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Appeals Court Rejects Suit by Teacher Whose Job Was Cut in Half

A Connecticut teacher whose job was cut in half was not entitled to notice and a hearing before the school district acted, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The case involving Catherine Mirabilio, a tenured culinary arts teacher in Regional School District 16 in Prospect, Conn., comes as tenure and due-process rights for teachers are under attack nationally in lawsuits and legislatures.

But in Mirabilio's case, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, in New York City, ruled 2-1 that it was simply interpreting well-settled Connecticut law that a reduction in hours and salary—even a 50 percent one—do not constitute a termination triggering due-process rights. 

Court papers say Miribilio was informed by the District 16 superintendent in May 2011 that her position was being reduced to 50 percent under the budget for the 2011-12 school year. She sued the district in state court, seeking reinstatement to full-time status and pay based on a 14th Amendment due-process claim.

The school district removed the case to federal court, where a district court dismissed Mirabilio's suit, holding that the reduction of hours from full-time to half-time did not constitute termination, and thus no due-process rights were triggered.

In its July 30 decision in Mirabilio v. Regional School District 16, the 2nd Circuit court majority agreed. U.S. Circuit Judge Dennis Jacobs said it is clear under Connecticut statutes and case law that while "the right to continued employment is a property right protected under the due process clause, personnel decisions short of termination do not constitute a deprivation of a property interest."

The state supreme court has consistently held that a public employee reassigned to a lower-paying position is not considered terminated, even if the pay cut is substantial, Jacobs said. Perhaps adding insult to injury, Jacobs said that under Connecticut's public-employment statute, because Mirabilio's salary was reduced by exactly 50 percent, her new position is still considered "full-time employment."

Writing in dissent, Judge Guido Calabresi said the majority relied on Connecticut state law cases involving school administrators, who do not have tenure rights in their positions as administrators as teachers do in their jobs.   

"The reasoning in those cases is straightforward: because the administrators did not have a protectable property interest in their non‐tenured administrative positions, they were not due notice upon being reassigned to teaching positions and, as a result, fell outside the statute's scope," Calabresi said. "The Connecticut Supreme Court has not, under this statute, confronted any case involving a tenured teacher such as Mirabilio, with a protectable property interest in her position, who had a particular contract one day and the next was given another slashing her work and pay in half."

Calabresi said he would certify the case to the Connecticut high court for its interpretation of state law with respect to teachers.

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