Judge dismisses suit against Phila. S.D. by fired special ed teacher, allows filing of amended complaint

By Jon Campisi | Aug 7, 2013

A federal judge has agreed to dismiss a lawsuit initiated against the School

District of Philadelphia by a fired special education teacher, although the jurist granted a plaintiff’s motion to file an amended complaint with respect to one of the counts in the litigation.

U.S. District Judge William H. Yohn, Jr., in a July 31 memorandum and order, dismissed with prejudice Luis M. Negron’s wrongful discharge claim against the city school district, but he dismissed without prejudice a claim that the district violated the state’s Criminal History Record Information Act when it terminated the plaintiff’s employment in early 2011.

Negron sued the district on Jan. 11 of this year over his Jan. 28, 2011 firing, which the plaintiff contends was due to the district discovering criminal charges against the man stemming from unspecified incidences in the late 1990s.

The district told Negron he was being terminated for making misrepresentations regarding his criminal history on his employment application.

Negron claimed he didn’t technically have any “convictions” on his record because he had successfully completed something called the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition Program, or ARD.

In his lawsuit, Negron pointed to the employment application, which stated that a job applicant could omit convictions for which they successfully completed the ARD program.

Negron was hired as a special education instructor by the district in early September 2009.

In his lawsuit, Negron claimed that the decision to fire him was motivated, at least in part, by his criminal history.

Negron accused the school district of violating the Pennsylvania Constitution and the Criminal History Record Information Act, as well as wrongful termination under Pennsylvania common law.

In April, Yohn ordered the school district to respond to the complaint by June 3, which the defendant did at the last minute.

The district sought to dismiss counts II and III of the complaint, the CHRIA and wrongful termination claims, but didn’t challenge the constitutional claim.

District lawyers argued that Negron’s CHRIA claim failed as a matter of law because the statute applies only to hiring, not firing, decisions.

Negron countered that legislative intent was to protect people with criminal records from being discriminated against in the entire context of their employment.

Negron also argued that he worked for the defendant in the capacity of a “probationary employee,” and was only to be considered “hired” if he passed a criminal background check.

“Because the School District relied on his criminal history record information in terminating his probationary status, Negron argues he was never actually hired, and accordingly, that his termination constituted a hiring decision,” the judge noted in his memorandum.

Yohn, who pointed out that there is little case law interpreting the scope of section 9125 of the CHRIA, ended up concluding that the statute applies only to hiring decisions, “and as written does not extend to decisions concerning employment termination. As a result, Negron’s claim fails as a matter of law.”

At the same time, however, Yohn stated that Negron could make a colorable argument in response to the district’s motion to dismiss that his employment with the district was contingent upon the successful passing of a criminal background check, and because the district relied on criminal history in terminating the plaintiff’s employment, he was never fully hired.

Those allegations, however, never appear in the complaint, so Yohn gave the plaintiff the opportunity to amend his complaint to reflect the “probationary employee” theory if he chooses to do so.

As for the wrongful termination claim, the district had argued that Negron’s claim failed as a matter of law because terminating an employee because of criminal history doesn’t violate Pennsylvania public policy.

Negron, however, hadn’t challenged the district’s decision to seek dismissal of this claim, paving the way for Yohn to toss this count in the lawsuit.

No judicial action was taken on the constitutional claim.

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