Payne suit against PB school district goes back to circuit court

U.S. District Judge J. Leon Holmes granted a request Wednesday by former Pine Bluff School District superintendent Jerry O. Payne to move his lawsuit against the district to Jefferson County Circuit Court.

The request was filed Dec. 3. Holmes granted two motions filed by Payne, one asking to be allowed to amend his original lawsuit against the PBSD and the second to move the suit to circuit court.

Payne filed the motion to amend in order to remove a claim alleging that his procedural due process rights under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution had been violated in order to prepare the way for the judge to grant his second motion, to have the suit moved back to the circuit court where it had originally been filed Oct. 15.

Holmes reasoned that because the Payne suit is still in its early stages and few judicial resources have so far been devoted to it, Payne’s request for its removal to circuit court was persuasive.

“From reading the complaint, it appears that the contract issues and the statutory questions will predominate in this action,” Holmes wrote. “Moreover the issues involve the relationship between a public school district and its chief officer, the superintendent. Thus, this action presents important issues regarding the public policy of the State of Arkansas. These issues are best left to the state courts.”

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.

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.

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, they said that no action was taken with regard to any employment contracts.

At the board’s May 15, 2012, 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.