Brown Act Violation by the Sacramento City Unified School District
Friday, May. 7, 2021
By Langenkamp Curtis & Price LLP
In the case of Sacramento City Teachers Association v. Sacramento City Unified School District Board of Trustees, (2021) the Sacramento Superior Court denied the issuance of a Writ of Mandate but found a Brown Act violation when it ruled that, "the District violated Section 54957 when it discussed the "release" of multiple administrators in closed session on February 21, 2019...." Importantly, the Court found that California Government Code Section 54957 (often called the "personnel exception" to the Brown Act's open meeting mandate) allows closed sessions to discuss singular employees but not groups of employees. The Court did not issue a remedy for the Brown Act violation.
The California Ralph M. Brown Act (California Government Code sections 54950-54963) requires that publicly elected boards hold their meetings in public. The Declaration section of the Brown Act sets out the primary purpose of California's open meeting law and powerfully states,
"The people of this State do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments that they have created."
However, for Boards to be able to effectively conduct business which could be harmed by a public hearing, the Legislature created certain exceptions to the open meeting mandate, and those exceptions are set forth throughout the Ralph M. Brown Act. In essence, the Legislature did a balancing act: it balanced the needs of the people for openness against the need of a Board to be able to effectively conduct business. Much of the Ralph M. Brown Act is dedicating to setting forth these exceptions. One example of the balancing act described above is contained in what is often called the "litigation exception." The Brown Act allows a Board to discuss pending litigation in closed session. This "litigation exception" makes sense. A lawyer suing a Board for a slip-and-fall should not be able to listen the Board discuss the merits of the slip-and-fall claim; otherwise a Board could never discuss a case. The "litigation exception" allows a Board to discuss a pending lawsuit in closed session without committing a Brown Act violation.
One issue in the case of the Sacramento City Teachers Association v. Sacramento City Unified School District Board of Trustees (2021) involved a different exception to the open meeting requirement called the "personnel exception," contained in California Government Code section 54957. The District had approved the release of a group of administrators in closed session in 2019. This release of administrators then led the layoff of teachers whose positions the administrators would "bump" into. The Court found the closed-session discussion of the group release to be a Brown Act violation and not authorized by Government Code section 54957 (i.e. the "personnel exception). In summary, a Board should discuss the release and/or layoff of groups of employees in open session.