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Kegerise v. Delgrande

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

April 26, 2018

DR. SUSAN KEGERISE, Appellee
v.
KATHY L. DELGRANDE, JOHN F. DIETRICH, CLIFTON D. EDWARDS, CAROL L. KARL, JESSE RAWLS, SR., DR. PETER J. SAKOL, HELEN D. SPENCE, AND MARK Y. SUSSMAN, IN THEIR OFFICIAL CAPACITIES, Appellants

          ARGUED: November 29, 2017

          Appeal from the Order of the Commonwealth Court dated September 13, 2016, reconsideration denied November 9, 2016, at No. 232 CD 2015 Affirming the Order of the Court of Common Pleas of Dauphin County, Civil Division, dated November 5, 2014 at No. 2014-CV-3793-CV.

          SAYLOR, C.J., BAER, TODD, DONOHUE, DOUGHERTY, WECHT, MUNDY, JJ.

          OPINION

          WECHT, JUSTICE.

         In this mandamus action involving the law of constructive discharge and Pennsylvania's Public School Code, [1] Dr. Susan Kegerise seeks reinstatement as superintendent of the Susquehanna Township School District, as well as back pay and benefits. Kegerise prevailed in the trial court, and the Commonwealth Court affirmed. For the reasons that follow, we reverse.

         In January 2010, Kegerise was appointed superintendent of the Susquehanna Township School District. On May 7, 2013, that District's Board of Directors[2] extended Kegerise's contract for a three-year term after agreeing, at Kegerise's request, to include the following provision at Section 8.03:

RESIGNATION. In the event that Superintendent seeks to resign or separate her employment with Board for any reason other than death, illness, or disability, Superintendent shall give at least sixty (60) days' written notice . . . . No notice whatsoever shall be required by the Superintendent should her resignation be caused by the Board's breach of this AGREEMENT or caused by constructive termination by the Board or any of its members.

         Joint Stipulations of Fact ("J.S.F.") Ex. A § 8.03, May 2, 2014 (Contract for Employment of District Superintendent).[3] Kegerise has alleged that this new resignation clause was necessary to protect her interests in light of several Board members' inappropriate behavior. See Brief for Kegerise at 6. Kegerise further alleged that, this clause notwithstanding, and in an effort to force her resignation, several Board members persisted in hostile actions including, inter alia, physical intimidation and verbal abuse, even after the contract was executed. Id. at 6-7.

         On March 25, 2014, Kegerise informed the Board that she was receiving medical care and would be unable to return to work until April 21, 2014. While Kegerise was on medical leave, the Board received several letters from Kegerise's counsel asserting that Kegerise had been constructively discharged. By letter dated April 16, 2014, the Board responded as follows:

Dr. Kegerise is and remains the Superintendent of Schools at Susquehanna Township School District pursuant to the contract between she and the Board. Her recent absence from work was based on a physician's note received from Dr. Kegerise. Her time away from the District since that day has been recorded as sick leave derived from Dr. Kegerise's pre-existing sick leave accumulation.
* * * *
Finally, the District understands that Dr. Kegerise's current physician's note indicates that she is precluded from working until April 21, 2014. If she is cleared to return to work, then the District hopes and expects her to return to her duties as Superintendent. If she is not, the District will continue to debit her sick leave time and continue to process her workers['] compensation claim.

J.S.F. at Ex. B.

         The next day, April 17, 2014, Kegerise filed a complaint in the United States District Court, alleging, inter alia, that the Board had constructively discharged her.[4] Kegerise asserted that, "although no formal termination has taken place, [she] cannot perform the job duties of Superintendent, " due to the Board's behavior toward her. Fed. Compl. ¶ 86.[5] Kegerise sought damages in excess of six million dollars, including, inter alia, compensatory and economic damages "for loss of contractual salary and other emoluments of employment" and consequential damages for "damage to professional reputation and loss of future salary as an educational administrator." Id. at 20. Kegerise also signed a verification of her federal complaint, affirming under penalty of perjury that the statements contained within the complaint were true. See Verification to Fed. Compl.

         On April 21, 2014, Kegerise's physician sent a letter to the Board, advising that Kegerise would be "off of work until further notice due to work related medical issues." Pl.'s Oct. 16, 2014 Evid. Hr'g Ex. 9b. That same day, during a regularly-scheduled meeting, the Board amended its agenda to address Kegerise's federal suit, and passed a motion to "[a]ccept the resignation of Dr. Kegerise as superintendent that is implicit with the term 'constructive discharge, ['] effective April 17, 2014." J.S.F. Ex. E, at 130. In a letter dated April 22, 2014, the Board advised Kegerise that, in light of her federal complaint alleging constructive discharge, a majority of the Board had voted to accept her resignation. Id. at Ex. F.

         On May 16, 2014, Kegerise filed the operative Amended Complaint in mandamus with the Court of Common Pleas of Dauphin County (hereinafter, the "trial court"), seeking reinstatement and compensation. In response, the Board alleged that Kegerise failed to state a claim upon which relief in mandamus could be granted. The Board argued that Kegerise was estopped from asserting that she did not resign, inasmuch as she had submitted a signed verification with her federal constructive discharge claim, affirming that the statements in her complaint were true and correct to the best of her knowledge, information, and belief. See Verification to Fed. Compl. The Board maintained that, because resignation is a requirement of a constructive discharge claim, Kegerise's resignation was manifest.

         On October 16, 2014, the trial court held an evidentiary hearing to determine whether Kegerise had intended to resign when she filed her federal complaint. At the hearing, the Board demonstrated that Kegerise's counsel had negotiated the resignation provision in Section 8.03 of Kegerise's employment contract, which used the term "constructive termination." Kegerise Notes of Testimony ("N.T."), 10/16/2014, at 80-81. Kegerise testified that she understood "constructive termination" to occur when the Board's actions made her working conditions so intolerable that she would be forced to resign. Id. at 81-84. Kegerise further testified that her understanding of the term "constructive termination, " as used in both her employment contract and her federal complaint, was the same. Id. at 89.

         On November 5, 2014, the trial court issued an order directing the Board to reinstate Kegerise and restore all back pay and benefits, finding, inter alia, that Kegerise had never resigned. The Board appealed to the Commonwealth Court.

         Before the Commonwealth Court, the Board again argued that mandamus was inappropriate because Kegerise had failed to establish a clear legal right to reinstatement and a corresponding duty in the Board to reverse its acceptance of her resignation. Kegerise asserted that her right to reinstatement arose from the Board's failure to adhere to the removal procedure set forth in Section 1080 of Pennsylvania's Public School Code. That provision states, in relevant part:

District superintendents and assistant district superintendents may be removed from office and have their contracts terminated, after hearing, by a majority vote of the board of school directors of the district, for neglect of duty, incompetency, intemperance, or immorality, of which hearing notice of at least one week has been sent by mail to the accused, as well as to each member of the board of school directors.

24 P.S. § 10-1080(a).

         The Commonwealth Court affirmed the trial court's grant of mandamus. Kegerise v. Delgrande, 147 A.3d 930 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2016). The Commonwealth Court characterized the requirements of a constructive discharge claim as follows:

On its face, the constructive discharge standard contemplates termination without a plaintiff's actual resignation, as long as a reasonable person would have felt compelled to resign, even if the plaintiff did not actually resign. The test is whether a hypothetical, reasonable employee would have resigned, not the employee alleging constructive discharge.

Id. at 934-35 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2016) (emphasis added). Without confronting precedent requiring actual resignation to sustain a constructive discharge claim, [6] the Commonwealth Court opined that constructive discharge does not require such resignation, and found "unpersuasive" the Board's view that Kegerise's filing of a federal complaint alleging constructive discharge constituted such a resignation. Id. at 935.

         Turning to the elements of a mandamus claim, the Commonwealth Court determined that, because the Public School Code imposed statutorily-mandated duties upon Kegerise as a superintendent elected by the Board, Kegerise had a clear legal right to perform those duties. Id. at 938 (citing 24 P.S. ยง 10-1081, which sets forth the duties of superintendents). The Court further opined that the Board had a corresponding ...


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