426 U.S. 482 (1976), 74-1606, Hortonville Joint School District No. 1 v. Hortonville Education Assn.

Docket Nº:No. 74-1606
Citation:426 U.S. 482, 96 S.Ct. 2308, 49 L.Ed.2d 1
Party Name:Hortonville Joint School District No. 1 v. Hortonville Education Assn.
Case Date:June 17, 1976
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 482

426 U.S. 482 (1976)

96 S.Ct. 2308, 49 L.Ed.2d 1

Hortonville Joint School District No. 1


Hortonville Education Assn.

No. 74-1606

United States Supreme Court

June 17, 1976

Argued February 23-24, 1976



After negotiations for renewal of a collective bargaining contract between respondent teachers and petitioner Wisconsin School Board failed to produce agreement, the teachers went on strike in direct violation of Wisconsin law. The Board thereafter conducted individual disciplinary hearings. Through counsel, the striking teachers advised that they wished to be treated as a group, and contended that the Board was not sufficiently impartial properly to discipline them. The Board terminated the striking teachers' employment, whereupon respondent teachers brought this suit, contending, inter alia, that the hearing was inadequate to meet due process requirements. The state trial court granted the Board's motion for summary judgment. The Wisconsin Supreme Court reversed, holding that the procedure followed by the Board had violated federal due process requirements, since an impartial decisionmaker was required to resolve the controversy, and the Board was not sufficiently impartial. Since state law afforded no adequate remedy, the court provided that, after the Board's notice to fire a teacher and a hearing, a teacher dissatisfied with the Board's decision could secure a de novo hearing from a county court of record on all issues.

Held: The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment did not guarantee respondent teachers that the decision to terminate their employment would be made or reviewed by a body other than the School Board. Morrissey v. Brewer, 408 U.S. 471, distinguished. Pp. 489-497.

(a) The record does not support respondents' contention that the Board members had a personal or official stake in the dismissal decision sufficient to disqualify them. Pp. 491-492.

(b) Mere familiarity with the facts of a case gained by an agency in the performance of its statutory role does not disqualify a decisionmaker, Withrow v. Larkin, 421 U.S. 35, 47; FTC v. Cement Institute, 333 U.S. 683, 700-703, and here, the School Board's participation pursuant to its statutory duty in the

Page 483

collective bargaining negotiations was not a disqualifying factor. Pp. 492-494.

(c) The School Board, in whom the State has vested the policymaking function, is the body with the overall responsibility [96 S.Ct. 2310] for governing the school district, and its members are accountable to the voters for how they discharge their statutory duties, one of which is to employ and dismiss teachers. Permitting the Board to make the policy decision at issue here preserves its control over school district affairs, leaving the balance of power over this aspect of labor relations where the state legislature has placed it. Pp. 495-496.

66 Wis.2d 469, 225 N.W.2d 658, reversed and remanded.

BURGER, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, BLACKMUN, POWELL, REHNQUIST, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. STEWART, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN and MARSHALL, JJ., joined, post, p. 497.

BURGER, J., lead opinion

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE BURGER delivered the opinion of the Court.

We granted certiorari in this case to determine whether School Board members, vested by state law with the

Page 484

power to employ and dismiss teachers, could, consistent with the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, dismiss teachers engaged in a strike prohibited by state law.


The petitioners are a Wisconsin school district, the seven members of its School Board, and three administrative employees of the district. Respondents are teachers suing on behalf of all teachers in the district and the Hortonville Education Association (HEA), the collective bargaining agent for the district's teachers.

During the 1972-1973 school year, Hortonville teachers worked under a master collective bargaining agreement; negotiations were conducted for renewal of the contract, but no agreement was reached for the 1973-1974 school year. The teachers continued to work while negotiations proceeded during the year without reaching agreement. On March 18, 1974, the members of the teachers' union went on strike, in direct violation of Wisconsin law. On March 20, the district superintendent sent all teachers a letter inviting them to return to work; a few did so. On March 23, he sent another letter, asking the 86 teachers still on strike to return, and reminding them that strikes by public employees were illegal; none of these teachers returned to work. After conducting classes with substitute teachers on March 26 and 27, the Board decided to conduct disciplinary hearings for each of the teachers on strike. Individual notices were sent to each teacher setting hearings for April 1, 2, and 3.

On April 1, most of the striking teachers appeared before the Board with counsel. Their attorney indicated that the teachers did not want individual hearings, but preferred to be treated as a group. Although counsel agreed that the teachers were on strike, he raised several procedural objections to the hearings. He

Page 485

also argued that the Board was not sufficiently impartial to exercise discipline over the striking teachers, and that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment required an independent, unbiased decisionmaker. An offer of proof was tendered to demonstrate that the strike had been provoked by the Board's failure to meet teachers' demands, and respondents' counsel asked to cross-examine Board members individually. The Board rejected the request, but permitted counsel to make the offer of proof, aimed at showing that the Board's contract offers were unsatisfactory, that the Board used coercive and illegal bargaining tactics, and that teachers in the district had been locked out by the Board.

On April 2, the Board voted to terminate the employment of striking teachers, and advised them by letter to that effect. However, the same letter invited all teachers on strike to reapply for teaching positions. One teacher accepted the invitation and returned to work; the Board hired replacements to fill the remaining positions.

Respondents then filed suit against petitioners in state court, alleging, among other things, that the notice and hearing provided them by the Board were inadequate to comply with due process requirements. The trial court granted the Board's motion [96 S.Ct. 2311] for summary judgment on the due process claim. The court found that the teachers, although on strike, were still employees of the Board under Wisconsin law, and that they retained a property interest in their positions under this Court's decisions in Perry v. Sindermann, 408 U.S. 593 (1972), and Board of Regents v. Roth, 408 U.S. 564 (1972). The court concluded that the only question before the Board on April 1 and 2 was whether the teachers were on strike in violation of state law, and that no evidence in mitigation was relevant. It rejected their claim that they were denied due process, since the teachers admitted they were on strike after receiving adequate notice and a hearing,

Page 486

including the warning that they were in violation of Wisconsin law.

On appeal, the Wisconsin Supreme Court reversed, 66 Wis.2d 469, 225 N.W.2d 658 (1975). On the single issue now presented, it held that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Federal Constitution required that the teachers' conduct and the Board's response be evaluated by an impartial decisionmaker other than the Board. The rationale of the Wisconsin Supreme Court appears to be that, although the teachers had admitted being on strike, and although the strike violated Wisconsin law, the Board had available other remedies than dismissal, including an injunction prohibiting the strike, a call for mediation, or continued bargaining. Relying on our holding in Morrissey v. Brewer, 408 U.S. 471 (1972), the Wisconsin court then held

it would seem essential, even in cases of undisputed or stipulated facts, that an impartial decisionmaker be charged with the responsibility of determining what action shall be taken on the basis of those facts.

66 Wis.2d at 493, 225 N.W.2d at 671. The court held that the Board was not sufficiently impartial to make this choice:

The background giving rise to the ultimate facts in this case reveals a situation not at all conducive to detachment and impartiality on the part of the school board.

Ibid. In reaching its conclusion, the court acknowledged that the Board's decision could be reviewed in other forums; but no reviewing body would give the teachers an opportunity to demonstrate that

another course of action such as mediation, injunction, continued collective bargaining or arbitration would have been a more reasonable response on the part of the decisionmaker.

Id. at 496, 225 N.W.2d at 672.

Since it concluded that state law provided no adequate remedy, the Wisconsin Supreme Court fashioned one it thought necessary to comply with federal due process

Page 487

principles. To leave with the Board "[a]s much control as possible . . . to set policy and manage the school," the court held that the Board should, after notice and hearing, make the decision to fire in the first instance. A teacher dissatisfied with the Board's decision could petition any court of record in the county for a de novo hearing on all issues; the trial court would "resolve any factual disputes and provide for a reasonable disposition." Id. at 498, 225 N.W.2d at 673. The Wisconsin Supreme Court recognized that this remedy was "not ideal, because a court may be required to make public policy decisions that are better...

To continue reading