543 P.2d 218 (Alaska 1975), 2265, Skagway City School Bd. v. Davis

Docket Nº:2265.
Citation:543 P.2d 218
Opinion Judge:CONNOR, Justice.
Party Name:SKAGWAY CITY SCHOOL BOARD et al., Appellants, v. J. W. DAVIS a/k/a James W. Davis, Appellee.
Attorney:W. G. Ruddy and M. T. Thomas, Robertson, Monagle, Eastaugh & Bradley, Juneau, for appellants. Peter M. Page and Gail Roy Fraties, Gregg, Fraties, Petersen & Page, Juneau, for appellee. Randall J. Weddle, Faulkner, Banfield, Doogan & Holmes, Juneau, for amicus curiae, Association of Alaska School ...
Judge Panel:Before RABINOWITZ, Chief Justice, and CONNOR, ERWIN and BURKE, Justices.
Case Date:December 08, 1975
Court:Supreme Court of Alaska
 
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543 P.2d 218 (Alaska 1975)

SKAGWAY CITY SCHOOL BOARD et al., Appellants,

v.

J. W. DAVIS a/k/a James W. Davis, Appellee.

No. 2265.

Supreme Court of Alaska

December 8, 1975

Page 219

W. G. Ruddy and M. T. Thomas, Robertson, Monagle, Eastaugh & Bradley, Juneau, for appellants.

Page 220

Peter M. Page and Gail Roy Fraties, Gregg, Fraties, Petersen & Page, Juneau, for appellee.

Randall J. Weddle, Faulkner, Banfield, Doogan & Holmes, Juneau, for amicus curiae, Association of Alaska School Boards.

Before RABINOWITZ, Chief Justice, and CONNOR, ERWIN and BURKE, Justices.

OPINION

CONNOR, Justice.

J. W. Davis was employed by the Skagway City School Board as superintendent of the Skagway schools in 1969. The employment agreement contemplated a three-year term, with Davis to receive a fixed salary for the 1969-70 school year and the compensation for the subsequent two school years to be negotiated. Davis signed a standard teacher's contract form, but whether the employment agreement was oral or written was a matter of dispute.

Differences arose between Davis and at least some members of the school board over his performance as a school administrator during the second year of his employment. The record discloses a letter dated February 4, 1971, from the board to Davis detailing certain charges against him. By letter dated February 25, 1971, the board requested Davis' resignation, to be effective upon completion of the 1970-71 school year. Upon his refusal to resign, the board informed Davis by letter that it did not intend to renew his contract for 1971-72.

Davis persisted in his refusal to resign and requested a hearing. The board provided a list of charges against him, a hearing was held in Skagway on May 29, 1971, and the board, following the hearing, voted unanimously against his retention as superintendent.

Davis then filed a civil action against appellants claiming breach of contract. At trial, considerable evidence was adduced regarding Davis' competence as an administrator, with the district's teachers lining up on both sides of the question. Past and present board members testified against Davis, and one past board member testified on his behalf. There was testimony from various members of the community, and Davis testified extensively on his own behalf.

Mr. Robert Van Houte, the executive director of NEA-Alaska, a teachers' professional organization, testified as an expert for the plaintiff. He stated generally that Davis' discharge would prevent his obtaining future employment as a school administrator and also gave testimony in regard to the economic impact of the discharge upon the earning capacity of Davis.

At the close of the trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Davis, awarding him $23,100 for salary loss for 1971-72, and $95,800 for damages to future earning capacity. This appeal followed.

I.

Appellants claim error in the giving of Jury Instruction No. 6, which states:

I instruct you that, in order to warrant recovery, the plaintiff has the burden of proving every element necessary to constitute the contract of service and his wrongful discharge. That is to say, the employee must submit evidence that he had a contract; that he was performing it; that he was ready, willing and able to complete the contract but was precluded from doing so by premature (wrongful) cancellation of his contract. In this case, it is conceded that the plaintiff has a three-year contract and that he was discharged after two years. On the other hand the defendant has the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence justification for the discharge. The law will not assume that an employee has been derelict in his duty from the fact that he has been discharged; and when such an employee is

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a school superintendent claiming damages for a wrongful discharge, the burden rests upon the employer to prove substantial non-compliance with the school laws of the state, the regulations or bylaws of the state department of education, or the bylaws of the district, that is, the Skagway Board policy manual. Whether defendants have met that burden is for you, alone, to decide.

The first phase of appellants' argument is that this case should not have been treated as an action at law for breach of contract but as one for review of the board's decision to terminate Davis as superintendent. Much of appellants' argument concerns whether Davis was a tenured teacher. Appellants urge that Davis was not a tenured teacher and that he could be dismissed after notice and hearing if the quality of his work was unsatisfactory to the board. 1 From this it is argued that the court's inquiry should have been limited to determining whether substantial evidence supported the board's action. Alternatively it is argued that if the tenure statutes apply to Davis the contract entered into with Davis was insufficient to confer tenure status. Appellants urge that under the applicable statute and regulations the contract was defective. 2

We find it unnecessary to dwell at length upon whether the tenure statutes applied to Davis. 3 The answer filed in this case admits an oral contract to employ Davis for a three-year term. It was for breach of this contract that Davis sought damages. No authority has been cited by appellants, and we know of none, which would require Davis to further exhaust any administrative remedies as a prerequisite to bringing a breach of contract action. Davis properly sought his remedy at law, and appellants joined issue with him. In our opinion the case was treated properly as one for breach of contract.

Appellants next claim error on the ground that Instruction No. 6 was confused in its treatment of the burden of proof. They assert that the instruction was erroneous in respect to both the quantum of proof required and the elements to be proved. They also assert that the instruction improperly allocated the ultimate burden of persuasion. They argue, first, that while Instruction No. 6 stated the burden which must be met by the plaintiff in a common law contract action, it improperly described the board's burden in terms of the teachers' tenure laws. Appellants also seem to imply that it was error to combine the preponderance of the evidence standard used in Instruction No. 6 with standards derived from the tenure statutes. It was erroneous, state appellants, for the instruction to say that the burden rests upon the employer to prove

'substantial non-compliance with the school laws of the state, the regulations or bylaws of the state department of education, or the bylaws of the district, that is, the Skagway Board policy manual.'

It is true that this language is similar to that portion of the teacher tenure statute which defines one of the grounds for dismissal

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of tenured teachers. 4 But it does not appear to us that the teacher tenure provision was the source of the language in the instruction.

The duties of a superintendent are defined by law, regulations and school board bylaws. AS 14.14.130 authorized the employment of a chief school administrator by the school board, prescribes certain duties, and requires the chief administrator to operate the school district in accordance with the school board's bylaws. AS 14.14.100 authorizes and requires school boards to prescribe written bylaws as expressions of school district policy. Various regulations contained in Title 4 of the Alaska Administrative Code fix requirements for the administrative operation of school districts, and 4 AAC 15.030 requires school districts with more than seven teachers to employ a superintendent who is to have 'full administrative control of a school district.' 5 The Manual for Alaska School Boards, which prescribes the duties of school superintendents, is incorporated into the regulations by 4 AAC 06.090.

These provisions became a part of the contract for appellee's employment under the general rule that applicable laws in existence at the time of the formulation of the contract and which the parties are presumed to know are incorporated into the contract and become a part of it as though they had been expressly set out in the contract. 6 These statutes, regulations and bylaws collectively set out the duties of appellee as superintendent and thus prescribed what constituted performance of the contract on his part. Thus the contested instruction is adequate in its description of the contractual terms to be proved.

We now turn to appellants' assertion that Instruction No. 6 improperly distributed the burden of proof between the parties. They claim that they should only have had to bear the burden of going forward with the evidence to show justification for the discharge based...

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