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Jackson Public School District v. Mason

Court of Appeals of Mississippi

September 17, 2019

JACKSON PUBLIC SCHOOL DISTRICT APPELLANT
v.
TANYATEMEIKA MASON APPELLEE

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 09/29/2017

          HINDS COUNTY CHANCERY COURT, FIRST JUDICIAL DISTRICT. HON. DENISE OWENS TRIAL JUDGE.

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANT: JOANNE N. SHEPHERD DORIAN E. TURNER DELLWYN K. SMITH

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLEE: PRESTON DAVIS RIDEOUT JR.

         EN BANC.

          J. WILSON, P.J.

         ¶1. This appeal involves the demotion of former Jim Hill High School principal Tanyatemeika Mason to the position of assistant principal. After a four-day due process hearing, the board of trustees of the Jackson Public School District (JPSD) upheld Mason's demotion. However, the Hinds County Chancery Court reversed the board's decision because the court concluded that the demotion constituted an untimely non-renewal of Mason's contract. We hold that the chancery court erred because JPSD validly terminated Mason's employment as a principal. Therefore, we reverse and render the judgment of the chancery court and affirm the decision of JPSD's board of trustees.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         ¶2. Prior to the 2015-2016 school year, Mason was an assistant principal at Jim Hill High School. She became Jim Hill's principal for the 2015-2016 school year. However, according to JPSD, Mason demonstrated poor leadership and poor judgment and neglected her duties as principal, which adversely impacted students and the school's academic performance.

         ¶3. On May 12, 2016, JPSD delivered a letter to Mason that stated as follows:

This correspondence shall serve as confirmation that you have agreed to accept [JPSD's] offer of a position as assistant principal with no loss of salary for the 2016-17 school year as an alternative to nonrenewal of your contract as principal at Jim Hill High School. Please understand that this offer is contingent on approval by [JPSD's] board of trustees. By doing so, you voluntarily and of your own free will agree to waive any and all of your rights as provided by the Education Employment Procedures Law, Miss. Code Ann. [§] 37-9-101 et seq., including but not limited to notice of nonrenewal and a due process hearing. If you do not accept this agreement, [JPSD] will proceed with nonrenewal of your contract for the 2016-17 school year. Your signature below indicates acceptance of this agreement.
If you do not accept this agreement, [JPSD] will proceed with nonrenewal of your contract for the 2016-17 year and offer you the position of assistant principal at the salary commensurate for that position. . . .

         Mason countersigned the letter, indicating that she accepted the offer. However, the next day, she rescinded her acceptance and rejected the offer.

         ¶4. On May 27, 2016, JPSD delivered a letter to Mason from the superintendent that stated as follows:

Pursuant to the provisions of Miss. Code Ann. § 37-9-59, you are hereby notified that you are being demoted to assistant principal for the 2016-17 school year due to your poor leadership, poor academic success of your school, poor professional judgment, and neglect of your duty as a principal. . . .[1] Because of your conduct, [JPSD] has no alternative but to demote you from principal at Jim Hill to assistant principal at another high school. Your salary for the 2016-17 school year will decrease from $72, 200 to $71, 450 commensurate with your new position as assistant principal.
Under the above statute, you are entitled to a public hearing on the charges made against you. You must request a hearing by delivering a letter to my office within five (5) calendar days from this date. If no written request is received, you will be demoted to assistant principal effective June 1, 2016. . . . If you request a hearing, . . . [t]he procedure for your hearing shall be prescribed in Miss. Code Ann. § 37-9-111. . . .

         ¶5. Mason timely requested a hearing. Prior to the hearing, JPSD provided Mason with a "Notice of the Reasons for Demotion and Summary of the Factual Basis Thereof," which alternately referred to the employment action as both a "termination" and "demotion." A four-day due process hearing was held in July 2016, and a total of seventeen witnesses testified. Following the hearing, JPSD's board of trustees voted to uphold Mason's termination/demotion. Mason then filed a notice of appeal in the chancery court from the decision of the board of trustees "approving her termination/demotion."

         ¶6. After briefing and oral argument, the chancery court ruled that Mason's demotion was "a non-renewal" of her contract and "was untimely and therefore void." Therefore, the court reversed the decision of the board of trustees and declared that Mason had "a valid contract as a . . . principal for the 2016-2017 school year."

         ¶7. Eight days after the chancery court entered its order, Mason filed a "Motion to Alter or Amend Judgment to Award Costs" in which she asked the court to "amend" the judgment to award her costs of $2, 089.78. The court subsequently granted Mason's motion and awarded costs of $1, 988.50. JPSD filed a notice of appeal thirty days later.

         JURISDICTION

         ¶8. Mason argues that this Court lacks jurisdiction because JPSD's notice of appeal was untimely. We disagree. Rule 4(a) of the Mississippi Rules of Appellate Procedure provides that a notice of appeal must be filed within thirty days of the entry of the order or judgment appealed from. Rule 4(d) then provides that if a party files a timely motion to alter or amend the judgment under Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 59, the time for filing a notice of appeal runs from the entry of the order disposing of that motion. In this case, Mason filed a timely motion to alter or amend the judgment, which the chancery court granted. JPSD then filed its notice of appeal within thirty days of the chancery court's order granting Mason's motion. Therefore, JPSD's notice of appeal was timely under Rule 4.

         ¶9. Mason argues that the Rules of Civil Procedure do not apply when, as in this case, a chancery court acts as an appellate court. Thus, she argues that her motion to alter or amend the judgment was not filed under Rule 59 and did not toll the time for taking an appeal. However, this Court recently rejected the same argument. Wirtz v. Adams Cty. Bd. of Supervisors, No. 2018-CP-00031-COA, 2019 WL 1615655, at *3-*4 (¶¶14-18) (Miss. Ct. App. Apr. 16, 2019) (petition for a writ of certiorari filed). In Wirtz, we held that a party may file a motion to alter or amend the judgment under Rule 59 in a case in which a circuit court is acting as an appellate court. Id. Therefore, we held that a timely motion to alter or amend the judgment tolls the time for taking an appeal in such a case. Id. The same reasoning applies in this case. JPSD's notice of appeal was timely because it was filed within thirty days of the order granting Mason's motion to alter or amend the judgment.

         ANALYSIS

         ¶10. We review the decision of JPSD's board of trustees applying the same standard of review as the chancery court. Ekanem v. Greenville Pub. Sch. Dist. Bd. of Trs., 235 So.3d 1431, 1433 (ΒΆ4) (Miss. Ct. App. 2017). Thus, in substance, this Court ...


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