By Steve Key
Hoosier State Press Association

An Indiana Court of Appeals decision reaffirms the importance for local government units to comply with the state’s Open Door Law.

After dismissing all other claims in a lawsuit filed by a fired teacher against the Springs Valley School Corp., the three-judge panel did find a violation of the Open Door Law by the school board and sent the case back to Orange County Circuit Court for reconsideration.

Risha Warren, who had been a second-grade teacher, had appealed the trial court’s dismissal of her case, which alleged the school corporation had breached her contract, defamed her and violated the Open Door Law the night she was fired by the school board.

The school board started an executive session to discuss Warren’s status at 5 p.m. on Dec. 20, 2012. The open part of the school board meeting was scheduled to begin at 7 p.m.

The closed-door session, according to the opinion written by Appellate Judge Margaret Robb, was lengthy as the school board heard from nine witnesses and examined 12 exhibits.

The school board then went into deliberations on the matter as Warren, her attorney Michael Kendall, and union representative Sandra Steele waited down the hall in a separate room.

Other than an exchange of offer that would allow Warren to keep her job and counter-offer between the school board attorney and her, the closed-door deliberations continued for hours.

The ruling states that Warren at 2:30 a.m. noticed through a window that cars were leaving the parking lot.

The meeting memoranda noted that the school board met in its public meeting at 2:25 a.m. Dec. 21 and voted to dismiss Warren prior to adjourning at 2:33 a.m.

Judges Robb, Nancy Vaidik and Rudolph Pyle III unanimously agreed that the trial court correctly dismissed the charges of breach of contract and defamation but ordered the judge to take another look at the Open Door Law violation claim.

The ruling pointed to I.C. 5-14-1.5-5(h), which provides that notice of a meeting hasn’t been properly given if the governing body convenes at a time so unreasonably departing from the time stated in the notice that the public is “misled or substantially deprived of the opportunity to attend, observe, and record the meeting.”

Starting the meeting over seven hours late was a technical violation, the school district’s attorney argued before the appellate panel – a contention not accepted by the three judges.

“Undoubtedly, the lateness of hour substantially deprived the public of the opportunity to attend. The fact that several members of the public nonetheless attended does not alter our conclusion. Holding a public meeting at 2:30 a.m. is unreasonable and contrary to the purpose of the Open Door Law.”

Judge Robb wrote that the violation both impaired public access to the meeting and affected the substance of the final action taken.

Warren said she would have challenged the vote for her termination if she had known the meeting was occurring down the hall from the room where she had been waiting.

The decision should serve as a clarion call to local government units that compliance with the Open Door Law isn’t optional, and violations have consequences.

If Warren is successful in her Open Door Law claim before the Orange County judge, the Springs Valley school district could be required to start the termination process over – meaning Warren was an employee through the end of her contract and deserving of compensation.

She also would be eligible for reasonable attorney fees and court costs in her pursuit of the Open Door Law violation point if she sought an opinion from the state’s public access counselor prior to the filing of her lawsuit.

Steve Key is executive director and general counsel for the Hoosier State Press Association.

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