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Vol. 17-003, May 17, 2017

(OAH Case No. 2016040305 (2017).)
The Gist
  • Factual findings and conclusions in an investigation must be supported by the preponderance of the evidence (evidence that it is “more likely than not” the employee engaged in wrongdoing)
  • Investigator bias can undermine an otherwise compelling case for dismissal
The Details
After receiving an anonymous letter alleging a principal exercised favoritism in admitting five specifically named students, the District forwarded the letter to its private investigator to determine the author of the letter.  After interviewing several witnesses and other individuals, including a counselor, the investigator concluded that the counselor authored the letter.  Shortly thereafter, the District initiated dismissal proceedings against the counselor for dishonesty, evident unfitness for service, and persistent failure or refusal to obey state laws or District regulations.
The CPC unanimously found that the evidence did not support the District’s allegation that the counselor wrote the letter and overturned the dismissal.  The CPC noted that the evidence the District collected was merely circumstantial, the counselor did not confess to writing the letter, and the District lacked any direct evidence supporting the District’s conclusion that the counselor authored the letter. 
Additionally, the CPC noted that the District investigator’s firm regularly worked for the District and received a monthly retainer fee.  The CPC opined that this arrangement made it difficult for the investigator to conduct an independent, unbiased investigation for the District.  It also noted that the investigator displayed overt bias against the counselor when interviewing witnesses, thereby undermining the investigator’s credibility and determinations.
Practical Pointers
When conducting an investigation, school district officials and outside investigators must carefully gather and assess all evidence.  Findings and conclusions must be supported by a preponderance of the evidence.  School districts should refrain from taking disciplinary action against employees if the preponderance of the evidence does not support a finding that the employee actually engaged in the alleged misconduct.  District investigations should be unbiased to avoid undermining an otherwise compelling case for dismissal.

Please note, nothing contained in the CPC Blog is intended to be legal advice.  Please feel free to contact any of our offices for additional information and/or consult legal counsel regarding any particular matters.