East Providence School Committee v. Quattrucci, C.A. PC 09-4788

CourtSuperior Court of Rhode Island
Writing for the CourtVOGEL, J.
PartiesEAST PROVIDENCE SCHOOL COMMITTEE v. ANNE MARIE QUATTRUCCI and RHODE ISLAND BOARD OF REGENTS FOR ELEMENTARY AND SECONDARY EDUCATION
Docket NumberC.A. PC 09-4788
Decision Date06 April 2011

EAST PROVIDENCE SCHOOL COMMITTEE
v.

ANNE MARIE QUATTRUCCI and RHODE ISLAND BOARD OF REGENTS FOR ELEMENTARY AND SECONDARY EDUCATION

C.A. No. PC 09-4788

Superior Court of Rhode Island

April 6, 2011


DECISION

VOGEL, J.

The East Providence School Committee ("School Committee") and Anne Marie Quattrucci ("Quattrucci") bring these cross-appeals from a decision of the Rhode Island Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education ("Board of Regents"), finding that Quattrucci, a former tenured teacher, was entitled to back pay from 1999-2000, but not to prejudgment interest on that award. For the reasons set forth below, the Court affirms the decision of the Board of Regents. Jurisdiction is pursuant to G.L. 1956 § 42-35-15, G.L. 1956 § 16-39-4, and G.L. 1956 § 16-13-4.

I

Facts and Travel

On February 13, 1998, the Superintendent of the East Providence School Department recommended to the School Committee that Quattrucci, a tenured teacher in the East Providence School District, be terminated for cause. Quattrucci v. Rhode Island Bd. of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Educ. (Quattrucci I), No. PC-04-6767, 2006 WL 1628824, at *2 (Super. Ct. May 30, 2006). On April 27, 1998, the School Committee notified Quattrucci of its decision terminating her employment effective May 1, 1998. Id. at *3. She was removed from the payroll on that date.

Quattrucci took a timely appeal from that decision to the Commissioner of Education ("Commissioner") pursuant to § 16-39-1. In her appeal, she averred that the School Committee lacked good cause to terminate her and that it failed to conduct a timely hearing. Id. The Commissioner affirmed the School Committee's decision to terminate Quattrucci. (Quattrucci Ex. C, Commissioner Decision, Oct. 28, 2002 ("Commissioner Decision I") at 12.) However, the Commissioner modified the effective termination date to begin at the start of the 1999-2000 school year because notice was not provided to Quattrucci by the March 1 statutory deadline.[1] Id.

The Board of Regents affirmed the decision of the Commissioner regarding Quattrucci's termination and its effective date. (School Committee Ex. D, Board of Regents Decision, Oct. 28, 2002 ("Board of Regents Decision I") at 2.) Quattrucci appealed that decision to the Superior Court. The Presiding Justice of this Court affirmed the decision of the Board of Regents and ordered that Quattrucci's employment be terminated for cause as of the start of the 1999-2000 school year. See Quattrucci I, 2006 WL 1628824, at *8. Neither party took an appeal from that decision.

On July 17, 2006, Quattrucci requested a hearing to address the amount due her as back pay for the period of time from May 1, 1998, when she was first removed from the payroll to the start of the 1999-2000 school year. Her claim was based upon the Superior Court decision finding that she should not have been terminated before the beginning of that school term. (Quattrucci Ex. G, Letter from John E. DeCubellis, Counsel for Quattrucci, to Kathleen Murray, Hearing Officer, July 17, 2006.)[2]A hearing was held before a Hearing Officer for the Commissioner on November 16, 2006. (Admin Hr'g Tr., Nov. 16, 2006, at 1.) Quattrucci appeared at the hearing as did her attorney and counsel for the School Committee. Id. The Hearing Officer considered arguments from both counsel but did not receive any testimony. Quattrucci offered several exhibits at the hearing documenting both the travel of the controversy and her claim for damages. The School Committee offered two exhibits, the earlier decisions of both the Board of Regents and the Presiding Justice. The parties submitted a joint exhibit documenting the amount of money that Quattrucci would have earned between May 1 and the start of the next school year had she remained on the payroll.

In her October 17, 2007 decision, the Hearing Officer first outlined the travel and issues within the matter. (School Committee Ex. B, Commissioner Decision, Oct. 17, 2007 ("Commissioner Decision II") at 1.) The Hearing Officer then made findings of relevant facts and summarized the positions of the parties. Id. at 2-8. In her analysis, the Hearing Officer opined that Quattrucci's damages claims were not barred by the doctrine of res judicata because damages had not been decided in the earlier decisions and had been left open for subsequent determination. Id. at 8. She concluded that the issue of damages had been bifurcated by inference from the issues of whether she was being terminated for cause and the effective date of her termination. Id. Specifically, the Hearing Officer found that:

"The hearing was bifurcated to separate the issue of the alleged denial of a right to prompt post-termination hearing and decision. . . . Implicit in this agreement to defer hearing on the third claim was the notion that a hearing on damages would not be held until the Commissioner's decision on the underlying claims was made. The scope of the hearing on damages would undoubtedly be affected by the rulings on the merits of the claims presented on Ms Quattrucci's behalf." Id.

She noted that the earlier decision was devoid of direct reference to this issue and commented that "[i]n retrospect a statement to [that] effect in the decision would have been helpful." Id. However, the Hearing Officer was satisfied that she had jurisdiction to hear and decide the remaining issues in this case and that they had not been previously addressed nor barred for Quattrucci's failure to present evidence on the issues at the earlier hearings. Id.

The Hearing Officer then addressed the School Committee's argument that Quattrucci was not entitled to back pay from May 1 to the start of the following school year because, according to the School Committee, Quattrucci was constructively suspended as of May 1. The Hearing Officer rejected this argument and found that there was no legal basis on which to convert the School Committee's action to a suspension even if the School Committee accepted the Superintendent's recommendation that she be terminated. Id. The Hearing Officer additionally rejected the School Committee's contention that an award of back pay is unwarranted because the gap between May 1 and the start of the following school year was merely the result of a defect in procedure and that there was just cause for termination. Id. at 9-10. Specifically, the Hearing Officer reasoned that "the task at hand is determining the amount of damages, not a 'rebalancing' of the equities to shield the School Committee from the effect of the Commissioner's prior decision." Id. at 10.

The Hearing Officer found that the parties had agreed to the amount of salary that Quattrucci would have earned up to the reformed effective date of her termination, as reflected in Joint Exhibit 1. Id. She determined that Quattrucci was entitled to unpaid salary in the amount indicated on Joint Exhibit 1, offset by the amount of unemployment compensation she received and any earnings she gained from other employment during the period May 1, 1998 through the end of the 1998-1999 school year. Id. The Hearing Officer also found that the Committee must pay the retirement contributions on Quattrucci's behalf for 1998-1999, with interest owed on those amounts. Id. The Hearing Officer, however, declined to offset the back pay owed by the amounts paid for medical insurance coverage for a five-year period after Quattrucci's termination because the Committee knowingly and voluntarily extended this benefit to Quattrucci during that period. Id. She found neither unjust enrichment nor implied contract that would have entitled the School Committee to such an offset. Id.

The Hearing Officer then examined whether prejudgment interest should be included on the back pay award to Quattrucci. Id. at 11. In this analysis, she noted that administrative hearings before the Commissioner involve the adjudication of both individual rights and the enforcement of education laws; hence, she found that the Commissioner may exercise latitude in fashioning an appropriate remedy. Id. According to the Hearing Officer, such latitude is "not necessarily present in the civil actions adjudicated in court proceedings to which the precedent cited by the School Committee applies." Id. Therefore, the Hearing Officer concluded that prejudgment interest, "traditionally included in 'back pay' awards in administrative proceedings [before the Commissioner of Education]" is warranted in this case. Id.

The Hearing Officer then found that the method of calculating the amount of prejudgment interest is not in dispute and, thus, she concluded that the amount of interest indicated in Quattrucci's Exhibit 3C must be paid to the Appellant. Id.

She further noted that her decision renders moot Quattrucci's claim that the Committee unreasonably delayed its post-termination hearings and a decision complying with her due process rights. Id. at 11-12. The Hearing Officer specifically found that the deferral of the effective date of her termination provided her with salary payments for the same length of time that she claims the Committee delayed in completing hearings on her termination. Id. at 11. Accordingly, the Hearing Officer concluded that the School Committee must pay Quattrucci the damages specifically described in Quattrucci's Exhibit 3C. Id. at 12.

On October 17, 2007, the Commissioner approved the decision of the Hearing Officer which awarded Quattrucci damages for her unpaid salary for the period from May 1, 1998 through the 1998-1999 school year, plus interest. Id.

The School Committee timely appealed this decision to the Board of Regents. On August 6, 2009, the Board of Regents issued its decision. In its decision, the Board of Regents noted that it would not disturb the Hearing Officer's findings of fact. (School Committee Ex. A., Board of Regents Decision, Aug. 6, 2009 ("Board of Regents Decision...

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