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Judges reduce award of damages to fired school employee

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The Indiana Court of Appeals ruled that a fired bus driver and custodian for Peru Community Schools is entitled to damages for wrongful termination, but not the $175,000 a jury awarded him.

Gary Grant was a school bus driver with a yearly contract and an at-will custodian for the school corporation. He would drive the bus during the day and work as the custodian after his afternoon route ended. He was fired from both positions during the 2007-08 school year after nearly 24 years of employment. Grant sued for wrongful termination and a jury awarded him nearly $175,000 in damages. Peru Community Schools appealed the denial of its motions for summary judgment and judgment on the evidence, as well as the admission of evidence regarding Grant’s salary as a school bus driver and custodian until he turns 65.

The trial court denied the schools’ motion for judgment on the evidence regarding Grant’s employment as an at-will custodian, which was an error, the appellate court held. There is no substantial evidence that Grant relied on these letters to his detriment, which is required to defeat the presumption of at-will employment, wrote Judge Nancy Vaidik in Peru School Corp. a/k/a Peru Comm. Schools v. Gary Grant v. Peru School Corp. a/k/a Peru Comm. Schools and Stanley Hall, No. 52A04-1107-PL-352. Grant argued that for years, he received letters from the school corporation thanking him for his services “as a bus driver” and providing “reasonable assurance” that he would be employed for the upcoming school year. He argued that his employment in both jobs were linked from the beginning and believed these letters guaranteed him a job as a bus driver and custodian in the upcoming school year.

But regarding his employment as a contracted school bus driver, the COA found there to be a genuine issue of material fact as to why Grant was fired as he denied one of the two grounds for termination. In addition, cause is required to fire an employee with a contract with a definite term, and the facts were heavily disputed as to whether cause existed, so the trial court properly allowed this issue to go before the jury to resolve.

The appellate judges reduced the amount of damages Grant will receive to $2,422.82, which is the remainder of his salary as a school bus driver for the 2007-08 school year, minus the $1,800 in unemployment he received. Because the trial court should have granted judgment on the evidence for the school system regarding Grant’s termination of employment as an at-will custodian, he’s only entitled to damages regarding his firing from his school bus driver position.

 

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