The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice McMORROW
Agenda 22-September 1998.
"Pursuant to section 34-85 of the Illinois School Code (105 ILCS 5/34-85 (West 1996)), the Chicago School Reform Board of Trustees of the Board of Education of the City of Chicago (hereinafter, Chicago Board) dismissed plaintiff, Joseph Hearne, a tenured teacher. Upon administrative review, the circuit court of Cook County granted plaintiff relief and set aside the Board's dismissal decision. In addition, the circuit court held that section 34-85 of the School Code, as amended by Public Act 89-15, unconstitutionally violates the due process rights of tenured teachers. Pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 302(a) (134 Ill. 2d R. 302(a)), both the Chicago Board and the Illinois State Board of Education (hereinafter, State Board) directly appealed to this court the circuit court's ruling that section 34-85 is unconstitutional. For the following reasons, we determine that the circuit court unnecessarily reached plaintiff's constitutional challenge. We therefore remand this cause with directions."
Plaintiff has been employed by the Chicago Board for 18 years and was a tenured teacher at the Austin Community Academy High School. On September 6, 1995, Paul Vallas, the Chicago Board's chief executive officer and general superintendent, charged plaintiff with conduct unbecoming a teacher and gross dereliction of duties. Three specific acts of misconduct occurring in May 1995 were alleged to have been committed by plaintiff: (1) plaintiff was arrested for gambling with his students in his classroom during instructional time; (2) plaintiff took students to a theater as part of a field trip and did not pay admission for 11 students; and (3) as part of the same field trip, plaintiff took the students to a restaurant and paid the bill with his personal check without there being sufficient funds in his account to cover the check. Although the school reimbursed plaintiff , he did not pay the restaurant for the bad check until told to do so by the Chicago Board's law department. Vallas informed plaintiff that because the conduct giving rise to the charges was deemed irremediable, plaintiff would be discharged unless he petitioned for a dismissal hearing pursuant to section 34-85 of the School Code. Plaintiff thereupon requested a dismissal hearing. Soon thereafter, plaintiff was suspended without pay pending the outcome of the hearing.
The dismissal hearing was held before a state-appointed hearing officer during December 1995. The case against plaintiff was presented by an attorney in the Chicago Board's legal department, who called two witnesses on the Board's behalf. Plaintiff testified on his own behalf and additionally called as witnesses three students who supported plaintiff's testimony.
On March 18, 1996, the hearing officer issued written findings of fact, concluding that the Chicago Board failed to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that plaintiff was guilty of the three charges. Consequently, the hearing officer recommended that plaintiff be restored to his teaching position with back pay and benefits. The hearing officer's recommended decision was served upon both plaintiff and the Chicago Board on March 20, 1996.
On April 24, 1996, Vallas submitted to the Chicago Board a written "request for the rejection of [the] hearing officer's decision," stating that "[t]he rationale for this recommendation is that the Hearing Officer's decision is contrary to the weight of credible evidence in the case which demonstrated cause for termination under section 34-85." On that same day, the Chicago Board agreed with Vallas' request to reject the hearing officer's recommendation, and terminated plaintiff for cause. The Chicago Board informed plaintiff of its decision on April 27, 1996.
In May 1996, plaintiff filed a verified complaint for administrative review, mandamus, and declaratory and injunctive relief in the circuit court of Cook County. The complaint, which was directed against the Chicago Board, its individual members, Vallas, and the State Board, contained five counts, two of which are relevant here. Count I of plaintiff's complaint sought administrative review of the decision of the Chicago Board to discharge plaintiff from his employment. The count alleged that the April 24, 1996, decision of the Chicago Board was a final decision subject to administrative review, and that the decision required reversal because it was "contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence introduced at the hearing."
Count III of plaintiff's complaint requested the trial court to declare unconstitutional section 34-85 of the School Code, as amended by Public Act 89-15, on the basis that it deprived plaintiff of due process of law in violation of article I, section 2, of the Illinois Constitution of 1970. Prior to the amendments enacted in Public Act 89-15, the School Code stated that all tenured teachers subject to dismissal proceedings were to be provided a hearing before an impartial hearing officer to determine the propriety of a board of education's decision to terminate that teacher's employment. The decision of the hearing officer constituted a final decision, subject to administrative review. Public Act 89-15, which became effective May 30, 1995, applied only to teachers in the City of Chicago, and amended, inter alia, section 34-85 of the School Code to provide that instead of rendering a final decision, the hearing officer would make a "recommendation as to whether or not the teacher *** shall be dismissed," with the final dismissal decision to be made by the Chicago Board.
In challenging the amendments made by Public Act 89-15 to section 34-85, plaintiff raised three main arguments in count III of his complaint. First, plaintiff asserted that the amendment completely defeats the purpose of the hearing conducted by an independent hearing officer, as the Chicago Board is permitted to reject the hearing officer's recommendation without providing any substantive or evidentiary support for its rejection. Second, plaintiff alleged that the amendment provides no standards for the Chicago Board's review of the hearing officer's recommended decision. Finally, plaintiff contended that the amendment "ensures that the [Chicago Board] will sit as a Judge in its own case, despite the decision of the independent hearing officer, in violation of fundamental tenets of fairness and due process." Plaintiff requested the circuit court to vacate the Chicago Board's decision to terminate his employment and to order the Chicago Board to reinstate him with full back pay and benefits.
In response to plaintiff's complaint, the State Board filed an answer consisting of the record of proceedings before the hearing officer. The Chicago Board, in answering plaintiff's complaint, generally denied plaintiff's material allegations.
On November 4, 1996, the circuit court Judge rendered an oral ruling from the bench, remanding plaintiff's cause to the Chicago Board for further consideration. The Judge based her decision on two factors: first, the Judge could not discern from the administrative record whether the Chicago Board had reviewed the transcript of the administrative hearing and/or the hearing officer's recommendation before rejecting it; and, second, the Judge could not determine how, or upon what basis, the Chicago Board made its decision to terminate plaintiff. On November 18, 1996, the circuit court memorialized the oral ruling in a written order granting plaintiff partial relief on count I of his complaint, reversing the Chicago Board's decision terminating plaintiff and remanding the matter to the Chicago Board with instructions for the Board to "receive and review the Hearing Officer's decision" and, if the Board deemed it appropriate, to consider the administrative record. The order further directed the Chicago Board to issue a written decision accepting or rejecting the hearing officer's recommendation. Finally, the order also denied plaintiff relief under counts II though V of his complaint.
Pursuant to the circuit court's order, the Chicago Board reconsidered plaintiff's case during a closed session on December 17, 1996. The record indicates that Vallas was present during this meeting, but that neither plaintiff nor his attorney were allowed to attend. Upon reconsideration, the Board again decided to discharge plaintiff and issued written findings. The Chicago Board concluded that, based upon review of the record before the hearing officer, "[t]he preponderance of the evidence showed that [plaintiff] acted with conduct unbecoming a teacher and in gross dereliction of duties."
Plaintiff's case then returned to the circuit court. The Judge indicated that she would consider plaintiff's complaint in its entirety, including those counts upon which relief was previously denied as a result of the November 18, 1996, order. On August 4, 1997, the circuit court Judge rendered an oral ruling from the bench granting plaintiff relief ...