McGuireWoods Team Helps Halifax County School Board Defeat First Challenge to Virginia School Grievance Law

June 15, 2015

McGuireWoods lawyers successfully defended the Halifax County School Board in the first court challenge to a 2013 Virginia law which streamlined the grievance process for public school teachers facing dismissal.

The Supreme Court of Virginia this month refused a petition for appeal that was filed after a Halifax County Circuit Court judge dismissed a lawsuit against the school board. The Supreme Court found no reversible error in the trial court’s judgment.

The Halifax school board was sued by former teacher William C. Wilborn, who alleged that the county’s pre-termination grievance hearing procedures violated his due process rights and state law. Under a Virginia law enacted in 2013, local school boards may appoint an impartial hearing officer to preside over grievance proceedings and make written recommendations to the board. In Wilborn’s case, the hearing officer upheld the school administration’s recommendation to dismiss him.

Wilborn complained that the grievance process did not allow for cross-examination of adverse witnesses and that the hearing officer, a retired Halifax school superintendent, was not neutral. The McGuireWoods team successfully argued that those circumstances did not violate Wilborn’s constitutional rights or Virginia law. Halifax Circuit Judge Leslie Osborn dismissed the lawsuit on Nov. 10, 2014.

The judge ruled that Virginia’s law does not require a hearing officer to “reside” outside of the school district, as Wilborn alleged, and that no constitutional violation arises out of the fact that the officer is a retired Halifax school administrator. Furthermore, the judge found no evidence “that the hearing officer in this matter was not impartial.”

“This is an important victory for the Halifax County School Board that provides some clarity about the grievance process the General Assembly established in 2013,” said McGuireWoods partner R. Craig Wood, the lead attorney for the Halifax board. “The school board was very conscientious in following the law. We believe the trial court properly dismissed this case and we’re pleased that the Supreme Court refused the plaintiff’s petition for appeal.”

Based in the firm’s Charlottesville office, Wood is a member of McGuireWoods’ labor and employment practice. Counsel Melissa Wolf Riley assisted Wood in the trial court proceedings and associate Rebecca Gantt assisted in preparing the Supreme Court brief opposing the petition for appeal.