Supreme Court grants unemployment benefits to teacher involved in film clip controversy

A teacher was entitled to unemployment benefits under Oregon law after he resigned in lieu of termination. The Supreme Court of Oregon held that the teacher’s decision to resign his position met the legal standard for good cause.

A probationary first-year high school teacher played a 10-minute clip from the film Glengarry Glen Ross for his senior English classes. Showing the clip to the class violated a policy that required the principal to pre-approve any films containing profanity. This policy was not contained in the employee handbook, nor was the teacher advised of it. The teacher was placed on administrative leave for violating this policy, and soon afterwards he was informed that he would be recommended for discharge at the next school board meeting. The personnel director advised the teacher to resign rather than be discharged. An attorney for his union also told the teacher that “there was absolutely no chance” the school board would overrule the district’s recommendation to terminate him. As a result, the teacher resigned on the same day that he would have been discharged by the district. The teacher’s unemployment claim was denied because it was found that he “voluntarily left work without good cause.” 

The Supreme Court found that both the Court of Appeals and the Employment Appeals Board were wrong to hold that the teacher resigned without good cause because they incorrectly reasoned that he still had legal remedies available to him. That is to say, the earlier opinions incorrectly found that the teacher had a right to be heard before his dismissal. The Supreme Court reasoned this was not correct because “good cause” is not determined by a hindsight determination of the likelihood that an employee would be terminated. Rather, the Supreme Court reached its holding by reasoning that finding “good cause” hinges on whether the prospect of termination was so grave that resigning was the only reasonable option.  

Take away:  Districts should ensure that teachers are aware of employment policies. Recall also, Adbul-Salaam v. Lobo-Wadley in the June edition of School Law Reporter where we recommended that district’s preview movies before showing them in class and seek parental permission in advance.

McDowell v. Employment Dep’t, SC S056569 (Or Sup Ct Aug 5, 2010)

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