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BlogsPublications | July 28, 2016
3 minute read

Evidence of a school’s statutorily-mandated disclosures of unprofessional conduct to prospective employers is not admissible in a wrongful termination action

Because the Revised School Code provides complete immunity from civil liability for a school district’s mandatory disclosure of a former-employee’s unprofessional conduct to prospective employers, such evidence must be excluded from trial, according to Hecht v. National Heritage Academies, Inc., No. 150616.  At the same time, the Michigan Supreme Court National Heritage Academies (“NHA”) could reasonably be found to have violated the Michigan Civil Rights Act (the “MCRA”) by firing Hecht—a white male teacher—for “racial banter” if it tolerated similar banter from African American employees. 

Lisa Code, a white library aide at Linden Charter Academy (“LCA”), an NHA school, was returning a computer table to Craig Hecht’s classroom when she realized that the one she was returning was white, whereas the one she borrowed was brown.  When she asked Hecht whether he would prefer a white table, Hecht responded (in front of a third grader) “[Y]ou know I want a white table, white tables are better.”  He then added, “[W]e can take all these brown tables and we can burn the brown tables.”  Code, and Floyd Bell, a black paraprofessional assigned to Hecht’s classroom, “called a foul” on Hecht, in accordance with the school’s informal procedures for addressing inappropriate personal conduct.  Hecht later admitted that he meant to imply that “white” people are better than “brown” people, but said it was just a “tasteless joke.”  After he was terminated, the NHA disclosed to future prospective employers, upon their request, the reasons for Hecht’s termination, as it was required to do under MCL 380.1230b.  

Hecht eventually sued for violation of his civil rights, arguing that the NHA had terminated him based on his race.  At trial, the court allowed Hecht to introduce evidence that NHA had made these mandatory disclosures to his prospective employers.  The jury returned a verdict in favor Hecht and granted him an award of damages, including damages for future lost wages.  The Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed the jury’s verdict.  The Michigan Supreme Court reversed in part.

The Supreme Court agreed with the Court of Appeals that a reasonable jury could have found that NHA violated the MCRA based on the circumstantial evidence presented at trial.  But it vacated the jury’s award of future damages because it was tainted by the erroneous admission of evidence of NHA’s mandatory disclosures.  Admitting the disclosures allowed the jury to attribute liability to NHA for the damage those disclosures caused, contrary to the plain language of MCL 380.1230b(3).  The Court reasoned that NHA could not logically be held responsible for damages caused by those disclosures if it could not be held liable for the disclosures.  It therefore vacated the future damages award and remanded for further proceedings. 

J. McCormack and J. Bernstein concurred with the majority’s view that Hecht presented sufficient evidence in order for a reasonable jury to find a violation of the MCRA.  They dissented, however, to the majority’s holding that the future damages award be vacated.  According to J. McCormack, “the defendant incurred all its civil liability . . . when it discharged the plaintiff on the basis of race in violation of the Civil Rights Act.”  Because the damages flow from that injury, and not in the other direction, it could not be said that the disclosures increased the NHA’s liability.

Disclaimer:  Warner represented National Heritage Academies in this appeal.