Byrd v. Greene County School Dist., 91-CC-0938

Decision Date03 February 1994
Docket NumberNo. 91-CC-0938,91-CC-0938
Citation633 So.2d 1018
Parties90 Ed. Law Rep. 511 James Rodney BYRD v. GREENE COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT.
CourtMississippi Supreme Court

Chester D. Nicholson, Gail D. Nicholson, Nicholson & Nicholson, Gulfport, for appellant.

Perry Sansing, Brunini Grantham Grower & Hewes, Jackson, for appellee.

Before DAN M. LEE, P.J., and McRAE and SMITH, JJ.

McRAE, Justice, for the court:

This appeal arises from a July 30, 1991, award of damages by the Greene County Chancery Court in an appeal from an employee "reduction in force" proceeding conducted pursuant to the School Employment Procedures Law of 1977, Miss.Code Ann. Sec. 37-9-101, et seq. (1990). The Greene County School District, on cross-appeal, asserts that the chancellor applied the wrong legal standard in making his determination that the hearing officer should have recused himself. The District further contends that the chancellor erred in finding that its dire financial situation was not "good cause" pursuant to Miss.Code Ann. Sec. 37-9-59 (1990) for the rescission of a teacher's contract. The appellant and cross-appellee, James Rodney Byrd, asserts that the chancellor improperly recalculated the damages awarded him. Finding that the chancellor erred only in ruling that the hearing officer should have recused himself, we find that there was not good cause for the rescission of Byrd's contract and affirm the award of damages to him.

I.

James Rodney Byrd was employed by the Greene County School District from 1983 through 1988. He worked first as a teacher and coach. In 1985, after completing his Master's Degree in counseling and psychology, he was hired as an elementary and junior high school guidance counselor.

In March, 1986, the Greene County School District adopted its Reduction in Force Policy (RIF) in an attempt to comply with the State's Minimum Foundation Program funding levels. The procedures developed for the RIF were intended to balance the need for fairness to the teachers with the best interests of the school children when reductions were necessary.

The District had a long-standing practice of cutting timber from its Sixteenth Section land to meet any budget shortfalls or expenses not covered by ad valorem tax revenues. Since 1984, timber valued at $1,327,532.00 had been cut at the School Board's request, an average of $331,883.00 per year. In March 1988, the District began its annual negotiations with the Forestry Commission. In late May, the Forestry Commission completed its evaluation of the District's timberlands and recommended that timber sales should slow down to an average annual rate of $50,000.00.

At its February 12, 1988, meeting, the Greene County School Board acknowledged that a reduction in staff would be necessary to effect a cut in the District's budget over the next three years. The recommendations considered by the Board included a decrease in the number of guidance counselors. At that meeting, it was recommended that Byrd and another guidance counselor be hired instead as teachers. 1 The minutes of the February 12, 1988, Executive Meeting, indicate that the decision was made to rehire Byrd as a Guidance Counselor. On February 29, 1988, the Board held a hearing and unanimously voted to re-employ Byrd and seven other teachers and counselors in their present positions for the 1988-1989 school year.

On June 12, 1988, the Superintendent informed the Board that there existed a $401,095.00 shortfall in the District Maintenance budget. Because of the immediate need for deep cuts in the budget as well as the District's RIF policy, the Board voted not to renew the 1988-1989 school year contracts for Byrd and nineteen other school employees on June 27, 1988.

Byrd and his colleagues were sent written notice of the Board's decision on June 29, 1988. The letters stated that the action was not a reflection of past performance, but "was necessitated by the lack of funds in our district" and that the reduction in staff was "intended to get the school district operating at or about the funding level provided by the State of Mississippi in the Minimum Foundation Program."

Due process hearings for Byrd and others affected by the Board's decision were held during August, 1988. Ben J. Piazza, Jr., a Jackson attorney who represented the Hinds County School Board, served as the hearing officer. He was retained to serve in this capacity by the law firm of Brunini, Grantham, Grower and Hewes, which represented the Greene County School District in the proceedings. He had served as a hearing officer at the request of the Brunini firm on four or five other occasions when the firm was representing a school board. Because of the alleged relationship between Piazza and the Brunini firm, Tom Matthews, counsel for Byrd and five other teachers, conducted a voir dire to determine whether Piazza could function as a fair and impartial hearing officer. Piazza then denied Matthews' request to recuse himself.

In his written "Findings and Recommended Decision," the Hearing Officer found that pursuant to Greene County's RIF Policy and Miss.Code Ann. Sec. 37-9-59, the District's financial crisis constituted "other good cause" for the termination or suspension of school personnel. Accordingly, he recommended that the Board accept Superintendent James' decision to terminate Byrd's contract. Without taking any formal action on the Hearing Officer's recommendation, the Board notified Byrd on September 29, 1988, that it had accepted the Superintendent's decision not to renew his contract for the 1988-1989 school year.

Byrd appealed the Board's decision to the Chancery Court of Greene County on October 5, 1988. 2 The chancellor found that a reasonable person would have doubted the impartiality of the hearing officer and ruled that Piazza should have recused himself. He further found that the District's financial crisis did not constitute "other good cause" for dismissal. Moreover, he found that the Board's action in terminating Byrd was not supported by substantial evidence and was, therefore, arbitrary. On November 27, 1990, the chancellor entered a judgment ordering the Board to pay damages in the amount of $32,564.50, plus legal interest, based on the sum Byrd would have received under a twelve month contract with the District for the 1988-1989 school year.

The District filed a Motion to Alter or Amend Judgment on November 19, 1990, requesting clarification of the method used to calculate damages. Further, it asserted that Byrd's employment contract with the Wayne County School District for the 1988-1989 school year served to mitigate his damages. Pursuant to Miss.Code Ann. Sec. 37-9-101, the School Employment Procedures Act, the chancellor remanded the case to the School Board for a hearing on the issues of mitigation and the expenses incurred in reducing damages.

The Board held a hearing on July 16, 1991. The transcript of those proceedings reflects that neither Byrd nor his attorney were present at the hearing. 3 Comparing the salary Byrd actually earned under his 1988-1989 contract with the Wayne County School District with what he would have earned under a ten-month contract with Greene County, the Board found that Byrd was entitled to actual damages of $1996.00. The chancellor entered a final judgment on July 30, 1991, incorporating by reference his November 7, 1990, findings of fact and conclusions of law, as amended to reflect an award of damages in the amount of $1,996.00 and legal interest.

II.

When considering teacher termination cases, this Court's scope of review is quite limited. In Hoffman v. Board of Trustees, 567 So.2d 838 (Miss.1990), we explained that:

We accept our duty of deference to the hearing officials and this is no different when those officials are the ultimate legal authority for the school district. We look to see whether the decision of the Board is supported by substantial evidence, was arbitrary or capricious, was beyond the power of the Board to make, or violated some statutory or constitutional right of the complaining party. See, e.g. Harrison County School Board v. Morreale, 538 So.2d [1196, 1203 (Miss.1989) ]. Most assuredly, by way of contrast, the test is not what we would have decided had we been the trier of the issues in dispute.

Hoffman, 567 So.2d at 842. Pursuant to Miss.Code Ann. Sec. 37-9-113(3) (1990), the chancery court is directed to review the entire record to determine whether a school board's decision "is unlawful because it is not supported by any substantial evidence and/or is arbitrary or capricious." Spradlin v. Board of Trustees of Pascagoula Municipal Separate School District, 515 So.2d 893, 898 (Miss.1987). This Court employs the same standard of review when a school board decision is appealed from chancery court pursuant to Miss.Code Ann. Sec. 37-9-113(5). Id.; Claiborne County Board of Education v. Martin, 500 So.2d 981, 985 (Miss.1986); Merchant v. Pearl Municipal Separate School District, 492 So.2d 959, 962 (Miss.1986).

III.

Although the parties have raised numerous arguments on appeal and cross-appeal, we limit our discussion only to the questions of whether the hearing officer should have recused himself and whether implementation of a school district's reduction in force policy constitutes "good cause" for the termination or recision of a teacher's contract.

Citing Art. 6, Sec. 165 of the Mississippi Constitution, Canon 3(C) of the Code of Judicial Conduct and Jenkins v. Forrest County Hospital, 542 So.2d 1180 (Miss.1989), the chancellor applied standards of judicial conduct and ruled that Piazza should have recused himself because "a reasonable person would certainly harbor doubts about the impartiality of the Hearing Officer in this case." On cross-appeal, the District correctly argues that the chancellor applied the wrong standard for determining whether recusal was proper.

Miss.Code Ann. Sec. 37-9-109(c) (1990) provides that an employee who has received...

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