Laurel Sch. Dist. v. Lanier
|347 So.3d 210
|06 September 2022
|LAUREL SCHOOL DISTRICT, Appellant v. Tito LANIER, Appellee
|Court of Appeals of Mississippi
ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANT: JOHN SIMEON HOOKS, LINDSEY OSWALT WATSON, Ridgeland
ATTORNEY FOR APPELLEE: JASON EDWARD OWENS
EMFINGER, J., FOR THE COURT:
¶1. Tito Lanier, a "licensed employee" of the Laurel School District (School District) for the 2019-2020 school year, filed a verified complaint in the Chancery Court of the Second Judicial District of Jones County, Mississippi, naming the School District as the Defendant. The complaint sought relief from the School District's decision not to renew Lanier's contract for the 2020-2021 school year and the School District's failure to conduct a nonrenewal hearing Lanier requested pursuant to the Education Employment Procedures Law of 2001 (EEPL).1 The School District filed a motion to dismiss, or in the alternative, for summary judgment. After hearing the parties’ arguments in support of and in opposition to the motion, the chancellor dismissed the complaint for Lanier to "pursue his administrative hearing before the School District" but did so for reasons different than those raised by the School District in its motion. It is from this order that the School District appeals.
FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
¶2. Lanier contends that he was an employee of the School District from 2009 until 2020. On March 29, 2019, Lanier and the School District entered into a contract in which Lanier was designated as a "licensed employee" for the school year beginning July 1, 2019, and ending on June 30, 2020. According to Lanier, he began the 2019-2020 school year as the principal of Laurel Middle School. In October 2019, he was reassigned to the position of student support coordinator.
¶3. On May 1, 2020, Lanier received written notice that he would not be offered a contract for the 2020-2021 school year. Although he did not sign the notice of nonrenewal acknowledging receipt of the letter on May 1, 2020, Lanier did, on that date, write on the letter that he did not agree with the nonrenewal and requested a hearing on the issue. On May 5, 2020, Lanier's attorney faxed a letter to Dr. Toy L. Watts, the superintendent of the Laurel School District, again requesting a hearing regarding the nonrenewal of his contract. In this letter, Lanier's attorney requested certain other information in preparation for the hearing.
¶4. On June 2, 2020, Lanier's attorney was advised that the requested hearing had been set for June 26, 2020. Because the date of the scheduled hearing was not within thirty days of Lanier's request, as required by statute, Lanier filed a "Motion to Dismiss" with the School District requesting that he be given a contract for the 2020-2021 school year and that the recommendation for nonrenewal be removed from his personnel file.
¶5. In an attempt to cure its failure to schedule the requested hearing within the required thirty-day period, the School District issued a second nonrenewal letter dated June 23, 2020. In this letter, the School District stated that the nonrenewal letter dated May 1, 2020, was withdrawn and that the hearing, which had been scheduled for June 26, 2020, was cancelled. The letter again advised Lanier of the reasons for the nonrenewal of his contract and, again, advised him of certain rights pursuant to the EEPL.
¶6. On July 3, 2020, Lanier's attorney emailed a "Special Appearance and Motion of Tito Lanier to Dismiss"2 to counsel for the School District. In this document, Lanier reiterated his contention that because the School District had not given him the hearing within thirty days of his request, his due process rights had been violated. As a result, he again moved that he be given a contract for the 2020-2021 school year and that the recommendation of nonrenewal be removed from his personnel file. This motion concluded by stating:
Mr. Lanier expressly reserves all rights and appeals granted to him by Section 37-9-101 through 37-9-113 of the Mississippi Code. Further, Mr. Lanier requests a hearing on his objection to the Superintendent's second nonrenewal recommendation.
¶7. In a letter to Lanier's counsel dated July 8, 2020, the School District took the position that the issue of whether Lanier was entitled to a contract for the 2020-2021 school year was moot because Lanier had signed a contract with the Forrest County School District for the 2020-2021 school year. Accordingly, the letter maintained Lanier had abandoned any claim that he was entitled to a contract with the School District. Further, the letter indicated that because Lanier did not request a hearing within ten days of the June 23, 2020 nonrenewal letter, the School District's nonrenewal decision had become final after July 3, 2020.
¶8. In response, Lanier filed the verified complaint. In his complaint, Lanier swore that he had twice requested, in writing, the hearing required by Mississippi Code Annotated section 37-9-111 and that the School District had failed to afford him such a hearing. Lanier complained that the School District's failure to afford him his due process rights to a hearing to "clear his name and protect his professional reputation ..." tarnishes and clouds his personnel file. He sought relief in the form of a declaratory judgment that he had a right to a hearing under the EEPL and that the School District's failure to grant him a hearing entitled him to a contract of employment for the 2020-2021 school year. He further sought a temporary preliminary and permanent injunction because there was a substantial threat that he would suffer "[i]mmediate and irreparable, loss and damage" before the matter could be finally heard.
¶9. The School District filed a motion to dismiss the verified complaint for Lanier's failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. In its memorandum in support of its motion, the School District agreed that it had failed to give Lanier his hearing within thirty days of his request. The School District first argued that this failure did not require the automatic renewal of Lanier's contract. Instead, the School District stated that "[i]f such an irregularity exists, the appropriate remedy is sending the case back to the Board for a rehearing." Second, the School District argued that it had corrected the problem by withdrawing the first nonrenewal letter and issuing a second notice on June 23, 2020, and that Lanier had not requested a hearing after the second notice.
¶10. On February 3, 2021, the chancellor heard brief arguments in support of and in opposition to the motion to dismiss. The School District again argued that Lanier was not entitled to an "automatic contract" because the School District did not set his hearing within thirty days of his request. The School District repeated its contention that the remedy for such a "procedural irregularity" is to "send it back to the board and get a hearing." The School District further argued that the complaint should be dismissed because Lanier was under contract with the Forrest County School District.
¶11. In his written response to the motion to dismiss filed on January 13, 2021, and during the hearing, Lanier argued that he had timely requested a hearing in response to both nonrenewal letters. During the hearing, counsel argued that Lanier wanted his "due process" hearing "to protect his professional reputation, to defend against the allegations in the nonrenewal, and to clear his name."
¶12. In its "Order of Dismissal and Order Denying Motion for Summary Judgment," the chancellor made a factual finding that Lanier, in his "Special Appearance and Motion of Tito Lanier to Dismiss," had made a timely request for a hearing in response to the June 23, 2020, second nonrenewal letter. The chancellor further found that the requested hearing was never scheduled by the School District. The chancellor found that the issues presented by the complaint were "not ripe for the Court to make any determination." The order stated that the complaint was not being dismissed because of arguments advanced by the School District; instead, the court stated:
It is being dismissed because the alleged wrongful termination of the Plaintiff has not and cannot be appealed from the School District to this Court as no final decision has been made and entered by the Defendant. Simply stated, administrative remedies have not been exhausted, even though it appears to the Court that a hearing was properly requested.
The chancellor found that the claim regarding an employment contract could not be fully pursued until after the hearing on Lanier's objection to the nonrenewal by the School District. As to the second claim in the complaint, the chancellor found that the request for a temporary injunction had not been timely pursued and should be dismissed. The issue of a permanent injunction was found to be not ready for consideration because the necessary hearing had not been completed.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
This Court employs a limited standard of review in appeals from chancery court. "We will not disturb a chancellor's factual findings when supported by substantial evidence unless the chancellor abused his discretion, was manifestly wrong, clearly erroneous[,] or applied an erroneous legal standard." Venture Sales LLC v. Perkins , 86 So. 3d 910, 913 (¶11) (Miss. 2012). When considering a motion to dismiss, this Court applies a de novo standard of review. Storey v. Williamson , 101 So. 3d 662, 665 (¶10) (Miss. Ct. App. 2012).
¶14. The School District raises three issues for this Court to consider on appeal which we combine for the purpose of our analysis below.
¶15. On appeal, for the first time, the School District argues that the chancery court...
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