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Dimitry K., Esq.
Dimitry K., Esq., Attorney
Category: Employment Law
Satisfied Customers: 41221
Experience:  I provide employment and discrimination law advice in my own practice.
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I am serving as an advocate teacher with 15 years of

Customer Question

I am serving as an advocate for a teacher with 15 years of middle level experience (10 years in a previous private school) who was terminated from a K-8 elite private school in Seattle, WA, at the end of her 5th year. Teachers sign annual contracts that include a clause that the school has no actual or implied obligation to renew the contract in successive years. The teacher is a female single mom with 2 elementary age children. Until the 2014-15 year, she has been considered a highly successful teacher by her students, parents, and administrators.
During the 2014-5 year, with the stress from personal matters and a heavy work load, she experienced several anxiety attacks and "was not herself." She sought medical care and was diagnosed with anxiety disorder and was treated with 3 different medications in an effort to bring back balance in her life. The medications did little to help her condition and she continued to struggle. She kept her supervisor (with whom she had a good relationship, including co-leading an advisory group) informed of her situation and he suggested she take 3 sick days prior to spring vacation so that she could have additional time for rest and recuperation. After spring break her condition did not improve; she informed her supervisor, and, since she had accumulated sick leave, they agreed she continue to use her sick leave as needed. With spring break and sick days combined, she was home most of April.
In March, the school extended her a contract for the 2015-16 school year with a due date on one of the sick days used before spring vacation. Her supervisor verbally informed her not to worry about the contract due date and to return it after she returned to school. Even though she was not feeling "her usual self," she returned the first part of May and was swarmed by her students, happy to see her back. Upon her return, however, the head of school (not her supervisor), observed her teaching 4 consecutive days and, even when asked, gave her no feedback. Her stress mounted when she was removed, without her knowledge, from an international field trip with 8th graders.
In the third week of May, after taking two sick days because of the stomach flu, she returned to her classroom and, without being told, found a substitute in her classroom and the head of school waiting for her. He told her to report to his office, where she (by herself) had to meet with the 3 top administrators (2 males and 1 female), including her supervisor. At that meeting, and 2 days later by letter, she was informed by the head of school: 1) she could not finish the year and was placed on paid leave, 2) she would not be offered another contract due to "failure to meet the expectations of the position," 3) she would not be allowed on school campus, could not attend any school functions, and could not respond to any communication from parents. From that point on, she was cut off from all school communication, her email blocked, and with the exception of 2 emails from her supervisor concerning report cards, no one responded to any of her emails requesting information or clarification of certain items. Parents and staff were sent some form of communication that she no longer worked at the school; the administration ignored her request to be given a copy of the communication sent to parents and staff.
The teacher was allowed on campus to retrieve her personal belongings. When she arrived, some of her personal items from her room had been boxed and stored in the office of the head of maintenance. She was allowed to go to the classroom to search for her remaining items and personal and professional files. She was allowed to take her box of items (pictures, gifts from students, etc), but her personal and professional files were kept by the school.
Questions:
1. "Failure to meet expectations ..." is only reason ever given for the school's actions, is this a wrongful termination?
2. Is she allowed to receive a copy of her personnel file? If so, how can she get it?
3. Does the school have the right to go through and pack her personal items?
4. Does the school have the right to confiscate her files?
Submitted: 1 year ago.
Category: Employment Law
Expert:  Dimitry K., Esq. replied 1 year ago.
Thank you for your question and thank you very much for requesting me personally to assist you. I will be happy to do so if I can.
I will try to give you the best answers that I can, but they may not be as you hoped or expected, so please do not blame the messenger.
You asked:
1. "Failure to meet expectations ..." is only reason ever given for the school's actions, is this a wrongful termination?
No, it is not. For this to be 'wrongful termination', the reason for termination has to be illegal or violate state and federal law. For example termination based on race, gender, religion, national origin, creed, sexual orientation in some states, and disability may be deemed 'wrongful'. As far as disability, the A.D.A. provides some protection but I am not sure it would reach here. While a person cannot be terminated over a perceived disability or any sort of disability outright as the cause of termination, a person can be terminated if the disability in question bars that employee from performing her work. For example a school bus driver who develops glaucoma can be terminated as he is no longer able to drive the bus safely, and here arguably a teacher who is on leave and unable to physically teach is likewise probably not protected under the A.D.A. as she is not able to perform her duties.
2. Is she allowed to receive a copy of her personnel file? If so, how can she get it?
No, personnel files are property of the employer. Hence, short of a subpoena or a court order, she is not entitled to such information.
3. Does the school have the right to go through and pack her personal items?
Yes but with a caveat. The school cannot keep personal items, but if the items were left on premises, the school can legally pack them and provide them to the teacher.
4. Does the school have the right to confiscate her files?
Arguably those are files that belong to the employer, since she made them while under their employment. Anything created by the employee belongs to the employer, so therefore her work product is technically their work product.
Sincerely,
Dimitry, Esq.

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