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Sabatka v. Board of Trustees of Fremont County Public Library System

Supreme Court of Wyoming

January 12, 2015

PAULA SABATKA, Appellant (Petitioner),
v.
BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF THE FREMONT COUNTY PUBLIC LIBRARY SYSTEM, Appellee (Respondent)

Appeal from the District Court of Fremont County. The Honorable Norman E. Young, Judge.

Representing Appellant: Gay Woodhouse of Woodhouse Roden Nethercott, LLC, Cheyenne, Wyoming; Mark Wingerson, Law Offices of Mark R. Wingerson, Brooklyn, New York.

Representing Appellee: No brief filed.

Before BURKE, C.J., and HILL, KITE, DAVIS, and FOX, JJ.

OPINION

Page 404

DAVIS, Justice.

Appellant Paula Sabatka was the manager of the Dubois branch of the Fremont County Library System (FCLS). Believing that she was authorized to do so, she used an FCLS account to order books for the Dubois school system, which then repaid FCLS for them. Unfortunately, this good deed did not go unpunished. Based upon a misreading of Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 9-13-105 (LexisNexis 2013) by FCLS counsel, the FCLS executive director fired Appellant, believing that she had violated the statute and committed a misdemeanor by buying the books as she did. Appellant requested a grievance hearing, and the FCLS Board of Trustees (Board) upheld the executive director's action. Appellant filed a petition for review with the district court, which affirmed because Appellant's employment was at-will.

While Appellant presents several issues on appeal, the inescapable and controlling verity is that her employment was at-will. We must affirm.

ISSUE

The dispositive question in this matter is one that is controlled by Appellant's employment status; for that reason, we restate the decisive issue as follows:

Must the decision to terminate Appellant, who was an at-will employee, be overturned because the basis for that decision was an erroneous belief that she violated a statute while working as the Dubois branch manager of FCLS?

FACTS

Appellant was the manager of the Dubois Branch of the FCLS for about six years. In the years leading up to her termination, the Dubois school system was beset by declining enrollments and reduced funding. For budgetary reasons, it eliminated some positions, including that of a part-time librarian who maintained the Dubois School District's (District) libraries.

Needing help, the District negotiated with the FCLS in hopes that a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) could be reached. It sought an agreement which would formally permit the staff of the FCLS branch to help the Dubois schools maintain their libraries, including acquiring additional books which would benefit students. Although an MOU was drafted, it was never executed.

There may arguably have been an informal agreement allowing the FCLS to assist the District in acquiring books for its libraries. The District's superintendent, for instance, adamantly maintained that there was such an agreement because he and the FCLS executive director, Matt Nojonen, met face-to-face and shook hands on it. Based upon what she learned of the discussions between the FCLS executive director and District superintendent, Appellant also believed that she was authorized to buy books for the District. However, the executive director did not believe there was any such informal agreement between the FCLS and the District.

In early November of 2012, Appellant, believing she was authorized to do so, utilized an FCLS account to place two orders for books for the District.[1] The total cost was $544.00, which the District repaid to the FCLS. The District superintendent explained during the grievance hearing that " we made that very clear" that the District would reimburse FCLS for the books.

On November 7, 2012, Appellant told the FCLS business manager about the book orders, explaining that the District would reimburse FCLS when she received the invoices and presented them to it. The business manager relayed this information to the FCLS executive director. Evidently suspecting wrongdoing, the executive director contacted a deputy in the office of the County and Prosecuting Attorney. The deputy county attorney advised him that Appellant had committed a crime under Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 9-13-105 when she purchased the

Page 405

books, and that he would therefore be justified in terminating ...


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