Attorney files to have court decision at Sept. 20 ‘emergency hearing’
Special to the Village News
The Commission on Professional Competence ruled in June that Jennifer Humphreys’ dismissal as a teacher from FUESD should be reversed, and she should return to teaching with back pay. The Fallbrook Union Elementary School district has appealed that decision to the Superior Court in San Diego.
Humphreys was dismissed last October after failing to be vaccinated or undergoing weekly testing for COVID 19. The CPC heard testimony from Humphreys and her team, as well as the district’s position before issuing its 28-page decision this summer. Summarized, it said Humphreys should have been given a more precise warning about the consequences of not testing before being terminated.
Meanwhile, Humphreys and her attorney are fighting back, and a “cross-writ” hearing is scheduled for Sept. 20 at 8:30 a.m. in Superior Court in San Diego. The presiding judge is Keri Katz.
Humphrey’s attorney, Jon Y. Vanderpool of Smith Steiner Vanderpool, explained the cross-writ was filed because it could be months before the FUESD’s appeal is resolved. He hopes the judge at the Sept. 20 hearing will order the district to immediately reinstate and reimburse Humphreys.
Vanderpool said he expects the district to oppose that request, both on the merits – that a stay is warranted because of its appeal – and/or request that petition be heard as a regularly noticed motion, not an “emergency” basis.
Seth Trench, director of communications for the Fallbrook Union Elementary School District, sent Village News a statement from the district leadership about the district appealing the decision by the Commission on Professional Competence that teacher Jennifer Humphreys should be reinstated after the 21-year teacher was dismissed for refusing to be tested weekly for COVID-19. The response:
“Our district honors and supports our employees’ right to make personal medical decisions that are appropriate for themselves and their families. We have proudly supported and created easily accessible testing opportunities for over 200 unvaccinated employees. We have done this collaboratively through a process that follows state law and prioritizes a level of respect for our employees and their personal choices.
“District leaders worked diligently to support and help all employees find a pathway to safely return to the classroom. We are disappointed by the end result of the hearing and the need for ongoing litigation. Still, our highest priority will always be safeguarding the health and safety of our children, staff, and community.”
Humphreys’ attorney’s response to the district’s appeal to the CPC decision quotes California Supreme Court and Court of Appeals cases holding that administrative agency findings are afforded a “strong presumption of correctness.”
His statement explained, “The CPC did not abuse its statutory discretion in both considering and ultimately denying the district’s charges as not supported by the collective evidence applied to the law. The district failed to carry its burden to prove that Humphreys’ conduct manifested persistent refusal to obey the school laws of the state or by the governing board of the school district, nor did it prove a temperamental defect rendering her clearly not fit or suitable for teaching…. The district’s apparent disagreement with the CPC’s decision does not present any valid grounds to overturn it.”
Humphreys has worked for the district for 21 years, most recently as a third grade teacher at Frasier Elementary School. She’s said she wants to return to work.
“It is quite evident that the district rushed to dismiss respondent,” the CPC report stated.
In Humphreys’ cross-petition against the district, it cites the California Education Code and case authorities, seeking to compel her reinstatement back to paid and benefited status deprived since October 2021 and to reimburse her for 10 months of unpaid wages and fringe benefits.
The case came to public attention at the FUESD meeting on Aug. 15 when union representative Ken Ostroske asked why Humphreys was not being reinstated.
In its appeal, the district contends the commission “abused its discretion because its decision is not supported by the findings, the findings are contrary to the weight of the evidence, and there are serious errors in law.”
The district, represented by Jonathan A. Pearl of Dannis Woliver Kelley, cited 40-some points of “prejudicial abuse of discretion” by the commission and said it will lodge the complete administrative record, including exhibits and transcripts of the proceedings before the commission, in advance of the hearing on this matter.
The state education code governs the Commission on Professional Competence, which consists of three voting members: one selected by the employee, one selected by the governing board of the school district, and an administrative law judge of the Office of Administrative Hearings.
The administrative tribunal voted unanimously that the district was not proper in firing Humphreys
The case was assigned to Judge Katz. The defendant is the CPC and Humphreys, the “real party of interest.”
“I’ve confronted a whirlwind of emotions over the past 11 months,” Humphreys said in a statement to the Village News. “The CPC’s unanimous decision in my favor was welcome news for sure. But presently it feels like just a small step in the right direction, and I still have a long way to go.”
The CPC detailed Humphrey’s concerns about testing for COVID-19 and noted she said she wasn’t a “anti-vaxxer.”
“It’s fair to say I was very uncomfortable with being required to vaccinate at all or to undertake virus testing other than at my doctor’s office. Understanding and trusting what my employer was asking me to do with my body was and is important to me,” she said in her statement
The CPC report noted she was denied a request for a religious exemption.
“While I was mistaken in not responding to emails about the mandates from district administration spanning a few weeks, in late September 2021, I was blindsided by the district’s removing me from my teaching position and students with no notice,” she said in the initial story about the case published two weeks ago.
In the CPC report’s legal conclusions, it noted that “the standard of proof is a preponderance of the evidence” for dismissal. The report indicated there were things the district could have handled better.
Administrative Law Judge Adam L. Berg led the commission. As chairperson, Berg was a voting member of the commission and was responsible for assuring that the legal rights of the parties were protected. Other members were Paola Flores and Karen Schuett.
Brian Morris, assistant superintendent of human resources, also represented the district for the CPC hearing.