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New Orleans Not Liable For Teachers' Post-Katrina Job Losses, Court Rules

A Louisiana Supreme Court panel today overturned a lower-court class action stemming from the dismissal of teachers after Hurricane Katrina, a decision that for now spares the New Orleans district and Louisiana from having to pay up to $1.5 billion in back pay.

About 7,500 teachers in the district ultimately lost their jobs when Hurricane Katrina hit the city and nearly all of the Orleans Parish schools were turned over to the state-run Recovery School District and re-opened as charter schools. 

Both a district and an appeals court ruled that the state and district had violated teachers' due process by failing to establish and enforce a preference for rehiring the laid-off teachers. 

The supreme court's reversal, which you can read here, is extraordinarily complicated: It hinges on a number of technical legal arguments and sifts through no fewer than five former lawsuits or arbitration actions filed by the local teachers' union and groups of displaced teachers. But here's the gist of it.

Teachers had already won some $7 million under prior litigation. As other claims came in, the state and New Orleans district sought to argue that such suits weren't valid under the state's res judicata statute, which prohibits additional litigation on the same issue after a judgment has been rendered. But the appeals court said that the case met an "exceptional circumstances" loophole, thereby permitting the additional claims to move forward.

The state supreme court, on the other hand, said that the plaintiffs did not meet this exceptional-circumstances standard. Moreover, contrary to the appeals court, it found that there were no due-process violations. 

"The teacher tenure laws did not envision, nor provide for, the circumstance where a massive hurricane wipes out an entire school district, resulting in the elimination of the vast majority of teaching positions in that district," Judge Jeffrey Victory wrote for the majority. "It would defy logic to find the [Orleans Parish School Board] liable for a due process violation where jobs were simply not available." 

Danielle Dreiliger of the New Orleans Times Picayune reports that the plaintiffs plan to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, so we may still not have heard the last of this case. 

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