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Dotterer v. School District of the City of Allentown

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

May 28, 2014

James C. Dotterer, Appellant
School District of the City of Allentown and Board of School Directors of the Allentown School District

Argued February 12, 2014.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Appealed from No. 2012-C-3804. Common Pleas Court of the County of Lehigh. Johnson, J.

Thomas L. Kelly, Media, for appellant.

John E. Freund, III, and Brian J. Taylor, Bethlehem, for appellees.



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James C. Dotterer (Dotterer) appeals an order of the Court of Common Pleas of Lehigh County (trial court) that dismissed his mandamus complaint against the School District of the City of Allentown (District) and its Board of School Directors (Board) for lack of jurisdiction. The trial court held Dotterer failed to exercise his administrative remedies under the Public School Code of 1949 (School Code).[1] More specifically, it determined that the School Code set forth the exclusive remedy for challenging a demotion, which required Dotterer to appeal his underlying claims to the Secretary of Education (Secretary). Upon review, we affirm.

I. Background

Dotterer worked for the District for more than 33 years. For the last eight years, he was an assistant high school principal, a professional employee under the School Code. In that capacity, Dotterer was the beneficiary of a compensation plan established pursuant to Act 93[2] (Plan). The Plan established fringe benefits, including retirement benefits, for principals, assistant principals and administrators.

The timing of events is material. On June 21, 2011, Dotterer took a medical leave of absence from his employment as an assistant principal as a result of shoulder surgery. On June 29, 2011, while still on medical leave, he met with the District's deputy superintendent, Dr. Russell Mayo. At that time, Mayo informed Dotterer that the District intended to demote him to a teaching position, effective July 1, 2011. This demotion would reduce his annual salary from $100,500 to $80,000. Also, as a teacher, Dotterer would not be entitled to receive fringe benefits, including retirement benefits, from the Plan.

On July 1, 2011, Dotterer received a letter from Mayo, entitled " Notice of Intent to Demote." Reproduced Record (R.R.) at 15a. The letter advised Dotterer that the District intended to demote him for performance reasons. The Notice did not state an effective date for the demotion. Dotterer elected to challenge the demotion. He timely requested a demotion hearing.

Initially, a demotion hearing was scheduled for August 8, 2011. However, with Dotterer's consent, the demotion hearing was repeatedly continued throughout 2011 and 2012 to allow Dotterer and the District to pursue settlement. During this time, Dotterer remained on medical leave, and the District paid him at the teacher rate.

Before the Board held a hearing or passed a resolution effectuating his demotion, Dotterer requested a retirement estimate from the Public School Employees' Retirement System. As soon as he became age eligible, on August 21, 2012, Dotterer submitted his letter of retirement

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to the District, effective immediately.[3]

Finally, by letter dated August 24, 2012, the District rescheduled the demotion hearing for September 19, 2012. Dotterer responded that there was no need to proceed with the hearing because his retirement rendered the demotion hearing moot. He advised the District that the School Code could not bind him because he was no longer a professional employee subject to the Board's jurisdiction. Nevertheless, Dotterer asserted that he remained entitled to the School Code's protection of his assistant principal status.

After he learned that the District intended to proceed with the demotion hearing, Dotterer sought a temporary restraining order from the trial court to prevent the hearing. The trial court denied his request.

Days before the scheduled demotion hearing, Dotterer filed a complaint in mandamus seeking back pay and retirement benefits as an assistant principal from the date of his de facto demotion, through the date of his retirement. He predicated his complaint on the assumption that the demotion was unlawful, and that he retired as an administrator, not as a teacher. Dotterer also proceeded as though the School Code, and the attendant administrative process for disputing demotions, did not apply to retirees. He contended the demotion never became effective because the Board did not act on it before he retired.

Significantly, after filing his mandamus complaint, Dotterer " withdrew" his request for a demotion hearing. R.R. at 99a; see also Appellant's Br. at 6, 8.

In his complaint, Dotterer asserted the Board's attempt to demote a retired employee violated Section 1151 of the School Code, 24 P.S. § 11-1151. Complaint at ¶ 34, R.R. at 13a. Dotterer contended the District had a mandatory and ministerial duty to pay him the salary and benefits owed to an assistant principal from July 1, 2011, to his retirement on August 21, 2012. This is because the Board did not demote him before he retired, and Board action is required to effectuate a demotion. Dotterer also argued the Board was dilatory because it should have scheduled a hearing upon learning he would not consent to a demotion.

On September 27, 2012, at a public meeting, the Board adopted a resolution demoting Dotterer from assistant principal to teacher. The resolution stated the demotion became effective July 1, 2011, over a year prior to Dotterer's retirement. Importantly, Dotterer did not appeal this action of the Board to the Secretary.

Subsequently, the District and the Board filed preliminary objections to Dotterer's complaint, asserting the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction. They contended the School Code required Dotterer to appeal the Board's demotion, or its delay in scheduling a demotion hearing, to the Secretary. They also argued Dotterer failed to avail himself of this adequate administrative remedy. Moreover, Dotterer waived his right to a demotion hearing.

The trial court sustained the District's preliminary objections, concluding the matters raised in Dotterer's complaint were within the Secretary's exclusive jurisdiction. The trial court rejected Dotterer's contention that the statutory procedure for demotion in the School Code did not apply to a retired professional employee.

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Rather, the School Code established an adequate remedy that Dotterer was obligated to utilize to challenge the de facto demotion. Based on lack of jurisdiction and an available administrative remedy for demotion disputes, the trial court dismissed the complaint.[4]

On appeal, Dotterer asserts the trial court erred by dismissing his complaint. He contends the District's act of paying him a reduced salary since July 1, 2011, did not constitute a lawful demotion. The Board's subsequent ratification did not cure the illegality because a demotion cannot be retroactive. Because the Board's demotion resolution was a nullity, Dotterer argues the trial court had jurisdiction to compel the District to provide his salary and benefits as an administrator.

II. Discussion

Initially, Dotterer requested a hearing on the de facto demotion. Before the hearing was held, he retired. When faced with the upcoming hearing on the demotion, Dotterer tried to enjoin the hearing, and, when unsuccessful, he withdrew his hearing request. These facts impact our review of the trial court's decision on the preliminary objections, particularly as to its jurisdiction over the underlying demotion dispute.

A. Legal Standard for Preliminary Objections

Where a trial court dismisses a complaint based on preliminary objections, this Court's review is limited to determining whether the trial court committed an error of law or an abuse of discretion. Podolak v. Tobyhanna Twp. Bd. of Supervisors, 37 A.3d 1283 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2012). When considering preliminary objections, we must consider as true all well-pled material facts set forth in the complaint and all reasonable inferences that may be drawn from those facts. Werner v. Zazyczny, 545 Pa. 570, 681 A.2d 1331 (1996); Petsinger v. Dep't of Labor & Indus., Office of Vocational Rehab., 988 A.2d 748 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2010). However, we need not accept legal conclusions. Petsinger.

Preliminary objections should be sustained only in cases where it is clear and free from doubt that the facts pled are legally insufficient to establish a right to relief. Werner. As such review raises a question of law, our scope of review is plenary. Podolak.

The trial court sustained the preliminary objections which the District and Board filed to Dotterer's mandamus complaint. They objected to the trial court's jurisdiction and the legal sufficiency of the claim.

B. Mandamus

Mandamus is an extraordinary writ which will only issue " 'to compel performance of a ministerial act or mandatory duty where there exists a clear legal right in the plaintiff, a corresponding duty in the defendant, and want of any other adequate and appropriate remedy.'" Burger v. Bd. of Sch. Dirs. of McGuffey Sch. Dist., 805 A.2d 663, 666

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(Pa. Cmwlth. 2002), aff'd, 576 Pa. 574, 839 A.2d 1055 (2003) (quoting Shaler Area Sch. Dist. v. Salakas, 494 Pa. 630, 636, 432 A.2d 165, 168 (1981); Phila. Newspapers, Inc. v. Jerome, 478 Pa. 484, 494, 387 A.2d 425, 430 n.11 (1978)). If any one of the foregoing elements is absent, mandamus does not lie. Id. " [I]t remains the plaintiff's burden to establish the inadequacy of any available remedies, as well as the other requisites to mandamus relief." Burger v. Bd. of Sch. Dirs. of McGuffey Sch. Dist., 576 Pa. 574, 584, 839 A.2d 1055, 1061 (2003); Werner.

Litigants are required to exhaust adequate and available administrative remedies prior to resorting to judicial remedies. Bayada Nurses, Inc. v. Dep't of Labor & Indus., 607 Pa. 527, 8 A.3d 866 (2010). " A party challenging administrative decision-making who has not exhausted available administrative remedies is precluded from obtaining judicial review by mandamus." Petsinger, 988 A.2d at 754. An individual who does not exercise his statutory appeal rights cannot later reclaim those rights " under the guise of a petition for mandamus." Id.

Here, Dotterer argues he had no available administrative remedy based on his retired status. The trial court concluded the School Code provided the exclusive remedy for challenging ...

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