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Sweetwater County School District Number One v. Goetz

Supreme Court of Wyoming

August 3, 2017

SWEETWATER COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT NUMBER ONE, STATE OF WYOMING, Appellant (Respondent),
v.
DONNA GOETZ, Appellee (Petitioner).

         Appeal from the District Court of Sweetwater County The Honorable Richard L. Lavery, Judge

          Representing Appellant: Jon Aimone and Kari Moneyhun of Lemich Law Center, Rock Springs, Wyoming. Argument by Mr. Aimone.

          Representing Appellee: Gregory P. Hacker of Hacker, Hacker & Kendall, P.C., Cheyenne, Wyoming

          Before BURKE, C.J., and HILL, DAVIS, FOX, and KAUTZ, J J.

          DAVIS, Justice.

         [¶1] Appellee Donna Goetz was terminated from her position as a custodian at the Rock Springs Junior High for stealing or attempting to steal a backpack containing an iPad which belonged to a student. The Board of Trustees of Sweetwater County School District No. 1 upheld the termination, finding that Goetz was provided adequate pretermination process, and that there was cause for termination. On a petition for review, the district court found that Goetz was not provided adequate pretermination process, and remanded to the Board for reinstatement effective the date of termination. We reverse the district court decision and reinstate the Board's order upholding Goetz's termination.

         ISSUES PRESENTED

         [¶2] Although the parties state the issues in varying ways, we believe they boil down to this:

Was the Board of Trustees' decision that Goetz received adequate pretermination due process legally correct and supported by substantial evidence?

         FACTS

         Pretermination Events

         [¶3] Appellee Donna Goetz had been employed as a custodian by Appellant Sweetwater County School District No. 1 for about fifteen years, and was working at the Rock Springs Junior High at the time of the events involved in this case. Some of the key events were captured on a security camera.

         [¶4] June 5 was the last day of school in 2014. For a few days before the last day, items in the school's lost and found area were customarily moved to a table in a main hallway in the hope that students would pick up anything they had lost before the school year ended. The table is in plain view of the security camera.

         [¶5] The last day of school is a busy time for the custodial staff, as they must clean everything in the building. By around 3:30 p.m. on June 5, virtually all of the students had left, probably because they had no interest in hanging around as their summer vacation began. The video shows a person identified in testimony as the school's registrar placing two bags on the lost and found table.

         [¶6] Approximately twenty-eight minutes later, the video shows a woman pushing a large rolling trash can the parties called a "Brute, " evidently because of its brand name. This woman was identified as Mrs. Goetz in the record. She was accompanied by another woman identified as her supervisor, Candice Estep. The video shows Goetz picking up a bag, looking briefly inside, and then carrying the bag with her as she pushes the Brute toward a door and leaves the camera's view. The record indicates that Ms. Estep was going to help Goetz empty the full Brute. Goetz claimed that she picked the bag up to take it to the school office because it seemed to have important papers in it. Goetz commented to Estep that the bag was a great size and wondered if it would fit her tablet.

         [¶7] After the two emptied the Brute, Goetz placed the bag in the bottom of it. She contended that this is how custodians often carry things when their Brutes are empty. There is some dispute in the testimony and documentation as to whether she covered the bag with an empty garbage bag or not - Goetz denies that she did. In any event, the video shows her passing through the area a few times, and the record reflects that she did not take the bag to the school office although it was nearby. Goetz claimed to have forgotten about it.

         [¶8] Goetz later encountered Junior High Principal Tina Johnson and a student searching the lost and found table. The student had returned to school and reported that his bag, with an iPad in it, was missing. Goetz and Johnson spoke, and Johnson told Goetz that they were searching for a black satchel. Goetz replied that the student should leave his name so he could be called if they found the bag. Goetz did not mention the bag in the bottom of the Brute at that point.

         [¶9] Johnson then viewed the security video, and saw the portion in which Goetz took the bag. She asked Estep what Goetz had done with it, and Estep told her it was in the Brute. Johnson located Goetz and asked for the bag, which Goetz gave to her, saying that she didn't think this was the bag Johnson had been talking about because it was gray and black, not black. She later testified that she also did not believe the bag was a satchel, either. Johnson testified that she looked in the bag and immediately saw the iPad in what she described as an obvious fluorescent-colored case.

         [¶10] On June 6, 2014, the school's head custodian Marie Hall met with Goetz to discuss what had happened. Goetz told her that she planned to take the bag to the office when she finished other work. She also expressed concern that the staff would think that she was stealing the backpack. When Hall asked for a written statement, Goetz produced one that she had already prepared. In the statement, Goetz expressed concern about how these events might appear to others, and indicated that she was not one to cause her peers to question her honesty and truthfulness. She then made a second written statement dated June 6, 2014, which is generally consistent with the first.

          [¶11] Goetz had a second meeting with Hall and Principal Johnson on June 12, 2014. Goetz indicated that she felt like she was being accused of stealing and denied that she was in fact trying to steal the bag.

         [¶12] Goetz had a third meeting with Kelly McGovern (then Director of Human Resources and Assistant Superintendent of Schools), Mark Portillo (District Director of Custodial Services), and Principal Johnson on July 17, 2014. Before the meeting began, Goetz asked if the meeting could result in termination or disciplinary action, and McGovern responded that she was only gathering facts at the time, and that she would be showing Goetz some video and asking her some questions.

         [¶13] Goetz then asked for representation from a fellow employee trained in advocacy by the Wyoming Education Association, Fredann Soto. Goetz was herself trained as an employee advocate. Soto was summoned and arrived before the meeting began.

         [¶14] The group went through pertinent portions of the video and discussed what was shown on it and what had happened. Ms. Soto actively participated on Goetz's behalf according to a nine-page single-spaced detailed summary of the meeting.[1] The questioning of Goetz was fairly pointed according to that summary. After the summary was prepared, both Soto and Goetz signed off as to its accuracy, along with McGovern, Portillo, and Johnson. In addition, Soto and Goetz met after the meeting, and Goetz submitted an additional statement to clarify her earlier ones. In it she indicated that she only took a quick glance into the bag and did not realize it contained an iPad, and that Johnson had not mentioned the iPad to her when they spoke at the lost and found table.

         [¶15] As the meeting was coming to a close, Goetz asked McGovern (with Soto present) if she could ask a question "off the record." According to McGovern, she asked if the District "would take into account all of her years with the District as she has never done anything like this before."

         [¶16] After that, McGovern recommended to Mathew Neal, the Superintendent of Schools for the District, that Goetz be terminated, and he evidently agreed with the recommendation. A fourth meeting involving Goetz, Soto, McGovern, Portillo, and Johnson took place on August 14, 2014. McGovern presented Goetz a letter she had authored, which terminated her employment and explained the reasons for doing so, and she read the letter to her. McGovern asked Goetz if she had anything to add, and Goetz replied "No, and I'm not going to sign this, " referring to an acknowledgement of receipt on the letter.

          Proceedings Before the ...


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