CHICAGO (CN) – A 2012 Indiana law that allows schools to ignore tenure status when making layoff decisions cannot be applied retroactively to teachers who have already attained tenure, the Seventh Circuit ruled Monday.
Joseph Elliott worked at Dupont Elementary School in Madison, Ind., for 19 years as a third-grade teacher before he was laid off in 2012 when the school district decided to close two schools. Just that year, he had been elected to serve as president of the local teachers’ union, court records show.
When Elliott was originally informed that the school would be cutting staff, the letter he received stated that the reduction would be seniority-based rather than performance-based.
But by the time Elliott had a requested hearing before the school board, Indiana had enacted Senate Bill 1, a law that cut back on the rights of tenured teachers during layoffs and authorized the board to base layoff decisions on performance without regard for tenure status.
Elliott says he received satisfactory or above ratings in all 14 skill areas assessed in all recent annual evaluations, but in 2002 – 10 years prior to his dismissal – he received “needs improvement” in three skills related to “interpersonal relationships.”
The board cited Elliott’s 2002 evaluation, as well as more recent criticism that he could be more compassionate, as cause to lay him off in 2012.
The school district retained six non-tenured teachers in positions that Elliott was licensed to teach.
Elliott sued over his dismissal, arguing that Senate Bill 1 violated the U.S. Constitution’s Contract Clause when applied retroactively to teachers who earned tenure before the law took effect.
A federal judge agreed with him and awarded Elliott back pay plus attorney’s fees, and the Seventh Circuit affirmed Monday.
“Senate Bill 1 substantially disrupted tenured teachers’ expectations about job security,” U.S. Circuit Judge David Hamilton said, writing for a three-judge panel. “It is not fair to change the rules so substantially when it is too late for the affected parties to change course.”
The panel found that such a drastic change to tenured teachers’ rights was unforeseeable, given that the state had not altered its regulations regarding tenure for 80 years.
“Applying the layoff provisions of Senate Bill 1 substantially impaired Elliott’s tenure contract rights by disrupting his reasonable contractual expectations,” Hamilton said.
And while a substantial impairment of contract rights may be constitutional if it is necessary to serve an important public purpose – such as the state’s interest in retaining its best teachers – it was unnecessary in this case, the Chicago-based appeals court found.
“Indiana has not shown it needs to impose this retroactive impairment of its earlier promises of job security to improve teacher quality,” Hamilton said. “Ten years ago, Elliott was found to need improvement in one skill-set, and he apparently made that improvement. That stale problem is the proffered rationale for laying off him instead of a non-tenured teacher. Distinguishing between qualified and effective teachers on such a meager basis is not necessary to achieve Indiana’s goals, at least as applied to teachers who earned tenure before Senate Bill 1 took effect.”