Long before the days of cell phones, I had a boyfriend who avoided my announcement that I was breaking up with him by staying away from his house – “can’t break up with me if you can’t find me!” he reasoned. Evidently, teacher Michael Sullivan had a similar thought, and a recent court decision proved him wrong.
Sullivan worked in the Centinela Valley High School District as a probationary teacher for the 2006-2007 and 2007-2008 school years. According to court documents, the District’s human resources director told Sullivan that he would not be offered a position for the following school year on March 10, 2008. Sullivan then had a conversation with his principal about not being re-hired on that same day. Education Code section 44929.21 states that probationary teachers must be notified that they are not being re-hired by March 15, and failure to provide such notification results in their automatic retention. Additionally, employees who begin their third year of employment become a permanent employee of the district. Apparently, Sullivan thought that the HR director telling him he would not be re-hired didn’t really count as notification and so he went into hiding – “can’t fire me if you can’t find me!”
Sullivan called in sick on March 11 and 12 and then attended a school board meeting on March 13 with an attorney friend requesting that he be offered a position for the next school year. The request was denied, though Sullivan was not in the room at the time the decision was announced (however, his attorney friend was). Sullivan then called in sick on March 14 and 15. The District sent Sullivan a letter that was delivered on March 15 by certified mail that informed him that he was not being re-hired. Sullivan was not at home, so his wife signed for the letter. Court documents show that Sullivan stated that his wife was not authorized to accept the letter on his behalf, and that he did not read the letter until March 16 because he had been gone from home the entire day. So, Sullivan sued the District for reinstatement with permanent status (tenure) because he alleged the District was one day late in giving him notice that he was not being retained.
The court didn’t buy it, saying essentially that it was obvious Sullivan was avoiding the announcement from the District, and that the conversation with his principal and receipt of the notice by his wife were sufficient evidence that he had been duly notified of his impending termination.
Although this case involves the teaching environment, local employment attorney Katy Raytis says it does give some encouragement for private employers that courts will not allow employees to “hide” in order to avoid termination or payment of a final paycheck. Even so, employers need to take all appropriate and available steps to ensure that employees are provided with all legally-required notices upon termination. So, breaking up is not so hard to do.