May 19, 2019

Colorado Court of Appeals: Collective Bargaining Agreement Provided for Payment for ELA Classes

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Denver Classroom Teachers Association v. School District No. 1 in the County of Denver and State of Colorado on Thursday, January 12, 2017.

Collective Bargaining Agreements—Damages—Statute of Limitations—Administrative Remedies.

School District No. 1 and the Board of Education of School District No. 1 in the County of Denver and State of Colorado (collectively, the District) and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA) entered into several collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) and extensions from 2005 to 2015. From the mid-1990s until the 2006–07 school year, the District compensated teachers for attending English Language Acquisition (ELA) training. ELA is a program to train teachers to work more effectively with students who have limited English language proficiency. A federal consent order requires the District to have teachers who are trained to teach such students. After the 2006–07 school year, the District stopped paying teachers for attending the training. DCTA filed a grievance against the District alleging violations of the 2005–08 CBA. DCTA subsequently filed suit for breach of the 2005–08 and 2008–11 CBAs and the extensions, and a jury returned verdicts in favor of DCTA for breach of contract, but it held the District not liable in special interrogatories regarding breach for teachers in the Professional Compensation (ProComp) system.

On appeal, the District first contended that the CBAs and extensions were unambiguous and that they did not require the district to pay teachers for ELA training. Because the articles provide for payment for work beyond the 40-hour week, and because the ELA training may fall into that category, the contract was fairly susceptible to being interpreted to require payment for such work. Therefore, the CBAs were ambiguous, and the trial court properly let the interpretation go to the jury as a question of fact.

The District next contended that additional evidence showed unambiguously that it was not required to compensate teachers for ELA training beyond that year because (1) ELA training was a special condition of employment and (2) the parties’ bargaining history indicates that any requirement to compensate teachers for ELA training was purposely excluded from the CBAs. First, the CBAs were ambiguous regarding whether ELA training is a “special condition” regarding assignment of the teacher, requiring the teachers, not the District to pay for the training. Second, the District’s past practice of paying teachers for ELA training supported DCTA’s position that the CBAs entitled teachers to receive pay for ELA training.Therefore, the question was properly given to the jury.

The District also asserted that the trial court erred in not precluding recovery of damages that accrued before October 24, 2007, which was six years before the case was filed. The statute of limitations for breaching a CBA is six years. The District stopped paying teachers for ELA training starting with the 2007–08 school year, which began on August 13, 2007. DCTA filed its complaint on October 24, 2013. The trial court did not commit reversible error in deciding to award damages for the complete Fall 2007 semester.

Finally, the District contended that DCTA should have been barred from any relief for the 2008–09 school year and beyond because it failed to exhaust administrative remedies for those years. DCTA filed a grievance only for the 2007–08 school year, which was under the 2005–08 CBA. Further efforts by DCTA to achieve payment for ELA training through administrative remedies would have been futile, and the trial court did not err in this finding.

DCTA, in its cross-appeal, contended that the trial court erred in giving the jury special interrogatories to decide whether teachers under the ProComp system were exempt from receiving extra pay for ELA training. Because competent evidence supported the assertion, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in allowing the jury to determine whether teachers under the ProComp agreement forfeited their entitlement to compensation for ELA training.

The final judgment was affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

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