Board of Ed. of Ashland School Dist. v. Chattin

Citation376 S.W.2d 693
PartiesBOARD OF EDUCATION OF ASHLAND SCHOOL DISTRICT et al., Appellants, v. Charles E. CHATTIN, Appellee.
Decision Date13 March 1964
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (Kentucky)

W. H. Dysard, Dysard, Johnson & Welch, Ashland, for appellants.

H. David Hermansdorfer, Diederich & Hermansdorfer, Ashland, for appellee.

PALMORE, Judge.

The appellee, Charles E. Chattin, was employed as Director of the Ashland Area Vocational School from July 1, 1954 to July 14, 1961, during all of which time the school was under the control of the appellant school board and he was under the direction and supervision of its superintendent of public schools. In March of 1961 the superintendent notified Chattin by letter that he would not be recommended for reemployment as director of the vocational school for the year beginning July 1, 1961. On July 3, 1961, Chattin brought suit in the Boyd Circuit Court claiming entitlement to a continuing status under KRS 161.720 et seq. and asking to enjoin the school board and its individual members from discharging him without a hearing.

After commencement of the injunction suit the school board decided to proceed under KRS 161.790 and, by letters directed to Chattin on July 14, 1961, and July 24, 1961, listed the specific charges forming the basis for its decision to terminate his employment. A hearing conducted by the board on August 17, 1961, resulted in a formal order dismissing Chattin, 1 from which he appealed to the Boyd Circuit Court as authorized by KRS 161.790(5). The circuit court found the charges and proof insufficient to justify the dismissal. The school board and its members have appealed that decision to this court.

Although the injunction suit appears to have been left withering on the vine, in his statement of appeal from the action of the school board Chattin incorporated by reference the allegations of his injunction complaint. We do not find any order consolidating the two actions, but the papers of both are here as one record. The final judgment of the circuit court does not include injunctive relief, but it declares that Chattin has a continuing status and sets forth the conditions under which the school board and its members as individuals will be liable for the payment of his salary. All of this, say the appellants, is premature, because, among other reasons, until it was determined that the board had no right to discharge him it had neither the duty nor the opportunity of offering him another position; 2 thus the judgment says more than was necessary or appropriate. Since, however, we have concluded that the judgment should be reversed on the essential merits of the controversy it becomes unnecessary to pursue this aspect of the appeal.

All of the charges contained in the accusatory letters of July 14 and 24, 1961, can be fairly classified as either insubordination, inefficiency, or incompetence, these being among the legal causes for dismissal authorized by KRS 161.790. We shall not discuss all of the charges, as any one ground, if supported by substantial evidence, is sufficient. Hoskins v. Keen, Ky., 350 S.W.2d 467, 469 (1961).

Item 2 of the July 24 specifications was that the board had experienced 'continual trouble getting you to make the financial reports required by the law and regulations. For example, on January 22, 1959, on instructions of the Board of Education, the Superintendent wrote you in regard to the monthly reports of the Ashland Vocational School. This was brought about by the fact that the December report had not been received early enough for the Board to study the report before acting upon it. It was important that these reports show receipts by the Vocational School for 'Sales of Merchandise and Materials' and 'Contracts and Projects.' You have never included in your monthly 'financial data sheet' any entry of these items.'

Though Chattin took the position that none of the charges were sufficient to satisfy the statutory requirement that they be specified 'in detail,' this is one of three he 'accepted' for purposes of the hearing. The trial court held that all of the charges were defective because they did not set forth exact times and places and specific acts or omissions. However, we do not construe KRS 161.790(2) as requiring greater exactitude than a civil complaint. It is enough that the charges give fair notice of their essential nature and bases. If they are not sufficiently specific to enable the accused to prepare his case there is no reason he may not obtain the particulars by a timely demand. Without passing judgment on the other charges, we think the second charge contained in the July 24 letter was quite adequate. To the extent it may be considered in conflict, Bowman v. Ray, 118 Ky. 110, 80 S.W. 516 (1904), is overruled. The other cases cited by Chattin are not materially inconsistent with what we have said here.

The substance of the evidence supporting the second charge in the July 24 letter was as follows:

After discussions with state officials concerning the property accounting and financial records of the vocational school the board in 1958 caused an audit to be made by a firm of certified public accountants. Chattin was disposed at first to balk at this imposition, and telephoned a state official at Frankfort to know if it was authorized. He was referred to his superior officer, Mr. Shattles, the local school superintendent. 3 When the auditor desired to check certain material inventories, Chattin felt that he was trying to conduct an 'investigation' instead of an audit and would not let him do so until Shattles was called. Shattles and the chairman of the school board went to the vocational school in order to settle the matter, whereupon the audit was completed without further incident. 4

The audit resulted in findings that the records of the school were inadequate, and recommendations were made for their improvement. Accordingly, several changes were effected but it was not possible to carry out the recommendations fully because Chattin eventually said they required a great deal of work and he did not have the necessary clerical help. Therefore, Shattles endeavored to simplify the reporting procedures and had printed some forms which he asked Chattin to use. One of these forms styled 'Financial Data Sheet' for the month of November, 1959, was filed with the testimony given at the hearing. It divided cash receipts into four categories, (1) Tuition, (2) Sales of merchandise and materials, (3) Contracts and projects, and (4) All other receipts. On this specimen of November, 1959, the cash receipts totalling $3,540.61 were itemized as 'Tuition' $1,850 and 'All other receipts' $1,690.61. Items 2 and 3, 'Sales of merchandise and materials' and 'Contracts and projects,' were left blank. Chattin testified that his practice was to lump them together under Item 4, 'All other receipts,' because he did not consider the school as a 'business.' 5 He admitted that he and Shattles had discussed this particular report form when it was devised, and obviously he filled it out and submitted it every month. Yet on the witness stand he professed to believe it was merely a sheet for Shattles' own personal records, and 'No one ever explained to me what it was supposed to mean.' As we understand the testimony, he never did fill out items (2) and (3) of this monthly report.

Shattles testified that the subject of bookkeeping and inventory records had been a continuous problem between him and Chattin and that he had never been able to get Chattin to keep the cash records in the form he had devised for that purpose. Chattin's own testimony in this connection reveals unmistakable obstinancy and lack of candor. He could not have failed to understand the simple report we are now discussing; whether he agreed with its objects and purposes was immaterial. His was not the job of running the railroad. That belonged to Shattles and the school board. His failure to comply with the reasonable requirements of his superior officer constituted inefficiency or incompetence at best. and insubordination at worst.

It is our opinion that on the charge of failure to carry out instructions concerning the financial records of the vocational school the evidence was amply sufficient to sustain Chattin's discharge, and that the trial court erred in finding otherwise.

During the hearing one of the board members said, 'We have never accused him of not being a good Vocational Director but we found that he will not do what we asked him to and we have decided that we are going to let him go.' Counsel fastens on this remark as indicating that the Board's reason for wishing to dismiss Chattin was not founded on 'substantial cause.' We do not agree. Talent or even genius to the contrary, failure to comply with competent orders of a superior official is substantial cause for disciplinary action and, under the facts and circumstances of this case, for discharge.

In Guthrie v. Board of Education of Jefferson County, Ky., 298 S.W.2d 691 (1957), it was said that the findings of the trial court in a proceeding of this kind would not be set aside unless 'clearly erroneous' within the meaning of CR 52.01. This conclusion was influenced by the conception that the review in circuit court is 'quasi de novo,' as contemplated by the terminology of KRS 161.790(5). However, more recently we have had occasion to reappraise the fundamental question of whether it is constitutionally possible for the judicial branch of government 6 to consider on a de novo basis the decision of an administrative agency of another branch of government, and have concluded that it is not. In short, a court cannot be made an organ of administrative policy or of administrative fact-finding in a matter not arising as a judicial question--that is, not originating within the courts. A de novo consideration necessarily substitutes the judgment of the court of that of the administrative agency, whereas the proper...

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