUSSELL, ROBERT G. MOORE, GEORGE T. BAUER, THEODORE THOMPSON, ROBERT J. CORRENTY, WESLEY E. GORG, DONALD RICHWAGON, RICHARD S. THORTON, and PHYLLIS CATZ, all of the above-named individually and as members of the Board of School Directors of Wissahickon School District and WILLIAM H. STOUTENBURGH, Individually and as Superintendent of Schools of Wissahickon School District


The opinion of the court was delivered by: LORD, III

Plaintiff in this civil rights suit alleges that she was unconstitutionally dismissed from a tenured teaching position in the Wissahickon School District. Contending that Article XI of the Pennsylvania Public School Code pursuant to which she was dismissed, 24 P.S. § 11-1101 Et seq., violates both the due process and equal protection clauses both facially and as applied, plaintiff seeks injunctive and monetary relief. I have jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1343(3) and 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The parties have cross-moved for summary judgment. For the reasons discussed below, I will deny plaintiff's and grant defendants' motion.

I.

 Plaintiff Barndt was hired by the Wissahickon School District in June 1964 as a junior high school music teacher. In July 1973, William Stoutenburgh, Superintendent of Schools for the Wissahickon District, notified plaintiff that her professional employee rating for the 1972-1973 school year was unsatisfactory. In April 1974, the Superintendent notified Barndt that her 1973-74 performance was again unsatisfactory. Each notice to plaintiff of her unsatisfactory rating was accompanied by supporting documents.

 Shortly after Barndt's second consecutive unsatisfactory rating, Superintendent Stoutenburgh submitted to the Board of Directors of the Wissahickon School District (School Board) a proposed statement of charges against plaintiff. Stoutenburgh's proposal, stating twenty-five counts of alleged incompetence, negligence and willful violation of school laws, was accepted by School Board resolution on June 27, 1974. Between September 1974 and January 1975 the Board held fourteen public hearings on the charges. Barndt was present and represented by counsel throughout the proceedings. On January 27, 1975, four days after the last dismissal hearing, the School Board voted publicly, unanimously and without discussion to terminate plaintiff's employment for the reasons stated in the twenty-five counts.

 Barndt was notified formally on January 29, 1975 by mail that the Board had found the charges against her supported by the evidence presented at the fourteen hearings and that her dismissal was therefore being ordered. Plaintiff appealed her termination to the Pennsylvania Secretary of Education, who on January 27, 1976 affirmed the Board's decision. The Secretary's opinion was appealed to the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court, which on February 7, 1977 again affirmed the dismissal decision. Barndt v. Board of School Directors, 28 Pa.Cmwlth. 482, 368 A.2d 1355 (Cmwlth.Ct.1977). The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania denied allocatur per curiam in December 1977 and plaintiff commenced this action in early 1978.

 II.

 Plaintiff has moved for summary judgment, arguing that the Pennsylvania statute under which her employment was terminated is constitutionally deficient in four facial respects: (A) due process requires that the body responsible for dismissal decisions be impartial and the statutorily designated body in Pennsylvania, the district school board, because of its pecuniary interest in teacher employment, is not unbiased; (B) judicial appeal De novo from a school board dismissal decision is not permitted by the statute; (C) the statute does not specify rules of evidence for a dismissal hearing and this failure unfairly leaves a teacher unable to prepare a defense; and (D) the statute is repugnant to equal protection principles because tenured and non-tenured teachers are irrationally treated differently for dismissal purposes, to the detriment of tenured teachers. Plaintiff's allegations of facial invalidity are unpersuasive and I will deny her motion.

 (A ) "A biased decisionmaker (is) constitutionally unacceptable (and) "our system of law has always endeavored to prevent even the probability of unfairness.' " Withrow v. Larkin, 421 U.S. 35, 47, 95 S. Ct. 1456, 1464, 43 L. Ed. 2d 712 (1975), Quoting In re Murchison, 349 U.S. 133, 136, 75 S. Ct. 623, 99 L. Ed. 942 (1955). Plaintiff complains that this axiom of due process is violated by the Pennsylvania statute. Section 11-1129 of the Public School Code grants authority to dismiss tenured teachers to the local school board, a body that has, as employer, a pecuniary interest in a teacher's discharge allegedly preclusive of impartiality. The statute for this reason is, Barndt insists, on its face "constitutionally unacceptable."

 The complete answer to plaintiff's unfairness argument is citation to Hortonville Joint School District No. 1 v. Hortonville Education Association, 426 U.S. 482, 96 S. Ct. 2308, 49 L. Ed. 2d 1 (1976). In Hortonville, the Court was asked to invalidate as inconsistent with due process the dismissal of striking teachers by a school board that had been negotiating unsuccessfully with the strikers. Observing that plaintiff teachers "seem to argue that the Board members had some personal or official stake in the decision whether the teacher should be dismissed," Chief Justice Burger concluded that to fear that "the Board members had the kind of personal or financial stake in the decision that might create a conflict of interest" was not justified. 426 U.S. at 491-92, 96 S. Ct. at 2314. "(I)n light of the important interest in leaving with the Board the power given by the state legislature," the Court held that a school board's pecuniary interest as employer in the expense of paying a tenured teacher "is not enough to overcome the presumption of honesty and integrity in policymakers with decisionmaking power. Accordingly . . . the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment did not guarantee (the teachers) that the decision to terminate their employment would be made or reviewed by a body other than the School Board." 426 U.S. at 497, 96 S. Ct. at 2316.

 Barndt correctly urges that the Hortonville case is distinct from her suit because Hortonville involved only a policy decision, and not preliminary factfinding by the school board, the teachers there having admitted that they were on strike. 426 U.S. at 494, 96 S. Ct. 2308. However, this factual difference is analytically irrelevant to the impartiality concern. Plaintiff offers no reason why the Wissahickon School Board's pecuniary interest in her employment would impermissibly bias its factfinding but not its policymaking and we can imagine none. The attempted distinction between the alleged unfairness here and that treated in Hortonville fails, the Supreme Court opinion there is dispositive and plaintiff's first due process argument is rejected.

 (C ) Barndt's third due process allegation of facial invalidity is that the failure of the Pennsylvania statute to prescribe a code of evidence for the conduct of dismissal hearings deprives teachers of the ability to prepare intelligently their defenses in light of established evidentiary rules. I hold that plaintiff lacks standing to raise this claim.

 Immersion in the conceptual quagmire of standing is not necessary to conclude that to challenge a statute in federal court a plaintiff must credibly allege a logical nexus between the injury suffered and the purported statutory defect. Flast v. Cohen, 392 U.S. 83, 102, 88 S. Ct. 1942, 20 L. Ed. 2d 947 (1968). Review of the 1,585 page verbatim transcript of plaintiff's dismissal hearings before the Wissahickon Board compels the judgment that the Barndt proceedings were conducted pursuant to common law rules of evidence and that plaintiff's counsel handled her case accordingly. Because the statutory failure to specify evidentiary rules thus did not prejudice plaintiff in her defense, she fails to satisfy the standing requirement of a nexus between her dismissal and the alleged constitutional imperfection in the Public School Code. I therefore am powerless to hear this part of her complaint.

 (D ) Plaintiff's final Fourteenth Amendment challenge to the facial validity of the statute is her equal protection argument that tenured teachers are impermissibly treated differently for dismissal purposes than both non-tenured teachers and other licensed professionals ...


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