PANOPSI Receives Favorable Appeals Court Ruling

In a unanimous decision on Jan. 15, a five-judge panel of the Louisiana Court of Appeal for the 4th Circuit ruled that approximately 7,500 former New Orleans public school employees fired after Hurricane Katrina “were deprived of the constitutionally protected property right to be recalled to employment without due process of the law.”

During the appeals process, lawyers said the damages—for principals, teachers, coaches, bus drivers, secretaries, social workers, counselors, security officers, business managers, custodians, paraprofessionals, librarians, nurses, etc.—could amount to $1.5 billion.

The panel ordered the New Orleans school board to pay two years of back pay and benefits and required the state to pay an additional year of pay and benefits to school employees who meet certain requirements. Many teachers and principals had the right to be rehired as jobs opened up in the first years after the storm, the court said.

Employees were tenured as of Aug. 25, 2005, the date Hurricane Katrina hit the Louisiana-Mississippi border and the New Orleans levees failed, flooding much of the city. The 7,500-plus educators and staff initially were placed on “disaster leave without pay,” then terminated, a decision made final on March 24, 2006.

“Never in the history of our country has an entire school system workforce been terminated en masse—until now. Katrina didn’t wipe out New Orleans Public Schools—the state of Louisiana did,” said Florida L. Woods, former president of the Professional Administrators of New Orleans Public Schools Inc. (PANOPSI), AFSA Local 17, and AFSA Southern regional vice president and executive director of PANOPSI.

“We will not let the state use a terrible tragedy like Katrina to advance a political agenda that it was previously unable to advance,” she said. “We will not stop fighting until this injustice has been made right. Let’s also remember to thank the supporters of PANOPSI, AFSA, AFT and UTNO and many others who never gave up to fight for what was always known to be so very wrong.”

This ruling does not end the case and does not entitle anyone to immediate compensation. The school board and the state have the right to ask the Louisiana Supreme Court to review the case. Even after a potential review by the Louisiana Supreme Court, there are still other steps that may need to occur prior to any compensation becoming available.

Lead Attorney Willie M. Zanders Sr., the class members’ lead counsel, issued a statement on Jan. 15 regarding the ruling:

“We are both humbled and grateful that a unanimous, five-judge panel of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld key rulings in the June 20, 2012, judgment rendered by District Court Judge Ethel Simms Julien. This is a true victory for our clients. This case has been a difficult and extremely stressful experience for 7,000 employees and their families who suffered after Hurricane Katrina. We pause to pay respect to all former employees who did not live to see this important victory, like Class Representative Gwendolyn Ridgley, who passed in October 2012. Other Class Representatives and thousands of employees continue to suffer physically, emotionally, and financially. I am thankful for the patience and prayers of former School Board employees and their families, and encourage them to STAY STRONG!”

As of Feb.14, the New Orleans Parish School Board and the state defendants filed papers asking the Louisiana Supreme Court to review the appeals court’s decision and to rule in its favor. Additionally, the Legal Committee representing the terminated educators has asked the Louisiana Supreme Court to reinstate Judge Ethel Simms Julien’s ruling with respect to five years of salary and other legal issues. The next step in the case is for the Louisiana Supreme Court to act on those matters.