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One Teacher-Dismissal Odyssey Nears an End

In light of a speech this week by American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten on her willingness to streamline the process for dismissing ineffective teachers, a decision by a federal appeals court Monday sheds some light on how lengthy that process can be.

Robert Gilbert, a veteran social studies teacher at Palatine (Ill.) High School, was dismissed from his job in 1995. According to court papers, Township School District No. 211 in suburban Chicago charged him with insubordination, acrimonious relationships with colleagues, and failure to complete a remediation plan.

Because he had tenure, Gilbert was entitled to challenge his dismissal before a state administrative hearing. The school district went first and presented over 40 days worth of evidence against Gilbert. Before presenting any evidence of his own, Gilbert sought a judgment in his favor. In 2001, seven years after the original dismissal, the hearing officer granted Gilbert's request on two grounds and ordered him reinstated.

The school district appealed by filing a complaint in state court. A trial court, in 2002, affirmed one basis for reinstating the teacher. But an Illinois appellate court ruled for the school district and ordered the case remanded to reinstate Gilbert's dismissal. The teacher tried to get the state appellate court to clarify whether he still had a right to present his case to a hearing officer, but to no avail. The trial court refused to let his case return to the hearing officer, and in 2004 issued an order reinstating the dismissal.

Gilbert then turned to the federal courts, suing the school district, the Illinois State Board of Education, and the state courts, alleging violations of the his due-process rights under the federal constitution. He lost in a federal district court in 2007, and on Jan. 11, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, in Chicago.

A three-judge panel of that court ruled unanimously that Gilbert had no federal case because of so-called Rooker-Feldman doctrine, based on two Supreme Court rulings establishing that federal courts generally lack jurisdiction to review the rulings of state courts in civil cases.

"Betraying a fundamental misunderstanding about the structure of the parallel judicial systems in the United States, Gilbert argues that his case is independent of the state court actions and thus not barred by Rooker-Feldman," the appeals court said in its decision in Gilbert v. Illinois State Board of Education. "But that is not how the system works."

Of course, Gilbert may still appeal his case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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