Former PB School District superintendent asks to return lawsuit to circuit court


Former Pine Bluff School District Superintendent Jerry O. Payne filed motions Monday in his lawsuit against the district that, if granted, would move the suit from federal court back to Jefferson County Circuit Court.

The motions were filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas by Payne’s attorney, Keith Billingsley. The motions ask to remove a section of Payne’s original complaint that concerned federal law, thereby removing the necessity for it to be heard in federal court and allowing it to return to circuit court.

Payne stated in the motions that the legal action was originally filed in circuit court as a breach of contract claim concerning his employment with the district and that it was the PBSD acting through its attorney, Luther Sutter, that had the case moved to federal court because issues related to federal procedural due process were raised in Payne’s original suit.

Procedural due process in this case refers to the financial stake Payne had in his employment contract with the PBSD and his allegation that the district failed to allow him to properly defend his stake within the administrative processes of the PBSD.

“The Amended and Substituted Complaint … removes the federal procedural due process claim and substitutes claims based upon the Arkansas Constitution and the Arkansas Civil Rights Act of 1963,” the motion filed by Payne reads. “This cause of action is essentially a breach of contract claim under state law. The Amended and Substituted Complaint attached to this Motion should therefore be granted.”

Payne argued that moving the case back to the circuit court will not put the PBSD at a disadvantage.

Payne’s suit

Payne alleges in his suit that the district breached the contractual agreement between the two parties and that as a result of what Payne alleges are unlawful actions by the district, he suffered significant damages in addition to harm to his reputation.

Payne also alleges that his right to procedural due process was violated because he was denied the opportunity for a fair and unbiased hearing.

In his suit, Payne said that he acted in accordance with the terms and conditions of the contractual agreement as superintendent beginning July 1, 2011, until “the District Board of Directors took the improper and unlawful actions as set forth herein in violation of the specific contractual agreement between the parties.”

“Almost immediately, the District, acting through various members of its duly elected Board of Directors, began an intentional process to frustrate Plaintiff’s [Payne’s] ability to act as Superintendent of the District in accordance with the contractual agreement between the parties and as authorized and mandated by the laws of the State of Arkansas,” Payne said in his suit.

District response

The school district attorney Luther Sutter filed a motion Nov. 2 to dismiss Payne’s suit in U.S. District Court, arguing that there was no breach of contract because, in the district’s view, Payne was terminated under the “no cause” provision of the employment contract; and Payne’s due process rights were not violated because he did not request post-termination process.

Timeline

Payne was terminated without cause Feb. 29, 2012, effective June 30, 2012, via a letter from then board president Herman Horace.

The board held a special called meeting Feb. 28 in which they went into executive session and after reconvening in public session said that no action was taken with regard to any employment contracts.

At the board’s May 15, 2012, regular monthly meeting, Sutter was asked to prepare a letter to Payne outlining the board’s reasons he should be terminated for cause, which was delivered to him May 18.

A public hearing was held in the school district board room May 29 in which the board of directors voted unanimously to fire Payne for cause effective immediately.