Education Commissioner Cannot Preempt Venue

The Texas Supreme Court recently ruled that, when a school district and a teacher agree to Travis County as the venue where their dispute should be decided, the Commissioner of Education cannot block that choice.

In the case of Presidio Independent School District v. Robert Scott, as Commissioner of Education, ___ S.W.3d ___ (Tex. 2010)(4/23/10), a teacher was fired after a hearing examiner concluded he violated school district’s policy on corporal punishment. The teacher filed a petition for review with the Commissioner of Education, who ultimately determined the teacher should be reinstated. The district appealed by filing suit in Travis County district court, a venue permissible when “all parties” consent, as the teacher did here. The Commissioner appealed, claiming his consent was necessary, too. The Supreme Court disagreed, holding that the statute does not include the Commissioner as a “party” whose consent is required for venue in Travis County.

“After the Commissioner adjudicates the dispute between a teacher and a school district, 21.307(a) [of the Texas Education Code] allows ‘[e]ither party’ to appeal the Commissioner’s decision in one of two possible venues: (1) a district court in the school district’s county; or (2) ‘if agreed by all parties, a district court in Travis County.'”

“If a school district seeks to terminate a teacher, the teacher may request a hearing before a certified hearing examiner who develops the record, conducts a bench trial, and ultimately makes a written recommendation that includes proposed findings of fact, conclusions of law, and if the examiner so chooses, a proposal for granting relief. Next, the school district’s board of trustees or board subcommittee considers the recommendation and may adopt, reject, or change the hearing examiner’s conclusions of law or proposal for granting relief.” If dissatisfied, the “teacher may appeal to the Commissioner. . . .” Normally, the Commissioner shall determine the “‘appeal solely on the basis of the local record.'” After he decides, “either party” may then appeal.

“From this statutory scheme, it is reasonable to conclude that the teacher and the school district are adverse ‘parties’ as that term is normally used.” “The Commissioner is logically excluded from the scope of ‘either party’ because he would not appeal his own decision.” Also, in the subchapter, “the Commissioner is distinguished from a ‘party.'” Therefore, the “scope of ‘all parties’ who must consent to venue in Travis County is limited to those parties who have the ability to initiate further review of the Commissioner’s decision. . . .”

In addition, the Commissioner is not given veto power of the venue to prevent forum-shopping. “Generally, forum-shopping occurs when a party attempts to obtain a perceived advantage over its adversary by choosing the most favorable venue. . . . But we fail to envision a scenario in which forum-shopping occurs when both parties to the dispute agree to pursue the appeal in Travis County.” And even if the Commissioner thinks he understands the forum better, “the parties are in the best position to make their own strategic decisions.” (Footnote 5). “We not persuaded that the Legislature intended to combat forum-shopping by giving the Commissioner the power to block review in Travis County.”

Finally, the Commissioner does not have power to block the venue due to his policy-making function. “The Commissioner’s limited role coupled with the deferential review by the district court belies any attempt to classify the Commissioner’s task as making policy.”