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December 3, 2008

Laid Off Classified Employee Is Entitled to Preferential Reemployment Rights

School districts and county offices of education must hire a classified employee who has been laid off in preference to new applicants for any vacant position for which the classified employee applies and is qualified, according to a recently published decision by the California Court of Appeal. [Tucker v. Grossmont Union High School District (10/28/08) Case No. D050266]. This decision marks a broad departure from the commonly accepted interpretation of classified layoff statutes, which were previously construed to provide classified employees a right of reemployment only in the classification from which they were laid off.

Factual Background

Charles Tucker began working for Grossmont Union High School district in 1982 as a general maintenance worker. The district promoted Tucker to Maintenance Supervisor after one and one-half years. Tucker resigned his position with the district in 1988, and for the next eight years, Tucker worked elsewhere while completing his MBA. In 1996, Tucker began to work for the district again, this time as the Director of Maintenance and Operations. He later became the Director of Operations, Safety and Special Projects.

In January 2005, based on a Fiscal Crisis and Management Team (FCMAT) recommendation, the district’s Board of Trustees voted to eliminate Tucker’s position because of lack of work and/or lack of funds. His layoff became effective in April 2005.

In April 2005, Tucker applied for a different position in the district, that of Maintenance Manager. This position was of a lower class with different job duties than Tucker’s previous position. Although Tucker met the minimum qualifications for the position, the district hired an individual who had never before worked for the district.

Tucker petitioned the court for a writ of mandate alleging that his layoff was illegal because he was not afforded “bumping rights.” He also alleged that the district violated his right to reemployment under Education Code Section 45298, which he claimed gave employees who were laid off for lack of work or lack of funds, reemployment preference over new applicants. Section 45298 reads in relevant part “[p]ersons laid off because of lack of work or lack of funds are eligible to reemployment for a period of 39 months and shall be reemployed in preference to new applicants.”

The superior court partially granted Tucker’s petition. Specifically, the court found that Tucker had been legitimately laid off and that he had no “bumping rights.” However, the court concluded that Tucker had, and continues to have, the right to be reemployed in preference to new applicants under Section 45298, and that his right was violated when he was not reemployed in April 2005 as Maintenance Manager. The court further heldthat Section 45298 does not limit reemployment to a job only within the class held by the laid off worker. Rather, it concluded that Tucker had “preference” to any position for which he applied and was qualified.

Section 45298’s Preferential Employment Rights Not Limited To Same Class

The district contended that Section 45298, and the rights it sets forth, must be harmonized with Section 45308, which provides that employees are laid off by seniority “in the class, plus higher classes” and that reemployment “shall be in the reverse order of layoff.” The district argued that the preferential employment rights in Section 45298 were limited to the class from which the employee was laid off, pursuant to Section 45308.

The court declined to read Section 45308 as limiting the employment rights in Section 45298. The court determined that Section 45298 describes the rights of a laid-off employee in relation to new applicants only, whereas Section 45308 explains the order in which current employees within a class must be laid off and rehired. Therefore, the court concluded that Section 45308 does not apply to reemployment rights of laid off employees versus new applicants.

The court found that Section 45298 was clear on its face: “If the Legislature had intended to limit a laid-off employee’s right to reemployment, it easily could have stated the former employee ‘shall be reemployed within the same class from which the employee was laid off in preference to new applicants.’ It did not do so. . . .” The court pointed out that the community college layoff statutes limit reemployment preference to positions in the same class, while the K-12 statutes lack such language. “Because the Legislature did not include this language, we conclude it did not intend to so restrict a laid-off employee’s preference to reemployment versus a new applicant.”

Ultimately, the court concluded that by enacting Section 45298, the Legislature intended to provide an “advantage for the laid-off employee versus a new applicant.” However, the court was not entirely unsympathetic to the plight of school districts and county offices. It acknowledged that school districts and county offices have broad discretion to define the qualifications required for any position for which they seek applicants. As a result, they can ensure that only applicants who meet the prerequisites of a given position will be hired.

Impact of the Decision

Simply stated, Tucker v. Grossmont Union High School District stands for the proposition that a laid off classified employee must be given “preference” over new applicants for any position for which the laid off employee is qualified and applies. However, this case presents more questions than answers. For example, the court does not explain what is meant by the term “preference.” Additionally, the case does not discuss whether a classified employee can use his or her layoff to seek a higher class position with the district.

Taking the court’s advice, school districts and county offices should review and, if necessary, revise, their job descriptions, subject to negotiations for bargaining unit positions. Of particular concern is language in job descriptions giving management hiring discretion. For example, many job descriptions will state a minimum educational requirement but permit the hiring of an applicant based on “a combination of education and relevant work experience.” Such language could prove very troublesome when faced with an applicant who is also a laid off classified worker.


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