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Personnel Law Conference Preview:  Did immunity bar claims that the district breached an agreement to provide a neutral reference for the former teacher?

Jim Walsh, founding partner of Walsh Gallegos Treviño Russo & Kyle, PC, will deliver a talk on Recent Cases of Interest to Personnel Administrators at Ed311’s upcoming Personnel Law Conference for School Administrators.  One of those cases is Socorro ISD v. Hamilton, decided by the Court of Appeals for El Paso on July 17, 2019.

When the middle school principal informed the orchestra teacher that he planned to recommend the teacher’s non-renewal, the teacher contemplated an age discrimination suit against the district.  Negotiations ensued and the district and teacher entered into a settlement agreement in which the teacher agreed to release all legal claims in exchange for his separation and a neutral reference, among other things.  The neutral reference was to include the teacher’s beginning and ending dates of employment, positions held, and salary.

Nearly a year later, the teacher filed suit claiming that the district breached the settlement agreement by giving negative references when he applied for teaching positions at local school districts.

As a local governmental entity, the district asserted that the suit was barred immunity.  In response, the teacher argued that, because the district agreed to settle classes of claims from which it was not immune, such as state and federal employment discrimination claims, it could not thereafter claim immunity from suit in an action alleging a breach of the settlement agreement.  The trial court agreed and found that the district was not immune from suit. The district took an immediate, pretrial appeal.

The appeals court affirmed the ruling in favor of the teacher.  The court reasoned that 1) the teacher had a viable age discrimination claim at the time of the settlement agreement; 2) the district was not immune from that claim—it faced potential exposure; 3) the district negotiated its way out of that exposure with the agreement; 4) therefore, the district cannot also claim immunity for violating the terms of the agreement.  According to the court of appeals, because a waiver of immunity was established on the age-discrimination claim when the parties entered into the settlement agreement, the suit based upon a breach of the separation agreement was not barred by governmental immunity.  As a result, the teacher was allowed to proceed on his suit that the district breached the settlement agreement by failing to provide neutral references to prospective employers.

For more of Jim Walsh’s insight into this and other recent court decisions and what they mean to you, join us at Ed311’s Personnel Law Conference for School Administrators scheduled on December 11, 2019 in Austin, Texas.  For details and registration information, visit our Personnel Law Conference Event Page!

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