Illinois Appellate Court Upholds Dismissal of Tenured Teacher for Misuse of Sick Leave

In a recent case involving a tenured teacher’s dismissal for misuse of sick leave, the Illinois Appellate Court upheld the Board of Education of the City of Chicago’s (“Board”) dismissal decision due to the teacher’s conduct being irremediable.

In February 2017, the Board approved charges against a tenured elementary school teacher and determined that dismissal was warranted. The Board cited that the teacher falsified her time off on three separate occasions by using sick time to take a preplanned cruise to the Caribbean, to take a day to drive to New York, and five days to travel to Norway. Following the Board’s determination, the teacher and the teacher’s union requested a hearing pursuant to Section 34-85 of the Illinois School Code. 105 ILCS 5/34-85. The teacher claimed that the trips were necessary for medical reasons, but could not support her claim with evidence. The selected hearing officer submitted a recommendation to the Board to proceed with dismissal of the teacher due to irremediable conduct. The Board adopted the hearing officer’s facts and legal conclusions and terminated the teacher. The teacher filed a petition for administrative review shortly after.

The Illinois Appellate Court began by explaining that an administrative review is not a review of the hearing officer’s decision, but rather a review of the decision by the Board. The findings and conclusions of the Board on questions of fact are held to be prima facie correct, and no new or additional evidence is considered. When factual findings are contested, the court will only determine if the findings of fact are against the manifest weight of evidence. In other words, the court will analyze whether the opposite conclusion based on the facts is clearly evident.

The court went on to discuss the factors required for the dismissal of a tenured teacher. A tenured teacher may only be dismissed for cause. Certain conduct, however, is considered irremediable and does not require notice prior to dismissal. Under the standard test, a court reviews (1) whether the teacher’s conduct caused significant damage to students, faculty, or the school and (2) whether the teacher would not have corrected her conduct, even if she had been issued a written warning and a period of time for remediation. In some cases, certain conduct that is cruel, immoral, negligent, or criminal, or causes psychological or physical harm to a student is per se irremediable, and eliminates the need to apply the standard test.

The court found that the question of determining if conduct is irremediable is a question of fact. The court further ruled that the Board’s decision and determination of fact that the teacher’s conduct was irremediable due to being “negligent” and “immoral” was not against the manifest weight of evidence.

This case does not serve to deem every teacher’s misuse of sick leave as an irremediable offense warranting dismissal, but rather serves as a guide to determine what conduct is irremediable. Here, the teacher was aware of the sick leave policy and deceived the Board on multiple occasions, requiring a substitute to be hired for her time absent and taking advantage of extra days off. In another case, Board of Education of Joliet Township High School District 204 v. Illinois State Board of Education, a teacher used sick leave to attend a professional conference, and, although her actions were not laudable, her conduct was ultimately remediable. A school board, if establishing irremediable conduct, must look at the specific circumstances and either apply the standard test or explain why a teacher’s conduct is cruel, immoral, negligent, criminal, or psychologically or physically damaging, and thus, irremediable.

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