CARTERVILLE — The Illinois Supreme Court issued a ruling this week favorable to seven John A. Logan faculty members who sued the college after they were laid off in 2016 amid the state budget crisis that stretched over two years.
In a lawsuit filed in Williamson County Circuit Court in 2017, the faculty members alleged the college violated state law when they hired part-time adjunct faculty to cover their courses. The circuit court granted the college’s motion to dismiss their lawsuit, which the faculty members challenged.
On Thursday, with one justice dissenting, the Supreme Court affirmed a September 2019 ruling of the Fifth District Appellate Court finding that the case had been wrongly dismissed. It has been remanded to the circuit court for further action.
“We are extremely pleased the Illinois Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs,” Loretta Haggard, a lawyer who represented the plaintiffs, said in a statement to The Southern.
Haggard said her law firm, St. Louis-based Schuchat, Cook & Werner, worked with the Illinois Education Association, the plaintiffs’ union, to represent the faculty members “who were unfairly laid off from their positions and replaced by part-time adjunct faculty in what was portrayed as a cost-saving measure by the college.”
Rhett Barke, an attorney who represents John A. Logan College, said the case remains “a pending legal matter, and therefore the college will not comment.”
The lawsuit dates back to action taken by the John A. Logan Board of Trustees in the spring of 2016. It was in the middle of the unprecedented standoff between then-Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican who ran on a promise to balance the state budget, and Democratic House Speaker Mike Madigan. Colleges and universities received only a fraction of their typical state funding allocation during this time.
At an acrimonious March meeting of the board, after lengthy public testimony and four hours of deliberation, the board approved 55 faculty and staff layoffs. The faculty members' layoffs were effective with the fall 2016 semester. At the time, JALC President Ron House acknowledged the college planned to replace full-time faculty with part-time instructors on a “temporary basis.”
Of the seven faculty members who sued, all were eventually called back, but they missed a year or more of work. Their lawsuit seeks back pay with interest and lost benefits.
“We are all very relieved. We waited a long time but we were always confident we had the law on our side,” said David Cochran, a history professor at the college who is among the seven plaintiffs.
Illinois law governing community colleges says that laid off faculty members have the right to be reappointed to a position for which they are qualified for a period of two years. It also says colleges cannot hire a nontenured faculty member or other employee with less seniority to replace a tenured faculty member.
In seeking its dismissal of the lawsuit, the college cited a 1987 ruling in which an appellate court determined that the phrase “other employee with less seniority” — as stated in state statute — did not include part-time instructors. The Illinois Supreme Court said that case had legal differences from the one before it involving John A. Logan College faculty, and also declared that the previous case had been erroneously decided.
In its majority opinion, the court concluded the board “employed adjunct instructors — other employees with less seniority than plaintiffs — to render a service, namely to teach a course or courses, that plaintiffs were competent to render,” in violation of the law.
“Our ruling today is both compelled by the language of the statute and consistent with the legislature’s goal in creating tenure, which … was to ensure a degree of job security for teachers with experience and ability,” the opinion continued. “We trust that this goal will inform community college board employment decisions as well.”
Haggard, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, said the court’s decision “further proves unions are necessary and that their work to help protect educator and workers' jobs is essential to the greater good.”
“Because of the union’s work on the plaintiffs’ behalf, the high-quality education Illinois students receive at community colleges will be preserved by ensuring talented, experienced full-time faculty will remain in the classroom,” she said.
On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI