Jonathan Bilyk Apr. 8, 2014, 3:43pm

Two tenured Chicago Public Schools teachers who live outside the City of Chicago stand to lose their jobs after an appeals panel determined the school system's residency policy had not grown “stale” over the years even though it may not have been actively enforced.

The First District Appellate Court late last month gave CPS the green light to follow through with its termination of teachers Jenifer Crowley and Darlyn Pruitt, who sued the Chicago Board of Education over what they alleged was unequal enforcement of its rule requiring all CPS employees to live in Chicago.

The panel's ruling in the consolidated appeal upheld lower court rulings in favor of CPS by Cook County Circuit judges Mary Lane Mikva, who had ruled in the case involving Crowley, and Diane J. Larsen, who had ruled against Pruitt.

The March 31 opinion was delivered by Justice Mathias W. Delort, with justices Thomas E. Hoffman and Joy V. Cunningham concurring.

The appeal centered on separate actions brought by Crowley and Pruitt in 2012 after the Board of Education moved to fire them.

The employment termination proceedings began after a CPS system-wide audit of its employees in 2009 revealed Crowley and Pruitt were among 77 CPS employees who lived outside the city limits.

Crowley lived in Whiting, Ind., and had lived there since she was hired by CPS in 1998. Pruitt lived in Chicago when she was hired by CPS in 2001, but moved to Bolingbrook in 2004, according to the opinion.

Their decision to live outside the city placed them in violation of a CPS employee residency requirement. Established in 1996, the residency rule requires all CPS employees “to be actual residents of the city of Chicago within six months from the day their employment begins,” unless they obtained a waiver from the Board of Education.

Neither Crowley nor Pruitt were eligible for the waivers, and both employees received multiple written violation notices through the years from CPS.

CPS, however, did not take any action against them or other employees in violation of the residency rule for years, as it worked out problems with various aspects of its human resources record systems, the panel noted.

After disciplinary proceedings against the two commenced, the teachers did not attempt to dispute the allegations concerning their residency. Rather, they argued the policy had grown “stale” through years of lax enforcement, while CPS had allowed certain employees, including social workers and Chief Administrative Officer Timothy Cawley, to maintain their employment with CPS, despite living outside the city.

Separate CPS hearing officers sided with the teachers, but the Board of Education rejected the hearing officers’ findings, and moved to terminate.

The teachers sued and the like the board, the trial judges and the appellate court sided with CPS.

The appellate court justices also determined the Board of Education acted within its rights to terminate Crowley and Pruitt.

They found the attempt to compare the teachers’ situation to “an at-will, high-level employee not covered by a union contract,” like Cawley, was “particularly inapt.”

“It is elementary that the Board can apply different employment standards to the [Chief Administrative Officer] of one of the nation’s largest school systems than its rank-and-file teachers,” Delort wrote for the panel.

The panel further determined CPS was justified in establishing different requirements for social workers and teachers.

In addition, the justices rejected the “staleness” argument, noting the teachers were wrong to presume the lack of immediate enforcement of the residency rule against them meant “the Board condoned the conduct.”

“Both employees engaged in a high-risk strategy of living outside Chicago and waiting for disciplinary proceedings to eventually commence while fully aware that their conduct violated Board policy,” Delort wrote.

The panel also found CPS had provided ample notice to all employees of its intent to step up enforcement of the rule, and was not prevented from stepping up enforcement simply because it had not done so before.

“Employers are not estopped from moving from lax enforcement of employee conduct rules to more strict enforcement if the change is made clear to the employees and announced in advance,” the panel held.

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