The Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS —
A five-judge state appeals court panel is weighing whether to uphold a ruling that thousands of New Orleans public school employees were wrongfully fired after Hurricane Katrina shut down the city and its schools in 2005.
A lawyer for the fired workers, Suzette Bagneris, told the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal panel Thursday that the Orleans Parish School Board and the state violated the rights of teachers and school workers fired after the storm.
“Money was the incentive. Power and greed,” she said, urging the panel to uphold last year’s ruling by Judge Ethel Simms Julien.
Brent Barriere, an attorney for the School Board, called Julien’s ruling “unprecedented” and “unlawful” and urged its reversal. He said the “reduction in force” reflected the reality that Katrina shattered the school system.
“I do not admit that the conduct was wrongful,” Barriere said.
The judges gave no indication when they will rule.
Julien awarded more than $1 million to seven lead plaintiffs in the case, an average award of about $195,000 per plaintiff. If her ruling stands, roughly 7,500 others could be in line to receive nearly $1.5 billion in damages, Barriere told the panel.
In 45 pages of reasons that accompanied last year’s ruling, Julien said the fired teachers and others were deprived of “the vested property interest held in their tenured or permanent employment positions.” She also said the employees were denied due process that school boards by state law must go through if finances require a reduction in force.
Michael Rubin, an attorney representing the state, said there was no basis for holding the state liable for the plaintiffs’ claims or concluding that the state and school board had a contractual partnership.
“What’s the touchstone of a partnership? A sharing of profits and losses. There’s no sharing of profits and losses here,” he said.
Bagneris claimed state officials manipulated laws and executive orders to take over the city’s public schools while teachers were displaced by the storm.
“It’s just not fair,” she said. “When they came back, they needed their jobs more than ever to get back on their feet.”
The state and the school board are “equally accountable,” Bagneris argued.
“They just used Katrina as an excuse, an excuse to wrest control of the entire system,” she added.
The lawsuit began in late 2005 as an effort to prevent dismissals and evolved into a wrongful termination action. It took years for the case to even come to trial. Then, post-trial proceedings, transcription of court proceedings and the compilation of volumes of evidence took months.
Since the ruling nearly a year ago, one of the lead plaintiffs has died. Julien had awarded more than $480,000 to Gwendolyn Ridgley, money that she never saw as the appeal process slowly progressed. She died last year at age 61.