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COA: Termination hearing did not comply with Open Door Law

December 30, 2015

The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed summary judgment in favor of a southern Indiana school board after finding its holding of a public meeting at 2:30 a.m. regarding the employment of a teacher violated the Open Door Law.

The Springs Valley Community School Corp. in Orange County posted notice of a 5 p.m. executive session followed by a 7 p.m. public meeting regarding the employment of second-grade teacher Risha Warren. The school superintendent recommended the school board fire Warren after she allegedly threatened to “kill” a student who performed poorly on a test. No one believed the threat was credible.

The public notice of the meeting also said the public hearing could start immediately following the executive session, whichever came later – the 7 p.m. time or end of the executive session.

Warren, her attorney and a union representative attended the executive session and waited in a separate room during deliberations. At some point, the school board’s attorney came to the room where Warren was waiting, but no one ever notified Warren that the executive session ended and a public vote was held at approximately 2:30 a.m. The school board voted 4-0-3 to terminate her contract.

She sued, alleging violations of the Open Door Law, breach of contract and defamation. She claimed if she had been at the meeting she could have testified as to why two of those who voted to fire her should not have been allowed to vote.

The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the school board on her claims.

“We conclude the public notice did not satisfy the Open Door Law’s notice requirement because the School Board convened the meeting at a time unreasonably departing from the time stated in the notice,” Judge Margret Robb wrote. “Indiana Code section 5-14-1.5-5(a) requires public notice of the ‘date, time, and place of any meetings,’ and ‘whichever comes later’ is not a concrete ‘time’ from the public’s perspective.”

Even though some members of the public did attend, holding a public meeting at 2:30 a.m. “is unreasonable and contrary to the purpose of the Open Door Law,” she continued.

The judges reversed summary judgment on the Open Door Law violation claim and remanded for further proceedings. They affirmed summary judgment for the school board on Warren’s defamation and breach of contract claims as well as the denial of her motion to compel, as the information she sought was not discoverable.

The case is Risha D. Warren v. Board of School Trustees of the Springs Valley Community School Corporation, 59A01-1506-PL-617.

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