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Court Refines Former DC School Admins’ Claims

(CN) - Former D.C. public school principals may pursue claims that their ages and races led to their dismissal from administrative jobs, a federal judge ruled.

Twenty-two former principals and assistant principals for District of Columbia public schools sued the district over its failure to reappoint them to their previous positions in 2008 and 2009. The plaintiffs, all of whom are black or Hispanic, and older than 40, alleged the district broke its contract with them, violated employment laws, and discriminated against them based on their age and race.

Since Washington public school principals are appointed for one-year terms without tenure, the former administrators challenged their "non-reappointment" rather than employment termination.

The plaintiffs blamed their non-reappointment on Michelle Rhee, whom the District of Columbia appointed as Public Schools chancellor in 2007. They said Rhee opted to replace the older administrators with younger, white administrators of her choice.

A smear campaign engineered by Rhee then unfairly blamed the former administrators for the schools' poor performance, making it nearly impossible for them to find new work as school administrators, according to the complaint.

While some of the plaintiffs chose to work in alternative positions within the school district, others claimed the district's actions had forced them to retire early.

The district argued that public school employees must pursue administrative remedies for work-related claims, which cannot be brought in federal court.

U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman disagreed last week, however, saying that the court has jurisdiction because the former administrators brought discrimination-related claims both under D.C. and federal law.

The court dismissed the principals' breach-of-contract claim as pre-empted by D.C.'s Comprehensive Merit Personnel Act, but noted that administrative remedies for their alleged wrongful termination do not exist. The claim still fails, however, because the plaintiffs failed to allege the district violated any public policy other than the ban against age and race discrimination, which can be vindicated under the D.C. Human Rights Act, according to the 23-page ruling.

Even though the former administrators claimed Rhee defamed them to national media outlets after they were removed from their positions, their defamation and civil conspiracy claims are employment-related and therefore pre-empted by administrative law, the Sept. 30 opinion states.

Federal laws on retirement benefits do not apply to plaintiffs' claims either because governmental benefit plans are exempt from such laws, the court ruled.

The union's decision not to pursue administrative remedies for plaintiffs' work-related claims does not give the court jurisdiction over the claims, according to the ruling.

The principals' common law claims for age and race discrimination must first be pursued under the D.C. Human Rights Act, even if the district allegedly breached the collective bargaining agreement in which plaintiffs agreed to that forum, Friedman concluded.

Although Friedman found that the former administrators failed to state claims for age- and race-based discrimination under federal law, he said they may pursue those claims in an amended complaint.

The plaintiffs may not have exhausted administrative remedies as to those claims since only three of them received right-to-sue letters from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, according to the ruling.

The judge upheld the former administrators' federal claim for racial discrimination in making and enforcing contracts, finding they sufficiently alleged that Rhee, a policymaker for the district's schools, was behind the allegedly discriminatory non-reappointments.

The court dismissed the remaining claims against Rhee and former D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty.

Rhee and the district have faced several lawsuits following the mass firing of D.C. public school teachers in 2009.

A teacher sued Rhee in 2010, claiming that the chancellor defamed him in an effort to discredit teachers who lost their jobs to the district's reduction in force.

A July 2012 lawsuit claimed Rhee and the district fired a special education teacher for reporting that his principal asked him to falsify student records and alter test scores.

Rhee was chancellor of D.C. Public Schools from 2007 to 2010. In late 2010, she founded StudentsFirst, a nonprofit organization that works on education reform issues such as ending teacher tenure.

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