Improvement #4: Limit “Just Cause” Discipline and Discharge Clauses

“Just cause” refers to contractually established standards of conduct that an employee must breach before he can be disciplined or discharged. Due process is the legal procedure instituted when an employer wishes to discipline or discharge an employee who has breached the “just cause” standard.

“Just cause” is distinct from an “at will” employment arrangement. “At will” means either party may terminate the employment relationship at any time for any reason. The “just cause” standard, on the other hand, is typically applied to employees who have a property interest in the employment relationship. Teachers who have received tenure status, for example, enjoy property rights in their employment relationships.

The “just cause” standard and the resulting due process proceeding for employee discipline or discharge is a burdensome and time–consuming process for districts that wish to remove ineffective, unproductive or even criminal teachers from the classroom. Under this standard, a school board can face increased and unplanned expenses in processing employee discipline and discharge matters, including substantial liability for teacher re–instatement or back pay in the event of an unfavorable arbitration or tenure ruling.

School boards should limit the “just cause” standard to include only tenured teachers and provide a less rigid standard for probationary teachers, who are still being evaluated for their competence. Boards are legally obligated to provide “just cause” employment only to tenured teachers, so they should carefully review their collective bargaining agreements for any language that makes a “just cause” standard applicable to probationary teachers.

School boards and administrators should carefully follow the established seven–point test when building a case for the “just cause” discipline or discharge of a tenured teacher. The seven points include:

  • Did the employer forewarn the employee of possible disciplinary consequences of conduct?

  • Was the rule or directive involved reasonably related to the orderly, efficient operation of the business?

  • Before administering discipline, did the employer properly investigate to determine that the employee did violate or disobey the rule or directive?

  • Was the employer’s investigation done in a fair and impartial manner?

  • Through the investigation, did the employer obtain enough evidence to prove the employee was, in fact, in violation of the rule or directive?

  • Was the rule, directive, and penalty applied fairly and without discrimination?

  • Was the discipline applied reasonably related to the gravity of the offense and was the amount of discipline reasonable given the employee’s overall record?[48]

Arbitrators are unlikely to uphold the discipline or discharge of an employee if the school district does not properly follow and document the steps showing “just cause.” School boards and administrators who adhere to the requirements for “just cause” will avoid unnecessarily costly and unfavorable arbitration rulings.