Crump v. Board of Educ. of Hickory Administrative School Unit, 171A89

Citation392 S.E.2d 579, 326 N.C. 603
Case DateJune 13, 1990
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of North Carolina

Ferguson, Stein, Watt, Wallas, Adkins & Gresham, P.A. by John W. Gresham, Charlotte, for plaintiff-appellee.

Mitchell, Blackwell, Mitchell & Smith, P.A. by Thomas G. Smith, and Sigmon, Clark and Mackie, P.A. by E. Fielding Clark II, Hickory for defendants-appellants.

George T. Rogister, Jr. and Jonathan A. Blumberg, Raleigh, for North Carolina School Boards Ass'n, amicus curiae.

MITCHELL, Justice.

The issue before us is whether, at a teacher dismissal hearing, a single school board member's bias against the teacher taints the entire board's decision-making process, denying the teacher due process and entitling him to compensatory damages, regardless of whether the bias affected the correctness of the board's decision. We conclude that such bias makes the decision-making process inherently unfair and violates due process.

The facts relevant to the issue presented include the following: On 7 June 1984, the defendant-appellants, the Hickory Board of Education and its individual members, dismissed the plaintiff-appellee, Eddie Ray Crump, from his teaching position at Hickory High School based on findings of immorality and insubordination. Following his dismissal, Crump filed a joint petition and complaint with the Superior Court. His petition pursuant to N.C.G.S. § 115C-325 for direct judicial review of the Board's action dismissing him alleged that the evidence introduced at the Board's hearing was insufficient to support its findings. His complaint initiating this separate civil action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleged that the defendants had acted with bias against him, in violation of his due process rights under the state and federal constitutions, as well as in violation of the statutory protections codified at N.C.G.S. § 115C-325. Crump sought damages in this civil action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, including compensatory damages from the Board and punitive damages from its individual members.

Upon the defendants' motion, the trial court severed the two separate claims brought by Crump, and conducted its direct judicial review of the Board's decision to dismiss him separately from the trial of this civil action. Thereafter, on direct review of the Board's action, the superior court upheld the Board's decision to dismiss Crump. Crump appealed that decision to the Court of Appeals, which affirmed the superior court in Crump v. Board of Education, 79 N.C.App. 372, 339 S.E.2d 483, disc. rev. denied, 317 N.C. 333, 346 S.E.2d 137 (1986). Thus, the Board's decision to dismiss Crump has been made final and is not before us on this appeal. This appeal only presents questions of procedural fairness during the School Board's hearing, which were raised by Crump in this separate civil action seeking damages as a result of the Board's alleged bias and the resulting denial of due process at the Board's hearing. In support of his § 1983 action, Crump alleged this denial of due process by the Board caused him injury separate and distinct from his mere dismissal.

The separate civil action presenting Crump's due process claim, the sole subject of this appeal, was tried before a jury at the 16 November 1987 session of Superior Court, Catawba County. Crump based his claim of bias and resulting denial of due process on evidence at trial tending to show disparities between the actual pre-hearing knowledge of and involvement with Crump's situation by certain Board members, and their disavowals of knowledge of the matter when asked about it at the Board's hearing.

At the Board's dismissal hearing, Crump's attorney, James Fuller, questioned Board members about their ability to be fair and impartial:

Mr. Fuller: ... I want to be perfectly blunt about it and ask the Board ... the extent to which any of you have been personally involved, have discussed with people who have knowledge and whether any of you have formed any kind of preconceived notions. I don't mean that in a pejorative sense but just as matter of being brutally candid. Has anybody on the Board either because of the publicity, because of what you have heard from [the] administration, from friends, neighbors, from anyone else, whether you have any problem at all being completely fair to Mr. Crump? And again, I don't mean fair in the sense of you will try to be fair, but can you honestly say the scales are even now....

Mr. Pitts: That's a fair question. I am glad you addressed that right up front because several months ago the Board was aware that some form of hearing was coming down the pike. The administration, the attorney, has not ever revealed anything until we received this letter in the mail yesterday hand delivered of any charges or any statements. Now I can speak for myself. But the attorney has asked all members of the Board not to discuss any aspect of anything that they may hear. If someone calls them on the phone, they are not to respond in any way. I can speak for myself to say that for me at this point in time the slate is clear.

Ms. Newton: The same thing. In fact we have not even been given a name whenever we were told a hearing was coming up. And I have not been approached by anybody. And if mention was made of it, I just said I know nothing. And whatever judgment would be made has to be done on what we hear tonight.

Mr. Isenhour: The same.

Ms. Garlitz: The same. I have had people that made statements to me, and I have not responded in any way. And I did not know until the letter came yesterday what this was about.

Mr. Watts: Frankly, I feel that I can be as objective as anybody on this Board. Obviously when a newspaper that is published on a county-wide basis comes out and indicates that a teacher is being brought up for charges, I read the article because I'm on the School Board and the teacher happens to be in my system. Other than that, there has been no preliminary information except for this notice we got yesterday afternoon late in the afternoon with the charges. I think I have a fairly good grasp of what we're here for and hopefully will be able to give every bit of the evidence full weight.

Ms. Young: I had one call, and I said, "I have no comments." And I have not said one word anywhere. And when I go, I listen and I vote my convictions.

Subsequent evidence suggested, however, that not all of the Board members had been entirely candid in their answers. During Principal Williamson's testimony at the Board's hearing, Board member Isenhour asked him, "[a]re you aware of the fact that we had parents who will not let their daughters take driver's education because of this situation, that they're sending their daughters to the private school?" At the later trial of this civil action, however, Isenhour acknowledged that no evidence before the Board during its hearing tended to show that female students at Hickory High School were taking driver's education elsewhere for any reason.

Hal Bolick, a teacher at Hickory High School, testified at trial that several months before the Board's hearing, Board Chairman Pitts told him that the Board could not "overlook" the "letters about [Crump's conduct with] the little girls." Bolick further testified regarding conversations with Board member John Watts prior to the Board's dismissal hearing. Bolick testified that he had "advised" Watts of pre-hearing conversations regarding Crump between Bolick and one of the students who later testified against Crump at the hearing. Bolick also testified that, after the hearing, Watts told Bolick "that things that had gone on in the [hearing] room itself didn't seem like the Board members were listening, that they seemed to have made up their minds before they went in." Board member Watts testified at trial, however, that he did not recall making such a statement to Bolick.

Roger Henry, a former teacher, testified that in March 1984, prior to the Board's hearing, Board member Watts told him that the charges against Crump "didn't look good, that they were concerned, and mentioned [Board member] Garlitz and [Chairman] Pitts and [that Crump] ... needed to resign [and would Henry] do anything about it." When asked at trial whether he denied that the conversation with Henry had occurred, Watts answered, "I won't deny it or confirm it, sir."

Bruce Crump (no relation to the plaintiff-appellee), another former teacher, testified that in the spring of 1984, prior to the Board's hearing, he witnessed Board member Lois Young tell Principal Williamson, "We're all together on this Crump thing." Bruce Crump also testified that no matters involving him were pending with the Board at the time he heard Young make the statement about the "Crump thing." Neither Young nor Williamson testified at trial.

The plaintiff-appellee Eddie Crump testified that he had a conversation with Board member Young after his dismissal. Crump testified that during their conversation, Young told him that prior to the Board's hearing Principal Williamson had promised the Board members that Crump would resign rather than endure a dismissal hearing and thus bring embarrassment upon his wife.

The jury found that the Board had failed to "provide [Crump] a fair hearing before an unbiased hearing body," and that Crump had suffered resulting actual damages of $78,000, but awarded no punitive damages. The trial court entered judgment accordingly. A divided panel of the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's judgment.


As a preliminary matter, we address one point raised by the dissents in this case. Although using differing terminology, the dissents argue that Crump's bias claim was previously and finally decided against him in the direct judicial review of the Board's decision to terminate him...

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