NEW ORLEANS (NNPA) - Eleven months after New Orleans Civil District Court Judge Ethel Simms-Julien certified a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of more than 8,500 former employees of Orleans Parish Public Schools who were terminated after the State of Louisiana seized control of more than 100 public schools in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal has affirmed the decision of the trial court. The three-judge panel was comprised of Judge Edwin A. Lombard, Judge Terri F. Love and Judge Paul A. Bonin.
"After reviewing the record before us, including the petitions, the arguments of the parties, the testimony at the certification hearing and the trial court's reasons for judgment, we find that there was a sufficient factual basis for the trial court to certify this class," Judge Lombard has said.
The case began on Oct. 28, 2005, just two months after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.
Three employees filed a Petition for Injunctive Relief to prevent the Orleans Parish School Board from terminating their employment, claiming a violation of their state-mandated due process and property rights as certified and/or permanent public school employees.
The initial plaintiffs included Eddy Loiver, a public school principal; Oscarlene Nixon, a paraprofessional/teacher's aide; and Mildred Goodwin, a custodian. The lawsuit was amended to include the State of Louisiana following the state's takeover of more than 100 New Orleans public schools effective Nov. 30, 2005. Other "State defendants" include the Louisiana Department of Education and its Recovery School District, and the Louisiana State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE).
The employees' initial request for injunctive relief in the form of continued employment with the new state-run school system was denied, but in a September 2007 ruling, Judge Ethel Simms-Julien recognized other "causes of action" for monetary relief, including wrongful termination and breach of contract.
Subsequently, other terminated employees were added to the lawsuit which now includes principals, teachers, paraprofessionals, central office administrators, secretaries, social workers and other employees who provided instructional, administrative, food services, security, maintenance, transportation and other services.
"We are very pleased with the Fourth Circuit's ruling affirming Judge Julien's decision certifying the class," said, Willie M. Zanders, lead counsel for the plaintiffs. "This ruling means that 8,500 former New Orleans public school employees who were wrongfully terminated by the actions of the local school board and State of Louisiana will be able to proceed with their claims together in one lawsuit - instead of having to file thousands of individual lawsuits.
"...In the course of the litigation, we discovered documents showing that State education officials received over $400 million in emergency congressional funding to restart public schools in New Orleans and to help employees who had been placed on 'disaster leave' without pay," Zanders continued. "Despite receipt of the federal funding, 8,500 New Orleans Public School employees were terminated. Many of these employees and their families are still suffering four years after Hurricane Katrina. However, they have been very patient as the court system reviews actions taken by education officials after Katrina.
"The defendants have the right to ask the Louisiana Supreme Court to review this unanimous ruling of the Louisiana Fourth Circuit of Appeal and the plaintiffs' attorneys will be prepared for that undertaking, if they choose to do so.
"Thanksgiving 2009 is very special for our clients, their families and citizens who are thankful for the invaluable services of public school employees."
The Louisiana Department of Education had not released a statement in response to the ruling at press time and an employee with the department told The Louisiana Weekly that she was not certain it would comment on the ruling.