An increase in social media use and other trends have created some tricky legal situations with regard to teacher termination. We asked Attorney Matthew C. Moschella (at right), a partner at law firm Sherin and Lodgen, to shed some light on these issues.
What are some of the trends regarding wrongful termination suits brought against districts by teachers? Are there policies or practices a school can put in place so that when they do choose to terminate a teacher, they do not expose themselves to potential lawsuits?
There have been several recent trends in the context of employment law involving teachers. Most notably, the development, and increasing presence of, social media has created new issues. For example, teachers have brought wrongful termination claims alleging that their First Amendment and privacy rights were infringed. Some contexts in which these issues arise are when teachers are suspended and/or terminated for posting information on social networking Web sites. Cases have arisen where teachers communicated with students via MySpace, appeared in inappropriate YouTube videos, and posted certain photos on MySpace or Facebook.
Similar claims can also arise outside of the social media arena. These type of First Amendment claims frequently stem from alleged retaliation for the teacher’s exercise of his or her free speech or the teacher’s exercise of his or her freedom of association. For example, such a claim could arise when a teacher is disciplined for making a statement that administrators view as inappropriate for the classroom.
Another frequent issue is alleged discrimination based on a protected classification, such as race, gender, national origin or age. Like employees in other settings, teachers who believe they were treated differently because of a protected classification might bring wrongful termination actions. Although ultimately prevailing in such cases may be difficult for teachers (as with other employees), cases of this type can be expensive for schools to defend and can distract the administrators and staff from the school’s core mission. There are also the potential public relations issues that may arise.
Schools can take several steps in order to prevent issues of this type from arising or favorably position themselves if a claim does arise. For example, schools can develop and implement clear policies and procedures and train staff handling these issues. Indeed, many courts evaluating claims by teachers have rejected the claims because, among other reasons, the schools documented the performance issues in reviews or other records kept in the ordinary course of business. Schools also can benefit from consulting counsel before taking any steps to discipline or terminate teachers.
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