In a case that may have lasting implications for at-will employees of State government, the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia ruled in favor of the West Virginia Board of Education and Board President L. Wade Linger, Jr. In an opinion filed on November 10, 2015, the Court dismissed a controversial lawsuit brought by former State Superintendent of Schools Jorea Marple. Attorneys J. Victor Flanagan, Julie Meeks Greco, and Katie L. Hicklin of Pullin, Fowler, Flanagan, Brown & Poe, PLLC represented the Board and its president. The PF&F legal team was able to persuade the Court that two principles, at-will employment and qualified immunity, protected the Board and its members from liability when they exercised their discretion in terminating Dr. Marple’s appointment in 2012.
At-will employment is a familiar concept in the private sector. It means that an employer can terminate an employee’s employment for any reason or no reason at all, but not for an illegal reason. This allows employers to make staffing decisions based on the best interest of the company and to hold workers accountable for job performance. The framers of the Constitution of the State of West Virginia and the West Virginia Legislature had this level of accountability in mind when they crafted clear and unambiguous language in the West Virginia Constitution, Article XII, § 2, and the West Virginia Code § 18-3-1, to designate the Superintendent to serve at the will and pleasure of the Board. In her lawsuit, Dr. Marple alleged she had a protected property interest in her appointment, but the Court disagreed, finding the Board was completely within its rights to terminate Dr. Marple’s appointment without citing cause.
Dr. Marple also alleged damage to her “life-time reputation in the field of education,” which she contended made it impossible to gain employment on “any level approaching” that of Superintendent. The Court found that the statement the Board adopted upon Dr. Marple’s termination did not affix blame for the State’s educational failures. The statement was not stigmatizing, and the Board was well within its rights to decide that a change in leadership was in the best interests of West Virginia students. Here, the Court also considered the concept of qualified immunity, a protection available to State agencies, officials, and employees performing discretionary functions where their actions do not violate clearly established law. Dr. Marple could not show that the Board or its President violated a clearly established statutory or constitutional right, so her case could not go forward, due to qualified immunity.
At PF&F, we are pleased to have secured a favorable ruling for our clients. But we’re also elated to have defended principles that are important to every West Virginian. What was at stake here was nothing less than State government’s ability to do the people’s business. It is the people who have won.
Pullin, Fowler, Flanagan, Brown & Poe, PLLC is proud to have served West Virginia businesses and the community for more than 20 years. To schedule a consultation, call 304-344-0100 or contact us online.