Teacher lacked “public standing” to challenge Open Meetings Act violation since he had individualized injury says Dallas Court of Appeals

Dallas Independent School District and Michael L. Williams, Commissioner of Education v. Adrian Peters, 05-14-00759-CV (Tex. App. – Dallas, December 14, 2015).

This is essentially a Texas Open Meetings Act (“TOMA”) case even though it has administrative law undercurrents.

The Dallas Independent School District (“DISD”) terminated Assistant Principal Adrian Peters’ (“Peters”) who appealed the termination under Chapter 21 of the Texas Education Code. The allegations made the basis of the termination were Peter’s alleged physical restraint of a female student who would not return to class.  After a two-day trial the independent hearing examiner found good cause existed to terminate Mr. Peters’ contract and recommended termination. The DISD Board Subcommittee (“School Board”) adopted the recommendation of the independent hearing examiner and voted in a closed session meeting to terminate Peters’ contract.  Peters sued alleging that since the vote occurred in closed session, the School Board violated TOMA and the termination was void. The trial court held good cause existed to terminate Peters but since the vote occurred in closed session, it was void. DISD appealed the TOMA claim and Peters appealed the determination of good cause.

The court went through a lengthy review of the record and found the determination that good cause existed for Peter’s termination was supported by substantial evidence. From an administrative law standpoint, the lengthy analysis and determination of a lack of credibility for reasonable force and behavior can be helpful to those who practice administrative law. The court next divided the TOMA claims into two standards of review: one under the administrative appeal and one as a straight TOMA claim brought by a citizen. Under the Education Code challenge, a meeting of the School Board to consider the Hearing Examiner’s recommendation is not an evidentiary proceeding. Peters attended and fully participated in the meeting through his attorneys. At his request, the meeting was held in a closed session. During the meeting, Peters’ attorneys presented oral argument on his behalf. Mr. Peters’ attorneys were present and observed the entire meeting, including the School Board’s vote. There is no evidence or showing that the School Board’s decision would have been any different, had it voted in an open session. Therefore, the error in conducting the vote in a closed session did not lead to an erroneous decision under administrative law standards.  Next, under a citizen brought TOMA claim, Peter’s standing comes from whether the School Board errored by voting in closed session instead of open session. Peters, the sole plaintiff here, undisputedly had notice and attended the meeting and was thus present for both the portion properly held in closed session (at his request), and the vote, which should have been held in an open session.  “The question here, then, is whether a member of the general public who both receives notice of the meeting and actually attends, as the act seeks to permit, has been ‘injured or wronged within the parameters of the language used in the statute’ so as to qualify as an ‘interested person’ entitled to bring suit.”  An interested person under the PIA is one who receives a generalized injury for a TOMA violation. Peters’ injury was very individualized and participated in the all parts of the meeting. As a result, he lacks “public standing” to bring a TOMA violation. As a result, the trial court erred in holding the termination was void under TOMA.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel: Justice Lang-Miers, Justice Brown and Justice Schenck. Memorandum Opinion by Justice Schenck. The attorney listed for DISD is Robert E. Luna.  The attorney listed for Williams is Andrew Lutostanski.  The attorneys listed for Peters are Daniel A. Ortiz, V. Shane Goetz and Giana Ortiz.