Over the objections of the Chicago Public Schools board, a federal judge will allow the Chicago Teachers Union to pursue a class action lawsuit alleging CPS discriminated in focusing past teacher layoffs at African American teachers and staff working in schools in predominantly African American neighborhoods.
The Chicago Board of Education had argued the judge should not have allowed the CTU to "salvage" its lawsuit at this point by changing its definition of those CPS employees the union would like to include in its class action from those “terminated” to those “who received a layoff notice” – a potentially large flaw attorneys for the Board of Education had prepared to target in court.
On April 28, U.S. District Judge Milton I. Shadur sided with CTU and granted the union’s motion to “clarify the class definition” in its lawsuit.
The decision brushed aside the Chicago school district’s contention the union’s motion comes at “the eleventh hour” in a bid to remedy the lawsuit’s flaw, essentially changing the game only after the Board of Education’s legal team had spent relatively large sums of time and money preparing to challenge the lawsuit based on its original wording.
The legal action had landed in federal court in 2012, when the CTU had sued the Board of Education over a round of CPS teacher layoffs in 2011. In that lawsuit, the CTU alleged CPS had intentionally targeted those layoffs at predominantly black teachers and staff working at schools on the city’s South and West sides, in neighborhoods populated predominantly by African American families and students.
The union alleged the layoffs discriminated against the staff and students, producing “an astronomical statistically significant disparate impact on African-American teachers and staff.”
In the initial lawsuit and in a class definition certified most recently in May 2015, according to court documents, the CTU sought to include as class plaintiffs “all African American persons whose employment as a tenured teacher or staff member … was terminated by the Board of Education pursuant to its ‘layoff policies’ in 2011.”
However, nearly 4.5 years into the action, in early April, the CTU moved to alter that definition from “terminated” to “those who received a layoff notice.”
The request drew a sharp response from the Chicago schools board, which argued the move was merely an attempt to sidestep the defense the Board intended to mount, essentially saying, while teachers and staff may have received layoff notices, most of them were not actually fired.
Apart from questions about the timing, the Board of Education also asked the judge to deny the union’s request because the amendment is about more than just a mere word choice.
“Plaintiffs’ new class definition is nonsensical, given that receipt of a layoff letter which does not later result in actual job loss cannot constitute an adverse action as a matter of law,” the Board argued.
Judge Shadur, however, chalked the school board’s strenuous reaction up to a “failure to communicate.”
He said the case history indicated the CTU had remained consistent in its position and arguments, and Chicago Board of Education should have understood that.
“Board's counsel now complain that they were led down the garden path by the presence of what they view as the poison-pill word ‘terminated’ in the original class definition language employed by counsel for Teachers Union, having then assertedly relied on that word by expending time and money in discovery...,” the judge said.
“But that complaint must be characterized as totally ostrichlike in light of what has been described here.”
“There is no excuse for the Board to have continued down its version of the lexicographic path rather than bringing the dispute before this Court for resolution,” Judge Shadur continued.
The CTU is represented in the action by attorneys from the firm of Potter Bolanos LLC, of Chicago.
The Chicago Board of Education is defended by the firm of Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP, of Chicago.