Victor Fed'n of Teachers Local 3494 v. Victor Sch. Dist. No. 7, DA 17-0557

Docket NºDA 17-0557
Citation414 P.3d 1284, 391 Mont. 139, 2018 MT 72
Case DateApril 03, 2018
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Montana

391 Mont. 139
414 P.3d 1284
2018 MT 72

VICTOR FEDERATION OF TEACHERS LOCAL 3494, MEA-MFT, and Juliana Arechaga, Applicants and Appellants,
v.
VICTOR SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 7, RAVALLI COUNTY, Montana, and its trustees Paul Rosen, Marci Smith, Mary Allred, Roy Perry, and Steve Wilson, Respondents and Appellees.

DA 17-0557

Supreme Court of Montana.

Submitted on Briefs: January 31, 2018
Decided: April 3, 2018


For Appellants: Karl J. Englund, Karl J. Englund, P.C., Missoula, Montana, Jonathan McDonald, McDonald Law Office, PLLC, Helena, Montana

For Appellees: Kris Goss, Debra A. Silk, Tony C. Koenig, Montana School Boards Association, Helena, Montana

Justice Beth Baker delivered the Opinion of the Court.

414 P.3d 1286
391 Mont. 140

¶1 Juliana Arechaga was a non-tenured teacher for Victor School District No. 7 (School District) when, on May 23, 2017, the School District's Board of Trustees (Board) voted to not renew her employment contract for the 2017-2018 school year. Arechaga was present at that meeting but did not receive written notice of the School District's decision until June 7. Arechaga applied for a writ of mandamus in the Twenty-First Judicial District Court, arguing that because she did not receive the written notice by June 1, the School District was statutorily obligated to renew her contract for the ensuing school year. The District Court denied her application. We reverse and remand for issuance of the writ.

PROCEDURAL AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND

¶2 Arechaga worked as a social studies teacher for the School District from 2014 to 2017. As a non-tenured teacher, Arechaga was subject to the School District's annual decision to renew or not renew her contract. The School District had renewed her employment contract for both the 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 school years.

¶3 When the School District hired Arechaga in 2014, she lived on Foothills Drive in Missoula. In March 2016, Arechaga moved. She did not notify the School District of her new address. The School District rarely communicated with Arechaga by mail, and it had no policy—in

391 Mont. 141

its faculty handbook or otherwise—obligating teachers to inform it of any change to their mailing addresses. The School District typically communicated with Arechaga in person, by telephone, or by e-mail.

¶4 Arechaga went on maternity leave on March 31, 2017, through the end of the school year. On May 16, while Arechaga was present at the school to sign up for health insurance, the School District hand-delivered her written notice that the Board was going to discuss her contract at a meeting on May 23. At the meeting—with Arechaga present—the Board voted to not renew Arechaga's contract for the 2017-2018 school year.

¶5 The next day, the School District drafted a letter to Arechaga notifying her that her employment contract for the ensuing school year had not been renewed. The School District sent this letter via certified U.S. mail to the address it had on file—Arechaga's outdated Foothills Drive address. Arechaga never received the letter; it was returned to the School District as "unclaimed" on June 18. Arechaga did not receive written notice of the School District's decision until June 7, when the School District Clerk hand-delivered her a copy while she was present at the school.

¶6 Arechaga and the Victor Federation of Teachers Local 3494 (Federation)—the collective bargaining unit representing her—filed an application for a writ of mandamus in the District Court. Arechaga and the Federation asserted that because Arechaga had not received the School District's written notice by June 1, the School District was statutorily obligated to renew her contract for the 2017-2018 school year.

¶7 The court held a show cause hearing at which Arechaga testified. Arechaga asserted that she did not "in any way attempt to avoid receiving the written notice" and that, given the School District's history of communicating with her in person, by telephone, and by e-mail, it "didn't even occur" to her to notify the School District of her updated mailing address.

¶8 After the hearing, the District Court denied the application. The court agreed with Arechaga that under § 20-4-206(1), MCA —

414 P.3d 1287

which obligates a school district to "provide" written notice by June 1 of its decision to not renew a teaching contract for the ensuing school year—written notice becomes effective only upon receipt by the teacher. But the court noted that "constructive receipt and notice are chargeable to one who willfully avoids or frustrates written notice." The court found as a matter of fact that Arechaga "did not take active steps, per se, to avoid notice." It concluded nonetheless that "her

391 Mont. 142

neglect and lack of diligence in maintaining a current address on file with the school district were the sole cause of her failure to receive timely notice of the non-renewal of her contract." The court held that this excused the School District's "mandatory duty to provide her with written notice by June 1, 2017." The court concluded that the School District was not obligated to renew Arechaga's employment contract for the 2017-2018 school year. Arechaga appeals.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶9 A district court's decision to issue or deny a writ of mandamus presents a conclusion of law that we review for correctness. City of Deer Lodge ex rel. City of Deer Lodge Ordinances 130 & 136 v. Chilcott , 2012 MT 165, ¶ 12, 365 Mont. 497, 285 P.3d 418.

DISCUSSION

¶10 Section 20-4-206(1), MCA, provides:

The trustees shall provide written notice by June 1 to each nontenure teacher employed by the district regarding whether the nontenure teacher has been reelected for the ensuing school fiscal year. A teacher who does not receive written notice of reelection or termination is automatically reelected for the ensuing school fiscal year.

"Subject to the June 1 notice requirements in this section," the statute permits a school district to refuse to renew a non-tenure teacher's employment "with or without cause." Section 20-4-206(3), MCA.

¶11 Arechaga argues that because she did not receive written notice of the non-renewal of her contract by June 1, 2017, she was "automatically" rehired for the 2017-2018 school year by operation of law. She contends that the District Court misapplied the law in determining that Arechaga's failure to update her mailing address with the School District excused the School District's obligation to ensure that she received timely written notice of its decision. Arechaga contends that a writ of mandamus is appropriate in this case because the School District had a clear legal duty to renew her contract and because she has no other speedy and adequate legal remedy available to her.

¶12 The School District argues that it complied with the requirements of § 20-4-206(1), MCA, by mailing written notice on May 24, 2017, to the address that it had on file for Arechaga. It emphasizes that Arechaga had actual notice of the School District's decision prior to June 1 because she attended the May 23 meeting at which the Board

391 Mont. 143

voted to not renew her contract. The School District argues that Arechaga's failure to update her address—rather than anything the School District did—frustrated delivery of the written notice. The School District contends that Arechaga has not satisfied the requirements for a writ of mandamus because the action she seeks to compel—the renewal of her teaching contract—is not a "ministerial act," and because the appropriate remedy for her was a declaratory judgment action, rather than a writ of mandamus.

¶13 A writ of mandamus compels "the performance of an act that the law specially enjoins as a duty resulting from an office, trust, or station." Citizens for a Better Flathead v. Bd. of Cnty. Comm'rs , 2016 MT 325, ¶ 58, 385 Mont. 505, 386 P.3d 567 (citing § 27-26-102, MCA ). A writ of mandamus is available when "(1) the party who applies for it is entitled to the performance of a clear legal duty by the party against whom the writ is sought; and (2) there is no speedy and adequate remedy available in the ordinary course of law." Citizens for a Better Flathead , ¶ 58 (citation and internal quotations omitted). The "clear legal duty must involve a ministerial act, not a discretionary act." Citizens for a Better Flathead , ¶ 59 (citation and internal quotations omitted). An act is ministerial when "the law prescribes and...

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2 practice notes
  • Quarter Circle JP Ranch, LLC v. Jerde, DA 17-0223
    • United States
    • Montana United States State Supreme Court of Montana
    • April 3, 2018
    ...the merits of her request. Further, the District Court did not err in determining that Riley was not an indispensable party subject to 414 P.3d 1284joinder. A person subject to service must be joined as a party if "in that person's absence, the court cannot accord complete relief among......
  • O'Brien v. Krantz, DA 18-0042
    • United States
    • Montana United States State Supreme Court of Montana
    • August 7, 2018
    ...to issue or deny a writ of mandamus for correctness. 392 Mont. 267 Victor Fed’n of Teachers Local 3494 v. Victor Sch. Dist. No. 7 , 2018 MT 72, ¶ 9, 391 Mont. 139, 414 P.3d 1284.DISCUSSION ¶ 7 O’Brien argues that the District Court incorrectly denied his petition for a writ of mandate becau......
2 cases
  • Quarter Circle JP Ranch, LLC v. Jerde, DA 17-0223
    • United States
    • Montana United States State Supreme Court of Montana
    • April 3, 2018
    ...the merits of her request. Further, the District Court did not err in determining that Riley was not an indispensable party subject to 414 P.3d 1284joinder. A person subject to service must be joined as a party if "in that person's absence, the court cannot accord complete relief among......
  • O'Brien v. Krantz, DA 18-0042
    • United States
    • Montana United States State Supreme Court of Montana
    • August 7, 2018
    ...to issue or deny a writ of mandamus for correctness. 392 Mont. 267 Victor Fed’n of Teachers Local 3494 v. Victor Sch. Dist. No. 7 , 2018 MT 72, ¶ 9, 391 Mont. 139, 414 P.3d 1284.DISCUSSION ¶ 7 O’Brien argues that the District Court incorrectly denied his petition for a writ of mandate becau......

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