Court: Barrington (RI) School Committee Liable For Attorney’s Fees Of Teachers Fired Over Covid Vax Mandate
A follow up to our prior coverage of the three Christian teachers fired after the district refused even to consider their requests for religious exemption. Court imposed a $500 fine for an open meetings violation and more significantly, the teacher’s attorney’s fees that could be $30,000.
Three Barrington, Rhode Island school teachers fired by their school district for refusing the COVID vaccine achieved a welcome but limited victory at the end of September in Rhode Island Superior Court.
As we reported here, this past May, Associate Justice Jeffrey A. Lanphear ruled that the Barrington School Committee violated Rhode Island’s Open Meetings Act (OMA) when it failed to give the public sufficient notice before enacting its Covid vaccine mandate. Following a hearing in August to determine the penalties for the committee’s violation, Judge Lanphear has now awarded attorney’s fees that could total tens of thousands of dollars and imposed a nominal $500 fine on the committee.
The teachers’ battle to get their jobs back is not over, however, because the court declined to void the policy.
Greg Piccirilli, the teachers’ lawyer, said in an interview last week that they are pursuing other legal options to reinstate the teachers and recover their back pay.
We began covering the teachers’ story in May, “Just Devastating” – Three Teachers Who Sought Religious Exemption From Covid Vaccine Fired In Barrington (RI)
We followed up with an initial court ruling, Vaccine Mandate That Led To Firing Of Three Barrington (RI) Teachers Lacked Necessary Public Notice, Court Rules:
As reported here last week, each of the three teachers—Brittany DiOrio, Stephanie Hines, and Kerri Thurber—had requested a religious exemption from taking the Barrington school district’s mandatory Covid vaccine. The district denied their requests, suspended them without pay, and ultimately fired them effective January 1st of this year. The school committee upheld that decision at a post-deprivation hearing held at the end of March, and the teachers plan an appeal.
But while the administrative appeals process seems likely to drag on for months, it is only one piece of the teachers’ legal battle. They have also asked the Rhode Island Superior Court to block the mandate, arguing that the school district violated Rhode Island’s Open Meetings Act, which requires notice of the school district’s public meetings, including “the nature of the business to be discussed.”
The school’s mandate took the teachers by surprise. They were due back in school by late August 2021, but it was not until September 21st that a letter came from Superintendent Michael Messore notifying them that they would have to vaccinate by November 1st or face termination. With the school year already underway, the teachers had no time to seek other options.
In fact, unbeknownst to the teachers, and well before September 21st, the district’s plans to implement a vaccine policy were already in progress. The school committee considered and approved the policy at meetings that took place during August and September last year, the court found.
But nowhere was any notice about the vaccine mandates to be found, either in the minutes or the agenda posted for any of the meetings. What’s more, the court said, “although there were numerous separate postings on the Secretary of State’s website, one for each of the Barrington School Committee meetings, the postings never mentioned mandatory vaccinations.” [emphasis added] Remarkably, “the detailed seven-page policy itself, was never posted.” “With minimal and vague notice,” the court stated, “it is reasonable to conclude that few knew of the actions being taken.”
Following its May ruling that the school committee failed to give the public proper notice required by the Act, the court scheduled the August remedies hearing, and the parties made further submissions and arguments. Finally, on September 29th, Judge Lanphear issued his decision to award attorney’s fees to the teachers and fine the Barrington School Committee $500 for violating the OMA . But he refused to void the vaccine mandate, leaving the teachers without their jobs and the back pay they were hoping for.
Civil Fine Is a “Public Shaming”
Piccirilli explained that although the fine is nominal, the $500 penalty is “like a public shaming.” It sends a message to the community that the Barrington School Committee has “done something wrong, seriously wrong.”
Judge Lanphear intended it as a warning:
The civil penalty, more than anything else, sends a message that the conduct was wrong, future conduct must be different, and the Barrington School Committee was responsible. The Open Meetings Act infraction cannot go undeterred.
He found that the school committee had shown a “reckless disregard for the question of whether its conduct was prohibited by the Open Meetings Act”:
The schools were dealing with important, controversial, somewhat unique, and strong measures effecting [sic] every classroom—and the public was not told. The public did not know the students would be required to wear masks (though they may have expected it), the teachers did not all know, nor did the parents and students know that teachers would be required to be vaccinated or face termination. The union leaders may have known, but not the teachers or the public.
People lost their jobs as a result of the policies enacted, and students may have been disciplined. Their constitutional and statutory pretermination and post-termination hearings do not substitute for allowing the public to know what the government is doing before they do it so “citizens [are] advised of and aware of the performance of public officials and the deliberations and decisions that go into the making of public policy.”
The Open Meetings Act mandates telling the public in advance of the deliberation and decision . . . Not after the fact.
Piccirilli believes the decisive penalty will come when the committee members are up for re-election. It will be “on the people of Barrington to take the court’s ruling as a basis for taking their schools back,” he says. “That is why it is so important for the public to have full knowledge of the school committee proceedings.”
Attorney’s Fees – “Attorney’s Work Was the Key to Discovering the Violation”
While the fine may be “symbolic,” Piccirilli says the court-awarded attorney’s fees could really add up.
Judge Lanphear said the attorney’s fees award was “proportional” to the school committee’s breach of the OMA and its consequences:
The public was deprived of full notice. The Plaintiffs here were never informed by a proper notice that their employment was at stake. None of this would have come to light but for the vigorous and undaunted prosecution by Plaintiffs’ counsel.
Piccirilli is preparing an application to the court and anticipates a minimum of $30,000 for his work on the OMA challenge.
Court Won’t Void Vaccine Policy
Still, it’s hard to reconcile the court’s refusal to void the vaccine policy with its other language condemning the school committee’s “reckless disregard” for the OMA’s notice requirements.
While Judge Lanphear acknowledged that “voiding the policy is allowed under the Open Meetings Act as a remedy,” he said that “the Plaintiffs could have ended the threatened terminations earlier by getting vaccinated.”
But that “just-get-the-shot” kind of thinking is irrelevant to the real issue under the Act: the school committee failed to give notice to the public, including the teachers, of the new policy. And, after all, the teachers objected to the shot on religious grounds, so telling them to get it anyway like everyone else misses the point.
The judge said there were other practical reasons for not voiding the policy:
[T]he Barrington School Committee could pass the policy again with sufficient notice (and may have already done so). This leaves the teachers to be terminated again with the requisite termination hearings. It would place the Plaintiffs, their replacements, and students in continued legal limbo, wondering who their teacher would be day to day.
In short, to void the policy itself would only result in confusion, and the Barrington School Committee could terminate the teachers again. It accomplishes little.
But these objections are also hard to square with the whole point of the Act, which is to ensure “that public business be performed in an open and public manner and that citizens be advised of and aware of the performance of public officials and the deliberations and decisions that go into the making of public policy.” By the court’s logic, the committee could pass future policies in secret without fear of having them voided if doing so might cause “confusion” or seem to “accomplish little.”
It also seems a little late in the game to talk about the teachers losing their jobs or “continued legal limbo.” It’s been almost a year since they received notice of their termination.
Voiding the vaccine policy would accomplish a lot more than the measly $500 fine by sending the message that if the school committee tries it again, they won’t get away with it.
Other Avenues of Relief – The Law Is On Their Side
Piccirilli says, though, that there are other roads to recovery for the beleaguered teachers to get their jobs back and recover lost wages.
The teachers’ administrative appeal of the school committee’s decision to fire them—stayed pending Judge Lanphear’s final decision—is now set go forward, Piccirilli says, once a hearing date is scheduled.
There are also state and federal discrimination claims in progress that will likely end up in court down the line.
And although Judge Lanphear did not directly address back pay, Piccirilli is confident the teachers will eventually recover their lost wages. He says that whether the education department upholds the teachers’ terminations or not, there will be an appeal to the superior court. Once there, the law on back pay is on the teachers’ side and he believes they will win.
Even so, Piccirilli says the school committee and its lawyer show no signs of backing down. They have taken a “guerilla tactic approach to this litigation.” It’s “as if these teachers were like axe murderers.”
But they are such good people and good teachers, he says, all extremely well qualified and so undeserving of the vitriol and venom hurled at them by the school officials.
“All that they spew on these poor women is just staggering.”
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HOORAY for those teachers that were so unjustly fired! THIS is what needs to happen to all of those libtard Freaks! They SHOULD have to pay for their insanity. Their behaviour is SO obviously UNAMERICAN!
And after they pay, ship them all to Albania!.
It sounds like these administrators believe what they read in the paper. They are about to discover the difference between fact and opinion.
My experience with public schools is that administrators have morals and ethics similar to used car salesmen. At least in my area, most are washed up jocks who were terrible teachers.
What needs to happen, and I hope these 3 women become organizers, is to recall and replace the school board, followed by termination of the superintendent and then cleaning the swamp critters out.
I have serious doubt that what ails public schools can be fixed.
Why are you insulting used care salesmen. They didn’t have anything to do with this.
“Even so, Piccirilli says the school committee and its lawyer show no signs of backing down.”
Why would they back down when they can continue to fight using the taxpayers’ money?
The mutagenic, nonsterilizing mandates have an attached Bidencares CoVaxxx tax.
Know the game you are playing.
“Even so, Piccirilli says the school committee and its lawyer show no signs of backing down.”
The Tea Party 1.0 thought this was Civics 1010 self-government. What happened demonstrated that reality that the forms are misdirection, distracting from grifters, opportunists and sociopaths securely infesting the machinery for comfort and power. They’ll let you play along so long as that helps them.
At best, people “in government” thought Jr. High student government was pretty nifty, with no better reality or aspiration since. Everyone else involved is worse. The school committee, lawyer, and the rest won’t back down; they can’t. Infesting the machinery is the best thing they’ve got.
“Piccirilli explained that although the fine is nominal, the $500 penalty is “like a public shaming.”
You know what else is like a public shaming? Having your front door knocked down, and getting perp-walked across your lawn in handcuffs while CNN films it.
How do we decide which of these is appropriate for which offenders?
By their politics, of course.
It is almost as if tiny RI has attracted the worst and dimmest of leftists from MA and CT and concentrated them there.
That’s been obvious to all since the year the Kennedy dynasty made a duchy out of it and installed
FredoPatrick to administer it for them.