La. Supreme Court throws out lawsuit filed on behalf of school workers fired after Katrina

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NEW ORLEANS — Louisiana's Supreme Court on Friday dismissed a lawsuit filed on behalf of thousands of New Orleans public school workers who were fired after Hurricane Katrina laid waste to much of the city in 2005.

It was a reversal of fortune for the employees, who had won at the district and appellate levels. An attorney for the workers said he would seek a review of the state court's 5-2 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.

If the state-level decision stands, it will spare the state of Louisiana and the Orleans Parish School Board costs that were expected to surpass $1 billion.

"We respectfully but strongly disagree with today's ruling which overturned nearly nine years of case law," Willie Zanders said in an emailed statement.

The Louisiana high court said the fired employees' due-process rights were not violated.

"It would defy logic to find the OPSB liable for a due process violation where jobs were simply not available," the majority said in an opinion written by Justice Jeffrey Victory, noting the widespread destruction that followed the failure of levees during the storm.

The opinion also said the issues had been dealt with in a settlement of separate lawsuits bought by the New Orleans teachers' union and were therefore barred from consideration.

"We are extremely disappointed," said Les Landon, spokesman for the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, which supported the lawsuit. He said the union's lawyers were reviewing the ruling.

Katrina struck in August 2005, flooding an estimated 80 percent of New Orleans and scattering its population.

With schools in no shape to open, the Orleans Parish School Board dismissed more than 7,000 employees — teachers, aides, service workers and others. And the state began taking over most schools in the system, plagued long before Katrina by corruption, mismanagement, terrible test scores and high dropout rates.

Civil District Judge Ethel Simms Julien had awarded more than $1 million to seven people. Friday's ruling would void that award.

Julien's ruling also made more than 7,000 others eligible to seek damages because it came in a class-action suit. Exactly how much money was at stake was unclear, although at one point during the appeals process an attorney estimated the district court ruling in favor of the employees could cost the board as much as $1.5 billion. A state appeals court had largely affirmed the ruling in January.

Chief Justice Bernette Johnson wrote a dissent to Friday's ruling, joined by Justice Jefferson Hughes.

"It is well established that a teacher's right in employment is a statutorily created vested property right protected by federal and state constitutions, requiring that certain procedural steps are followed before a teacher is terminated," she wrote. She also said the claims of the fired teachers were not barred because the settlement in the teacher union case cited in Friday's opinion involved compromises to which the plaintiffs in the class action suit were not a party.

The lawsuit is just one of many developments that have brought widespread attention to problems in New Orleans' public schools. The state is now in charge of most public schools, with the local school board overseeing a handful of others. Almost all are run by independent charter organizations.

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