Appeals Court Upholds Power of Arbitrators to Decide Whether a Teacher has Professional Teacher Status

Today, the Appeals Court issued a decision holding that arbitrators, acting pursuant to their authority under G.L. c. 71, § 42, have the authority to determine if a dismissed teacher held professional teacher status at the time of his/her dismissal. Under G.L. c. 71, § 42, teachers who have three consecutive years of service with a school district are entitled to professional teacher status, which confers upon them certain procedural and substantive rights, including the right to challenge their dismissals before an arbitrator under a just cause standard.

The case, Plymouth Public Schools vs. Education Association of Plymouth, involved a special education teacher, who worked for the school district for five years. During those five years, the teacher took maternity leave twice, under the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”). At the end of her fifth year, the school district notified her of its decision not to renew her for the upcoming year. The district believed that the teacher had not obtained professional teacher status because her service was interrupted by the two periods of maternity leave. The teacher and the union took the position that she had acquired professional teacher status by virtue of her five years as an employee of the school district. Accordingly, the union petitioned the Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education for arbitration. The Commissioner forwarded the petition to the American Arbitration Association for an arbitration to determine first, whether the teacher had professional teacher status, and, if she did, whether or not the district had just cause to terminate her employment.

The district filed suit in Superior Court. There, the district argued that the teacher did not have professional teacher status, that she had no right to arbitrate her dismissal, and that the question of whether or not she had professional teacher status could only be answered by the courts, rather than by an arbitrator. After the Superior Court ruled in the district’s favor, the teacher and the union appealed to the Appeals Court. The Appeals Court reversed the Superior Court’s decision and declined to decide whether or not the teacher had professional teacher status. In doing so, the Court ruled that the question of whether or not she had professional teacher status was one appropriately answered by an arbitrator, rather than the courts. As a result, the dismissal will be reviewed by an arbitrator who will have the power to determine whether the teacher had professional teacher status and, if so, whether she was dismissed for just cause. Had the court not decided in the union’s favor, teachers in a similar position would have to file suit in court to determine their professional teacher status, and then, if the court ruled in their favor, proceed to arbitration to obtain a determination on the merits of their dismissal. This decision reaffirms the Legislature’s intent to have arbitrators decide issues relating to the termination of teachers and avoids forcing teachers into costly, duplicative litigation.

The case was successfully litigated by Atty. Matthew Jones of the Legal Services division of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

Here is a link to the decision.

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