August 13, 2012
On August 10, 2012, California’s Second District Court of Appeal struck down the trial court’s entry of judgment on the consent decree in the much-publicized lawsuit Reed v. Los Angeles Unified School District. The ruling invalidated an agreement that had exempted certain schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) from seniority-based layoffs.
In February 2010, LAUSD was sued in connection with its implementation of seniority-based certificated layoffs. The challenge to the layoffs was filed not by the teachers whose positions were being eliminated, but by students who alleged their constitutional equal protection rights were violated because low performing schools were being disproportionately affected by the seniority-based reductions. By law, as a general rule school districts must implement layoffs of certificated employees in order of seniority, i.e., the order in which the employees were first employed in a probationary position. (Education Code section 44955.) However, Education Code section 44955(d) allows a school district to deviate from strict seniority (to “skip” less senior teachers) in a layoff under two circumstances: (1) the employee has special training and experience necessary to teach a course or course of study, which others with more seniority do not possess; or (2) “for purposes of maintaining or achieving compliance with constitutional requirements related to equal protection of the laws.”
The plaintiffs in Reed alleged that seniority-based layoffs in 2009 had deprived students in three LAUSD schools of their constitutional right to equality of educational opportunity. The three schools fell far below both LAUSD and statewide API averages and were disproportionately impacted by the layoffs. When LAUSD proposed another layoff in the spring of 2010, the plaintiffs representing the students at the three schools sought a preliminary injunction to stop the layoff in an attempt to protect the relatively junior teachers at these three sites.
The trial court found that layoffs caused teacher turnover, which signifi cantly adversely affected the students at the three schools, and enjoined the district from implementing layoffs at those schools, requiring that teachers assigned to the three schools be “skipped” and therefore not subject to layoff. After this ruling, the parties negotiated a proposed settlement in the form of a consent decree. The consent decree provided for measures to improve the targeted schools and to ensure other schools would not be disproportionately impacted by the changes. It identified a “targeted subset” of up to 45 schools in LAUSD (about 9% of total non-charter schools), specifically those ranked in deciles 1, 2 or 3 in the API with high teacher turnover and academic growth over time, and schools identified as likely to be disproportionately affected by teacher turnover, or in the district’s discretion, determined to be in intense need of protection from layoffs.
The effect of the settlement was to spare all teachers at 45 designated schools in LAUSD from being laid off, regardless of their seniority, for three years. LAUSD’s governing board voted to approve the settlement in October 2010. UTLA opposed the consent decree, specifically the provision that the district would “skip” teachers at 45 schools in the event of a layoff. After a January 2011 “fairness hearing” on the consent decree, the trial court ruled that Education Code section 44955(d) (2) provided that teachers’ seniority rights must be subordinate to students’ equal protection rights, and students’ education was harmed by teacher turnover. The court rejected UTLA’s contention that the consent decree violated the contractual rights of the teachers, finding “teachers do not have a vested interest in the application of seniority in a layoff that will result in an equal protection violation and a school district does not have discretion to violate students’ fundamental right to equal educational opportunity.” UTLA appealed.
The Court of Appeal’s Decision
The Court of Appeal overturned the trial court’s decision on the basis that the consent decree violated the teachers’ seniority rights under the Education Code and the CBA. Because the rights of UTLA and its members were affected by the consent decree, they had the right to have their objections considered by the court. Previous case law established that an employer cannot unilaterally enter into a consent decree that alters a collective bargaining agreement even if the purpose is to settle a dispute over whether the employer has violated another party’s constitutional rights. In such a situation, courts have held that prejudice to the union may be avoided only by setting aside the consent decree and having the party litigate the merits of the underlying case.
Following this line of precedent, the Court of Appeal in Reed held UTLA’s rights “should be given no less respect than the rights of parties who negotiate a consent decree. In other words, all parties should have the right to either voluntarily compromise a claim or litigate.” According to the Court of Appeal, the fairness hearing resulted in an impact to UTLA’s rights without sufficient due process.
Impact on School Districts
The Court of Appeal’s decision may be appealed to the California Supreme Court, which may or may not grant review. Unless the Supreme Court grants review or depublishes the decision, it is binding law throughout the State.
Because of its size and the number of students affected, the LAUSD’s implementation of the certificated layoff process was ripe for a challenge based on equal protection principles. Under the Reed ruling, a school district may not unilaterally enter into an agreement that provides for the district to deviate from seniority in a certificated layoff based on the assertion that the longstanding seniority-based system violates students’ constitutional rights. Nonetheless, the equal protection issue is likely to remain a focus of teachers’ unions and advocacy groups in the near future.
The Reed lawsuit itself may now proceed to a trial on the merits. AALRR will be following future developments in this case. Should you have any questions about the Court of Appeal’s decision, please contact one of our seven offices. For the time being, consistent with our prior advice, proper application of the statutory bases for deviating from strict seniority layoffs should be continued.