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Pedersen v. South Williamsport Area School District

decided: April 30, 1982.

HENRY PEDERSEN AND ANN PEDERSEN, HIS WIFE APPELLANTS IN 81-2093
v.
SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT AREA SCHOOL DISTRICT, EDWARD A. VOLLBRECHT, ROBERT G. LESHER, FRED AGNONI, DANNY REESER AND GEORGE MICHAEL, SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT AREA SCHOOL DISTRICT, APPELLANTS IN 81-2094



APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA

Before Hunter, Weis and Higginbotham, Circuit Judges.

Author: Weis

Opinion OF THE COURT

A discharged school district employee claims a denial of due process because he was not advised of his right to a hearing before the School Board. The district court found that the employee knew of this right and, therefore, could not recover damages simply because he lacked formal notice. We agree and also hold that a timely arbitration under the collective bargaining agreement in effect at the time of the discharge was a valid alternative to a Board hearing and satisfies due process requirements.

Plaintiff Pedersen's suit for damages against South Williamsport Area School District, its Board members and several employees, challenged his discharge on a variety of state and federal grounds, including defamation, abuse of process, breach of contract and lack of due process. The complaint alleged liability under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and contained pendent state law claims as well. Most of the counts were dismissed before trial and the case was tried to a jury in the district court on the question of procedural due process. Based on the jury's answer to a special interrogatory that Pedersen knew of his right to a hearing, the district court entered judgment for the defendants.

Pedersen had been a maintenance employee of the School District for several years when, in November of 1979, it charged him with theft, unauthorized use of school property, insubordination and other derelictions. He was given notice of his alleged misconduct and was represented by a union official at a hearing before the School Superintendent on November 15, 1979. The Superintendent recommended Pedersen's discharge and, in an executive session on November 19, 1979, the Board voted to terminate his services.

Pedersen did not request a hearing before the Board. Instead, he requested his union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, to grieve his discharge and ask for reinstatement. The procedures in the collective bargaining agreement were followed through to arbitration under the auspices of the American Arbitration Association. The arbitrator returned a finding against Pedersen in July of 1980.

In April of 1980, before the arbitration had been completed, Pedersen filed this suit in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. Thereafter, in October of 1980, the Board held a hearing on Pedersen's discharge and reaffirmed its earlier action.

In winnowing out the various claims, the district court granted summary judgment for the defendants in some instances and dismissed other counts. At one point, the court believed that the grievance procedure did satisfy due process, but that the plaintiff should nevertheless be given the opportunity to present evidence on the reason the arbitration hearing was not held until July 1980. Henry Pedersen v. South Williamsport Area School District, No. 80-0404 (M.D.Pa. March 26, 1981). After the Supreme Court filed its opinion in Barrentine v. Arkansas-Best Freight System, Inc., 450 U.S. 728, 101 S. Ct. 1437, 67 L. Ed. 2d 641 (1981), however, the district court reconsidered its position and concluded that the arbitration proceeding, even if timely, did not meet due process requirements. Henry Pedersen v. South Williamsport Area School District, No. 80-0404 (M.D.Pa. May 4, 1981).

The case then proceeded to the liability stage of a bifurcated trial. The jury determined, by its answer to special interrogatories, that Pedersen knew about the statute entitling him to ask for a hearing before the School Board, but that he did not voluntarily give up that right. During the damages phase of the trial, a mistrial was granted on an evidentiary matter. The court then entered judgment for the defendants, finding that Pedersen did not ask for a hearing and, therefore, the Board was not required to conduct one. Since Pedersen was aware of his statutory rights, the court held, the Board had no obligation to give him formal notice.

Pedersen appeals the due process issue, contending that the court erred in disregarding the jury's finding that he did not voluntarily waive his hearing before the Board. He also challenges the court's declaration of a mistrial. The School Board cross-appeals the district court ruling that arbitration did not fulfill the requirements for due process.

The parties agree that Pedersen's employment by the School District was a property interest which could not be taken from him without due process. The pertinent provision of the Pennsylvania School Code provides:

"The Board of School Directors in any school district ... shall, after due notice, giving the reasons therefore, and after hearing if demanded, have the right at any time to remove any of its ... employees ... for incompetency, intemperance, neglect of duty, violation of any of the school laws ... or other improper conduct."

Pa.Stat.Ann. Tit. 24, § 5-514 (Purdon 1962). Pedersen had a pre-termination hearing before the Superintendent and at that time was advised of the charges against him. He also had notice that the Superintendent was recommending dismissal. It is therefore only the third requirement-a hearing before the ...


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