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School District Settles First Amendment Lawsuit with Union

A lawsuit claiming the Sumner County (TN) Board of Education violated the First Amendment rights of teachers union members will be settled out of court, according to representatives for both sides.

Sumner%20County%20TN.jpgThe action, which was filed in September 2011 in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee by the Sumner County Education Association (SCEA), claimed the district violated rights granted to its members by the Professional Employees Collaborative Conferencing Act (PECCA) of 2011.

According to court documents, the district’s Director of Schools, Del Phillips, had refused the union permission to participate in an event for new teachers and then issued a letter forbidding SCEA members from engaging in union-related activities on school grounds or using school bulletin boards or email to distribute SCEA business. The letter also tried to limit the union’s ability to solicit new members. According to the suit, the refusal and the subsequent restrictions violated state law as well as the First Amendment.

The court ordered the board to drop some of the restrictions in December of 2011. The current settlement will remove the rest of them. As part of the settlement, Phillips will send a letter explaining that the law requires the board to allow activities it had attempted to restrict. The board also agreed to begin withholding payroll deductions for union fees and other eligible groups and to pay $50,000 to the union for legal fees. The board agreed to quarterly meetings between SCEA representatives and Phillips.

SCEA president, Alzenia Walls issued a press release stating that she was pleased with the settlement, which she views as vindication of the union’s stance on the issue. Walls expressed hopes that the agreement would result in a better relationship between the school board and union members.

Art McClellan, legal counsel for the school, said the settlement did not mean the board was out of line. He called the decision to settle an economic one, citing the potential cost of defending a First Amendment case.

Although McClellan took responsibility for the decision to settle out of court, the final settlement was approved 7-4 in a vote by school board members.

If you are a California school administrator with a question about school district related employment law, student/teacher safety, special education, accommodations, student rights, free speech or discipline, feel free to call attorney Richard Oppenheim at 818-461-8500. There is never a charge for an initial consultation and we can help you choose the best direction to resolve any school district employment law issue.