Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Judge Rules That Detroit Teachers' "Sick-Out" Protest Was Protected Activity

Earlier this spring, Detroit public school teachers made national news by coordinating what was called a "sick-out."  Around 1500 teachers called in sick, which forced 94 of 97 Detroit schools to close for a day.  The sick-out was meant as a protest of the financial troubles the district was facing and the prospect that teachers might not be paid in July.  Less news-catching was a lawsuit by the District against the teachers who apparently helped orchestrate the sick-out.  The District argued that the sick-out was, in effect, a strike, which is prohibited by the Michigan Public Employment Relations Act (PERA).   A trial court in Michigan has now ruled against the District, reasoning that the teachers were exercising their free speech rights and that PERA cannot reach their behavior without creating First Amendment conflicts.  Because it is a state trial court ruling, I have yet to get the opinion, but the Detroit Free Press offered this summary:

In her ruling, Stephens, a Michigan Court of Claims judge, said the district didn't prove that Conn and Conaway violated PERA.

"Here, the vast majority of the speech attributable to defendants concerns complaints to the state government to rectify educational, financial and structural problems in the Detroit Public School District, and not issues concerning the rights, privileges or conditions of their employment," she said.

"Any injunction based on defendants' exercise of their free speech right to petition their government would run afoul of First Amendment protections."

Stephens said that the district's argument that the defendants were precluded from even saying they approved of work stoppages "goes far beyond the scope of PERA and such an interpretation is offensive to fundamental rights of free speech."

The state picked up the district's legal costs, spending about $320,000, Michigan Department of Treasury spokeswoman Danelle Gittus said Aug. 10.

George Butler III, the main attorney for the school district, and district spokeswoman Chrystal Wilson could not immediately be reached for comment late today.

In the weeks after the lawsuit was filed, most of the 28 defendants, including the Detroit Federation of Teachers union, were dismissed by Stephens or withdrawn by the district, leaving only Conn and Conaway. The judge twice denied the district's request for temporary restraining orders.

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