Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Friday, September 10, 2004


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C.A. Rejects Claims by Teacher Who Resisted Classroom Searches

Refusal to Renew Employment Contract in Violation of Public Policy Held Not Actionable


By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts


An employer’s refusal to renew a fixed-term employment contract is not actionable under California common law, even if the action was taken in retaliation for the employee’s exercise of free speech rights, the Court of Appeal for this district ruled yesterday.

Div. Three affirmed a judgment in favor of the Los Angeles Unified School District, which declined to renew Amitis Motevalli’s provisional employment contract after she resisted two searches of her classroom, claiming they violated the Fourth Amendment.

Tameny v. Atlantic Richfield Co. (1980) 27 Cal.3d 167, which recognized the  tort of wrongful termination in violation of public policy, does not create a cause of action for “tortious nonrenewal of an employment contract in violation of public policy,” Presiding Justice Joan Dempsey Klein wrote for Div. Three.

Nor, the presiding justice concluded, can Motevalli claim damages for violation of her free speech rights under the state Constitution.

Motevalli, who taught art and art history at Locke High School in Watts, was hired under an emergency credential in 1999, and later accepted a contract as a provisional teacher, expiring June 30, 2000. The contract contained a clause pursuant to which the teacher agreed that the contract could “be cancelled at anytime without cause at the discretion of the District.”

The contract was later renewed for an additional year, expiring June 30, 2001.

‘Scan Team’

Motevalli ran into trouble with school authorities, however, in December 2000 when a “scan team” of LAUSD police and security officials showed up at her classroom  to conduct random weapons searches. The searches are conducted at every secondary school in the district under a policy in effect since 1993.

Motevalli objected, claiming the searches violate the Fourth Amendment, and the scan team left.

The next day, Motevalli was warned by the then-principal, Annie L. Webb, that teachers are obligated to cooperate with the scan teams and that her refusal to do so could result in suspension and/or a “notice of unsatisfactory act,” commonly referred to in the district as an “Unsat.” In the case of a provisional teacher, such a notice usually means denial of a contract for the following year.

But when the scan team returned a month later, Motevalli again objected and told her students “You know what to do,” at which point most of the students walked out of the room. Motevalli later acknowledged informing her students that unless they were on probation, they had  a right to refuse to submit to searches.

Webb told Motevalli that she had compromised security and that she was going to be investigated. Two months later, Motevalli received her “Unsat,” advising her that she violated Webb’s previous directive by interfering with the scan team and jeopardized student safety by discouraging her students from cooperating with officials and telling them to leave the classroom, knowing they would then be in the halls without supervision.

Webb urged Motevalli’s immediate dismissal, but she was allowed to serve out the term of her contract. Her last day at Locke was June 22, 2001, and she sued the district three years later.

Other Claims

Several of her claims were thrown out prior to trial. A claim against the district under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983 was dismissed on Eleventh Amendment grounds, and claims for negligent supervision and intentional infliction of emotional distress were dismissed pursuant to judgment on the pleadings.

In support of her claims that she was wrongfully terminated in violation of her free speech rights, Motevalli said she was being punished for speaking out against the “custom and policy of conducting suspicionless pat-downs of students while they are in class” and the arbitrary selection of certain students to have their bags checked for weapons.

She added that she had spoken out about the need to assign more teachers to Locke.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge James Chalfant granted summary adjudication to the district on the wrongful termination cause of action, saying the plaintiff had no claim because she had not been terminated. But the judge allowed Motevalli’s claim for violation of the “liberty of speech” clause to go to trial on the basis of a 1982 Court of Appeal ruling allowing tort damages for such violations.

The jury found that Motevalli’s contract would have been renewed but for her exercise of her constitutional rights, and awarded her $425,000 in damages. But before the judgment became final, the state Supreme Court handed down its decision in Degrassi v. Cook (2002) 29 Cal.4th 333.

Degrassi, which the school district cited in motions for new trial and JNOV, held that damages are available as a remedy for a state constitutional violation only if such a remedy is expressed or implied in the Constitution. Analogizing to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Bivens decision, the high court held that a right to damages will not be implied where there are alternative remedies or where a damages remedy will not serve the public interest.

The plaintiff in Degrassi was a city council member who claimed that her right to express her views in council meetings was being stymied by other officials. The high court held that she could not maintain an action for monetary relief, but held open the possibility that a private citizen whose free speech rights were violated, and who lacked the means of communication available to the council member, could make out such a claim.

In addressing Motevalli’s claim, Klein acknowledged that her lack of tenure left her without alternative remedies for the free-speech violation. But the district, the presiding justice said, had the more compelling public policy argument.

“Recognition of a constitutional damages action here would result in the anomaly of untenured teachers denied rehiring having greater rights than tenured teachers who have been discharged. A†tenured teacher is required to exhaust his or her internal administrative remedies before going to court...which decision then would be reviewed on administrative mandamus...wherein the employer’s liability would be determined by a court before the employee could bring an action for damages.”

The case is Motevalli v. Los Angeles Unified School District, B165380.


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