In a matter favoring school districts, Judge v. Shikellamy Sch. Dist., the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit recently ruled that the local school district did not force a building principal to resign after she had been charged with driving under the influence (DUI).

In this matter, Holly Judge, a third-year principal of a Pennsylvania elementary school, was arrested and charged with operating a vehicle under the influence after she was stopped by police for failing to properly signal when she was pulling into traffic. A breathalyzer test subsequently revealed that Judge’s blood alcohol content was .332, more than four times the legal limit of .08.

A few weeks later, the superintendent, after having been advised of the arrest by board members, spoke to Judge to confirm the arrest and subsequently issued a written ultimatum calling for Judge’s immediate resignation or alternatively, subjecting her to tenure charges. Judge was given until 12:30 p.m. the following day to provide a response. After leaving the superintendent, Judge spoke with her mother, but did not speak to the attorney she hired to defend her against the DUI charges. Judge resigned her position the following day.

Nearly a year after her resignation, Judge filed suit in district court alleging that she was “constructively discharged” from her principal position, an allegation requiring Judge to prove that despite her apparent voluntary resignation, she was actually terminated.

The district court held that Judge failed to demonstrate that she had been discharged and instead determined that she voluntarily resigned. Accordingly, the district court dismissed her claims.

On appeal, the Third Circuit, in a case of first impression in the circuit, first explained that in the Third Circuit, “case law establishes a presumption that when employees resign, they do so freely, so the onus is on Judge to produce evidence to establish that the resignation . . . was involuntarily procured.”

In order to do so, the court reasoned, Judge must demonstrate the elements of constructive discharge, which include, “(1) whether the employee was given some alternative to resignation; (2) whether the employee understood the nature of the choice [s]he was given; (3) whether the employee was given a reasonable time in which to choose; (4) whether the employee was permitted to select the effective date of the resignation; and (5) whether the employee had the advice of counsel.”

The court analyzed these factors and first determined that Judge was in fact given a reasonable alternative to immediate resignation, the right to a tenure dismissal hearing. The court reached this conclusion based on the fact that the school district could legitimately have pursued tenure charges based  on “immorality,” an offense similar to New Jersey’s “other just cause” tenure dismissal provision. The court held that this was not a situation where the reason for the threatened removal could not be substantiated, accordingly, the choice between removal and resignation was not purely coercive.

As to the second element, the court further noted that Judge clearly understood the nature of her choice between removal and resignation. Both Judge’s annual employment contract and the written ultimatum from the superintendent alerted her to that option. The court said that a reasonable building principal would understand the nature of that choice.

Under the third prong of the above analysis, the court determined that although Judge had less than 24 hours following the meeting with the superintendent to make her choice, she was aware of her arrest and that she was at serious risk of being charged with a high level DUI. The potential criminal charge also raised the possibility of tenure charges based upon immorality, according to the court’s rationale.

Therefore, the court determined that the first three elements of Judge’s claim of constructive discharge, weighed in the school district’s favor. The court then determined that the final two elements, while weighing slightly in favor of Judge, were not so favorable to her as to shift her burden of proof to show that the district engaged in coercion. The court concluded that the resignation was voluntary and Judge was not coerced into resigning.

If you would like further information about this matter, please speak to your board attorney or call (609) 278-5254 to speak to the NJSBA Legal and Labor Relations Department.