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North Kingstown School Committee v. Wagner

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

January 19, 2018

North Kingstown School Committee
v.
Ken Wagner et al.

         Washington County Superior Court WC 16-128, Luis M. Matos Associate Justice

          For Petitioner: Andrew Henneous, Esq.

          For Respondent: Vicki J. Bejma, Esq.

          Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.

          OPINION

          Paul A. Suttell, Chief Justice

         The respondent James Viner appeals from a Superior Court judgment that granted in part and denied in part a petition to quash three subpoenas, which petition was brought by North Kingstown School Committee (the school committee or petitioner). This matter came before the Supreme Court pursuant to an order directing the parties to appear and show cause why the issues raised on this appeal should not be summarily decided. After considering the parties' written and oral submissions and reviewing the record, we conclude that cause has not been shown and we proceed to decide the appeal at this time. For the reasons set forth herein, we vacate the judgment insofar as it relates to the quashed subpoenas directed to the two attorneys for the school committee, affirm the judgment in all other respects, and remand this case to the Superior Court for further proceedings consistent herewith.

          I[1]

         Facts and Procedural History

         Viner was a North Kingstown High School chemistry teacher. It is undisputed that, during the summer following the 2014-2015 school year, one of Viner's female students complained to her mother, who informed the school administration, about alleged inappropriate behavior by Viner. In an affidavit submitted to the Superior Court, Attorney Mary Ann Carroll, as legal counsel to the school committee, explained, that upon learning of the allegations, her law firm launched an investigation. She further explained that Attorney Aubrey Lombardo assisted in the investigation by interviewing five high school students and preparing a report based on those interviews, which was submitted to the superintendent of the North Kingstown School Department and the principal of North Kingstown High School.

         In a letter dated August 27, 2015, from the Chairperson of the North Kingstown School Committee to Viner, the Chairperson noted that a "pre-depr[i]vation hearing" was held on August 24, 2015, at which Viner, his union representative, the superintendent, the principal, and the school committee's legal counsel were present. The letter further indicated that, on August 25, 2015, following the "pre-depr[i]vation hearing, " a "pre-suspension hearing" was conducted before the school committee in executive session. During the "pre-suspension hearing, " the superintendent made a presentation and recommended that the school committee suspend Viner without pay for the 2015-2016 school year and terminate his employment at the conclusion of the school year "for good and just cause." Additionally, the letter to Viner noted that at the close of the "pre-suspension hearing, " the school committee voted to accept the superintendent's recommendation.

         In response, Viner requested a full evidentiary hearing before the school committee, which took place on December 7, 2015. At the conclusion of the full evidentiary hearing, the school committee again voted to suspend Viner without pay for the remainder of the school year and then terminate his employment at the close of the year. In turn, Viner appealed the school committee's decision to the commissioner of elementary and secondary education within the Rhode Island Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (RIDE). At Viner's request, the RIDE hearing officer issued three subpoenas pursuant to G.L. 1956 § 16-39-8[2]: witness subpoenas addressed to Attorneys Carroll and Lombardo and a subpoena duces tecum to the North Kingstown School Department.

         Subsequently, in Superior Court, the school committee filed a miscellaneous petition to quash the three subpoenas issued by the RIDE hearing officer. The hearing justice granted in part and denied in part the school committee's motion to quash the subpoenas, and final judgment entered on May 23, 2016. Shortly thereafter, Viner timely appealed. The parties concur that the sole issue on appeal is the hearing justice's grant of the school committee's motion to quash the subpoenas compelling the attorneys' testimony.

         According to Viner, after the Superior Court's judgment entered and while the appeal before this Court was pending, the matter before the RIDE hearing officer proceeded. The school committee indicates that on May 9, 2017, the RIDE hearing officer issued a final decision and order that upheld the school committee's decision to suspend and ultimately terminate Viner. The school committee further indicates that on June 1, 2017, Viner appealed the hearing officer's final decision and order to the council on elementary and secondary ...


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