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Appeals court rules fired University High teacher owed nearly $900,000 in back pay

Feb. 2, 2020 Updated Sun., Feb. 2, 2020 at 9:21 p.m.

University High School main building is seen Jan. 30, 2020 in Spokane Valley. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
University High School main building is seen Jan. 30, 2020 in Spokane Valley. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

In a complex case spanning almost a decade, the Washington State Court of Appeals has affirmed an award of eight years of back pay to a former University High School teacher who was fired in 2012 for a “pattern of misconduct.”

In a 29-page ruling issued Thursday, the appeals court said that the Central Valley School District failed to provide Michael Cronin, who taught career and technical education, the opportunity for a timely hearing for reinstatement, which his union representative had timely requested.

“This failure caused Cronin to be re-employed for the 2012-2013 school year and automatically renewed each ensuing school year” in accordance with state law, Judge Robert Lawrence-Berry wrote.

The ruling affirms a Spokane County Superior Court decision to restore Cronin to pay status pending a statutory hearing and to pay him back wages and benefits, interest and attorney’s fees totaling about $895,000.

“This was a vindication for people who have a right to due process who were denied,” said Cronin’s attorney, Larry Kuznetz of Spokane.

Kuznetz said the bottom line is the district failed to give Cronin a hearing “because they took a position that the union officials didn’t have the right to request a hearing on his behalf.”

In addition, the lower court granted Cronin’s request for reasonable attorney fees and interest, but denied his request for double damages and an additional award to compensate him for the increased tax consequences of a large lump sum payment.

The district appealed that decision, leading to Thursday’s Appeals Court ruling.

However, the case apparently will continue.

In a statement issued Thursday afternoon, Superintendent Ben Small said, “I believe the School District will appeal to the Washington Supreme Court.”

“While the School District respects the Court of Appeals decision, the District feels very strongly that we have taken the correct position with regard to Mr. Cronin,” Small said.

In 2008, Cronin was accused of being drunk at school and inappropriately touching a female student and a female staff member.

He had multiple arrests for driving under the influence and charges for obstructing a police officer and resisting arrest. He served jail time in several of the cases. He also has had several restraining orders filed against him, including several by women he dated.

In August 2010, police arrested Cronin for physical control of a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol. The charge went unresolved for a while and Cronin taught the 2010-2011 school year without incident.

However, Cronin was arrested twice during the summer before the 2011-2012 school year. The arrests involved conduct outside of his employment.

Because of his legal troubles, the school district placed Cronin on paid administrative leave that school year. This leave requires an employee to be available, at the district’s request, either to work or to meet during business hours.

While on paid leave, in September 2011, Cronin decided he needed alcohol treatment and notified the district in writing of his decision to seek inpatient treatment at a facility in Selah, Washington.

The district later confirmed that Cronin, who would be unavailable for work while receiving inpatient treatment, was entitled to use sick leave.

On September 28, 2011, Cronin pleaded guilty to the August 2010 charge of physical control of a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol.

He served part of his sentence at a facility in Selah, then reported to Geiger Corrections Center in Spokane in late October to serve the remainder of his sentence.

On November 7, 2011, the district’s deputy superintendent sent a letter to Cronin. The letter expressed the district’s concern that it had been unable to contact him and notified him that he had been classified as absent without leave.

The letter emphasized that Cronin was required to personally respond to the letter by the next day, and, if he was unavailable for work, he had to make a written request to the district for paid leave.

The parties dispute whether Cronin was available for work while at Geiger. An email sent by Cronin after the November meeting confirmed his availability for work.

The school district fired him for a “pattern of misconduct” that negatively affected his ability to do his job in January 2012. At the time Cronin was in jail, he contacted a third party and requested that she contact his union representative and instruct her to appeal his termination.

The collective bargaining agreement between the district and Mr. Cronin provided him 30 days to request a grievance procedure that leads to arbitration.

Alternatively, Cronin had 10 days to request a statutory hearing under state law. Within five days, the union representative filed both a request for a hearing and a grievance in order to preserve Cronin’s timelines to either procedure.

She later notified the district, 33 days after the notice of termination, that Cronin would pursue his hearing rights and not the grievance procedure. The district did not respond to either notice. Subsequently, the district responded to Cronin’s attorney in writing that it would not grant him a hearing because Cronin did not personally make the request and it was not timely. Cronin filed suit in Spokane County Superior Court within 30 days of the district’s notification it would not grant him a hearing. The district prevailed in having the suit dismissed as untimely, because it was not timely filed from the date of his discharge.

But the Court of Appeals disagreed, determining Cronin’s suit was timely from when the district notified Cronin it would not grant him a hearing and sent the matter back to the trial court to determine if Cronin’s union representative had the authority to file an appeal on his behalf.

In the second suit, the district maintained its position that Cronin was not entitled to a hearing because the union representative lacked any authority to request either a hearing or a grievance procedure on his behalf and in any event the request was untimely because the representative failed to make a choice between the right to a hearing or a grievance procedure until after the timelines to file the requests had expired.

In November 2014, the trial court agreed with Cronin that his union representative had authority to file the appeal on his behalf, but the case was dismissed because the choice between the statutory hearing or grievance procedure was not timely as the district argued.

Cronin again appealed, and the Court of Appeals again sided with him and sent the case back to the trial court to enter an order compelling the district to participate in the statutory hearing.

In the third round of litigation, in 2018, Central Valley School District argued that Cronin’s representatives’ request for a hearing did not include a request to challenge the nonrenewal of his contract for the following year.

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