• School District Must Initiate Proceedings under Education Code Section 44942 before Placing a Teacher on Involuntary Sick Leave for Mental Illness
  • October 26, 2010 | Authors: Diana D. Halpenny; Christian M. Keiner
  • Law Firm: Kronick Moskovitz Tiedemann & Girard A Law Corporation - Sacramento Office
  • In Doe v. Lincoln Unified School District, (--- Cal.Rptr.3d ----, Cal.App. 3 Dist., August 30, 2010), the Third District Court of Appeal considered whether a school district could place a teacher, whose mental condition it feared would render her unable to teach, on involuntary sick leave, prior to initiating proceedings under Education Code Section 44942. The Third District DCA ruled that when a district chooses to suspend or transfer a certificated employee, due to concerns about mental illness, the procedure outlined by Section 44942 is mandatory before action may be taken.

    Facts
    Jane Doe is the fictitious name of a teacher employed by the Lincoln Unified School District (“District”). In 2008, Doe began behaving in ways that caused District officials to begin questioning her mental status, and whether she was competent to perform her duties. Her behavior included arriving late, getting lost and disoriented, calling people by incorrect names, appearing to be under the influence of alcohol or medications, and appearing depressed. Prior to the start of the 2008-09 school year, the District asked her to provide a fitness for duty certificate before beginning her work for the year. She was examined by a physician, who referred her for additional testing. In the absence of a fitness for duty certificate, the District then notified Doe that she was being placed on involuntary sick leave.

    Doe sought a writ petition claiming the District was required to initiate Section 44942 proceedings prior to placing her on leave, and seeking back pay and other lost benefits. The superior court granted Doe’s petition, and the District appealed.

    Decision
    The Third DCA reviewed the provisions of Section 44942, which outlines procedures for suspending or transferring a certificated school employee when there is reasonable cause to believe the employee is suffering from mental illness that renders him or her incompetent to perform his or her duties. It requires a District’s governing board to provide the employee with a written statement of facts giving rise to the District’s belief. It also grants the employee the right to appear and refute the charges and allows the employee to be examined by a panel of psychiatrists or psychologists selected by the employee from a list provided by the board.

    The Third DCA noticed it was undisputed that the District refused to permit Doe to return to her regular duties at the commencement of the 2008-09 school year, that she was placed on mandatory sick leave in September 2008, and that Section 44942 proceedings were not initiated until November. “Thus, the question here is not if, but when, the District was required to initiate section 44942 proceedings,” the appellate court wrote.

    The Third DCA concluded that, “while a governing board has discretion whether to suspend or transfer a certificated employee suspected of suffering from a mental illness, once it decides to do so, it must proceed under section 44942.” It reasoned that a school district is sufficiently on notice that a teacher may be suffering from a mental disorder when it concludes that it should not allow the teacher to continue teaching. “In other words, “when the District effectively suspended Doe before the beginning of the 2008-09 school year, it was therefore obligated to initiate those proceedings at that time.”

    What This Means To You
    School districts and county offices of education have often taken the position that a certificated employee may be placed on sick leave or paid administrative leave for an arguable mental disability until fully cleared to return to work. During this time, the employee is required to complete the Independent Medical Exam (IME) process. But this decision now makes clear the complex provisions of section 44942 are the only method to suspend a teacher for mental status issues.