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Jenkins v. Crosby Independent School District

Court of Appeals of Texas, Third District, Austin

June 15, 2017

Hermenia Jenkins, Appellant
v.
Crosby Independent School District and Mike Morath in his Official Capacity as State Commissioner of Education, [1] Appellees

         FROM THE DISTRICT COURT OF TRAVIS COUNTY, 200TH JUDICIAL DISTRICT NO. D-1-GN-14-000619, HONORABLE AMY CLARK MEACHUM, JUDGE PRESIDING

          Before Chief Justice Rose, Justices Pemberton and Field.

          OPINION

          Bob Pemberton, Justice.

         After the new superintendent of Crosby Independent School District (the District) reassigned appellant Hermenia Jenkins from the position of principal at an intermediate school within the District to that of an assistant principal at Crosby High School, Jenkins challenged the reassignment pursuant to the District's grievance procedure. After the District's board of trustees voted to deny her complaint, she appealed the board's decision to the Commissioner of Education.[2]The Commissioner affirmed the District's decision, and Jenkins sought judicial review of the Commissioner's decision.[3] The district court affirmed the Commissioner's decision. For the following reasons, we will affirm the district court's judgment.

         BACKGROUND

         Jenkins was the principal at Charles R. Drew Intermediate School within the District from 2003 through the end of the 2010-2011 school year. In March 2011, she signed a two-year term contract with the District's board of trustees (the Board) for the school years 2011-2012 and 2012-2013. The contract refers to her as "Employee." Among the contract's terms and conditions were the following:

The Board hereby agrees to employ the Employee and the Employee agrees to serve the Board by engaging in duties as assigned by the Superintendent of the Crosby Independent School District for the school years 2011-2013 with beginning and ending dates as set by the Board.
It is understood and agreed by the parties to this Contract that the Superintendent of the Crosby Independent School District shall have the right to assign such duties to the Employee as the Superintendent shall deem proper; and since the Employee is not employed to fill a specific position or assignment, the Superintendent may assign or reassign the Employee to either or additional duties for which he or she is professionally certified or otherwise qualified to perform.

         In June 2011, the District's new superintendent notified Jenkins that she was being reassigned from her position as principal at the intermediate school to that of an assistant principal at Crosby High School, with a start date of August 1, 2011. Her compensation in the new position was the same as it had been in her position as principal.

         Pursuant to the District's three-level grievance procedure, Jenkins submitted a written complaint in July 2011 objecting to her reassignment from the position of principal to assistant principal on the asserted ground that "[t]he duties of Principal and Assistant Principal [were] not within the same professional capacity."[4] Because the positions of principal and assistant principal were not in the "same professional capacity, " Jenkins reasoned, she should have been provided with the administrative process under subchapter E of chapter 21 of the Texas Education Code-the Term Contract Nonrenewal Act (TCNA)-before being reassigned to the position of assistant principal.[5]As relief, Jenkins sought reassignment to her prior position of principal at the intermediate school or to "a mutually agreeable position that would reflect a 'forward progression' in [her] career and on [her] resume."

         Attached to her complaint were the superintendent's notice of reassignment, "job descriptions of principal and assistant principal" from job postings on the District's website, [6] her employment contract, and her current-year evaluation. Because the only administrator with authority to remedy her alleged complaint was the superintendent, the grievance procedure for her complaint began at level two. The superintendent held a level-two conference on August 25, 2011, at which Jenkins was represented by counsel. In addition to her complaint with attachments, Jenkins submitted yearly progress results for schools within the District and campus accountability ratings for the 2010-2011 school year.

         Following this conference, the superintendent provided Jenkins with a "level two decision letter." In the letter, the superintendent denied Jenkins's complaint, explaining that she had been reassigned "from one administrative position to another administrative position." He added that the reassignment was in the District's "best interests, " in his view, because the intermediate school would "benefit from new and fresh administrative leadership, " and Jenkins's "skill set could meet a real need at our High School." According to the superintendent, "Crosby High School [had] been deemed unacceptable [in the TEA's ratings system] and [would] require a great deal of administrative support and focus to turn the school around into the right direction and meet the needs of our students. [Jenkins's] previous experiences, and [her] skills and abilities with organization, problem solving, and attention to detail [would] be very valuable and helpful in this very important endeavor." He also listed her specific "numerous administrative responsibilities" in detail as to her reassigned position of assistant principal at the high school, a "much larger campus."[7]

         Jenkins appealed the superintendent's decision to the Board, which it considered in a closed meeting in October 2011, a transcription of which is in evidence. Both Jenkins and the superintendent were present and represented by counsel, and they explained their respective positions. Jenkins, who had been working as an assistant principal at the high school since the beginning of the school year, did not dispute the superintendent's characterization of her duties as the assistant principal but insisted that the reassignment was "a negative mark on her resume" and "not forward progression" because she had started as an assistant principal at the high school before being promoted to the position of principal at the intermediate school. Jenkins also touted what she perceived to be her successful leadership as the principal at the intermediate school. In response, the superintendent explained to the Board that the high school had become "academically unacceptable" and that his decision to move Jenkins "was more about what she could bring to Crosby High School"-"to help push Crosby High School on further with an experienced administrator that could bring some skill sets to the high school"-while also "bring[ing] some fresh blood" to the intermediate school. At the conclusion of the meeting, the Board voted to deny Jenkins's complaint.

         Jenkins then appealed the Board's decision by filing a petition for review with the Commissioner of Education under section 7.057 of the Texas Education Code.[8] The matter was assigned to an administrative law judge (ALJ) who issued a proposal for decision, recommending that Jenkins's petition for review be denied in part and dismissed in part. Relevant to this appeal, the ALJ found that the Commissioner had jurisdiction over Jenkins's claims that the District had violated section 21.206(b) of the Texas Education Code, but then concluded that the District did not reassign Jenkins in violation of section 21.206(b).[9] The Commissioner thereafter denied the petition in part and dismissed it in part as recommended by the ALJ, and Jenkins sought judicial review of the Commissioner's decision. The district court affirmed the Commissioner's decision, and this appeal followed.

         ANALYSIS

         Jenkins raises two issues on appeal. In her first issue, Jenkins argues that she could not be "involuntarily reassigned to assistant principal without receiving the quasi-due-process protections of the contract nonrewal process" under the TCNA because the position of principal is not in the "same professional capacity" as the position of assistant principal.[10] In her second issue, Jenkins argues that the Commissioner incorrectly interpreted her term contract by finding that she was an "'administrator, ' a term not found in her contract or defined in law, but broad enough to encompass her reassignment from principal to assistant principal."[11]

         Standard of review

         Our review of the Commissioner's decision to affirm the decision of the Board is governed by the same analysis as in the district court and before the Commissioner-the familiar "substantial-evidence" rule that is codified in Section 2001.174 of the Administrative Procedure Act.[12] Under this standard, we must reverse or remand a case for further proceedings "if substantial rights of the appellant have been prejudiced because the administrative findings, inferences, conclusions, or decisions are":

(A) in violation of a constitutional or statutory provision;
(B) in excess of the agency's statutory authority;
(C) made through unlawful procedure;
(D) affected by other error of law;
(E) not reasonably supported by substantial evidence considering the reliable and probative evidence in the record as a whole; or
(F) arbitrary or capricious or characterized by abuse of discretion or clearly unwarranted exercise of discretion.[13]

         Essentially, this is a rational-basis test to determine, as a matter of law, whether an agency's order finds reasonable support in the record.[14] "The test is not whether the agency made the correct conclusion in our view, but whether some reasonable basis exists in the record for the agency's action."[15] We apply this analysis without deference to the district court's judgment.[16] We presume that the agency's findings, inferences, conclusions, and decisions are supported by substantial evidence, and the burden is on the contestant to demonstrate otherwise.[17] Ultimately, we are concerned not with the correctness of the agency's decision, but its reasonableness.[18]

         Substantial-evidence analysis entails two component inquiries: (1) whether the agency made findings of underlying facts that logically support the ultimate facts and legal conclusions establishing the legal authority for the agency's decision or action and, in turn, (2) whether the findings of underlying fact are reasonably supported by evidence.[19] The second inquiry, which has been termed the "crux" of substantial-evidence review, [20] is highly deferential to the agency's determination: "substantial evidence" in this sense "does not mean a large or considerable amount of evidence"-in fact, the evidence may even preponderate against the agency's finding-but requires only "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a [finding] of fact."[21] Likewise, we "may not substitute [our] judgment for the judgment of the state agency on the weight of the evidence on questions committed to agency discretion."[22]In contrast, the first inquiry, concerning the extent to which the underlying facts found by the agency logically support its ultimate decision or action, may entail questions of law that we review de novo.[23] Guided by this well-established standard of review, we address Jenkins's issues challenging the Commissioner's decision.

         Are the positions of principal and assistant principal in the "same professional capacity"?

         Jenkins's first issue turns on the meaning of the phrase "same professional capacity" in the context of section 21.206(b) of the Texas Education Code.[24] As previously stated, section 21.206 is within the TCNA, which provides an administrative process for nonrenewal of a teacher's term contract.[25] Section 21.206 specifically addresses the required notice to renew or nonrenew a teacher's term contract. Subsection (a) of section 21.206 addresses how and when notice of the renewal or nonrenewal must be given, and subsection (b) then provides:

The board's failure to give the notice required by Subsection (a) within the time specified constitutes an election to employ the teacher in the same professional capacity for the following school year.[26]

         For purposes of the TCNA, the position of principal falls within the meaning of "teacher."[27] Thus, if principal and assistant principal are not in the "same professional capacity, " as Jenkins argues, she was entitled to the TCNA's administrative process prior to being reassigned to the position of assistant principal.[28]

         To understand the meaning of the phrase "same professional capacity" in section 21.206(b), we look to well-established principles of statutory construction.[29] If the "language is unambiguous, 'we interpret the statute according to its plain meaning, '"[30] and "'[w]e presume the Legislature included each word in the statute for a purpose and that words not included were purposefully omitted.'"[31] "If there is vagueness, ambiguity, or room for policy determinations in a statute or regulation, " "we normally defer to the agency's interpretation unless it is plainly erroneous or inconsistent with the language of the statute, regulation, or rule."[32]

         Because the phrase "same professional capacity" is not defined in the Texas Education Code, we look to the ordinary meaning of the phrase's words in context. The word "same" (when used as an adjective) means "resembling in every way: not different in relevant essentials at one time."[33] The ordinary meaning of the word "professional" (when used as an adjective) denotes "of, relating to, or characteristic of a profession or calling, " and the related word "profession" commonly means "a principal calling, vocation, or employment."[34] And the word "capacity" (when used as a noun) ordinarily signifies "legal qualification, competency, power, or fitness."[35] Applying the ordinary meanings of these words in the context of section 21.206, we conclude that there is room for policy determinations and thus we will defer to the Commissioner's interpretation if it is reasonable and does not contradict the plain language of the statute.[36]

         In his decision, the Commissioner described the meaning of the phrase "same professional capacity" by citing and quoting a seminal administrative decision of his office, Barich v. San Felipe-Del Rio Consolidated Independent School District.[37] In that proceeding, the Commissioner concluded that an ROTC instructor and a teacher were in the "same professional capacity" where there was "no reduction in salary or status."[38] The Commissioner concluded that the Legislature did not intend for the phrase to mean the "exact same position, " explaining in part:

It is more reasonable to conclude that the legislature, by using the term, "same professional capacity" (instead of "the exact same position"), intended to allow school districts to be flexible in their personnel assignments while discouraging the abuse of the district's inherent or contractual reassignment authority. . . .
In some instances, the validity of a particular placement will be clear. For example, an administrator who does not receive the required notice by April 1 may not be placed in the capacity of a classroom teacher; a classroom teacher may not be placed in the capacity of a counselor; a counselor may not be placed in the ...

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