CHARLESTON -– Pocahontas County teacher Norman Alderman deserved to lose his job for calling his employers cockroaches, thieves and worse, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals has ruled.
"This is a case of planned, insubordinate behavior that undermined the board's authority to provide effective and efficient services to its students," Justice Robin Davis wrote in a Jan. 30 opinion.
The Justices reversed Kanawha Circuit Judge Irene Berger, who ruled that the Pocahontas County Board of Education improperly fired Alderman for exercising his right of free speech.
Davis wrote that the First Amendment would have protected him if he had spoken on matters of public concern.
"Alderman's comments about the superintendent and treasurer being cockroaches and thieves, his personal statements against the intelligence of the superintendent, as well as his accusations of a board member being an adulterer were not matters of public concern," she wrote.
"Alderman's conduct interfered with the employer's interest," she wrote.
The board hired Alderman in 1980. In 2002, board members ejected him from a meeting. When he returned with a video camera, they called police, who arrested him.
He sued in federal court and won. The board paid damages and legal fees, offered an apology, adopted rules for open meetings, and received First Amendment training.
He also successfully challenged the eligibility of two board members.
In 2006, the board decided to transfer him from a dual role as technology facilitator and homebound instructor to a classroom teaching position.
He requested a hearing on the transfer and posted protests on a Web site he maintained.
At the hearing, the board gave him 20 minutes and he spent it ripping board members and administrators. He ran out of time without discussing the transfer.
The board suspended him without pay and voted for termination two weeks later.
Alderman filed a grievance with the Education and State Employees Grievance Board, and administrative law judge Denise Spatafore denied it.
Alderman sought review in circuit court, where Berger ruled that the balance between free speech and efficient government tipped in Alderman's favor.
He raised legitimate issues, she wrote, and the board proffered no evidence indicating that his comments disrupted its ability to carry out its duties.
The board appealed.
At oral arguments on Jan. 14, Justice Margaret Workman asked board attorney Gregory Bailey, of the Bowles Rice office in Morgantown, to define insubordination.
Bailey defined it as disrespect that undermines the authority of supervisors.
Alderman represented himself.
"All I wanted to do was have a fair hearing," he said. "They were going to tear me up and destroy my career."
Sixteen days later, the Justices upheld his termination.
The issues he raised were unsubstantiated or resolved, Davis wrote, and he asserted them to embarrass the board and interrupt the hearing.
"Alderman turned it into a malicious bashing session over matters unrelated to his transfer," she wrote.
Parents testified about his "appalling behavior," she wrote.
Prior to the hearing he posted his intent to expose the board on his Web site, she wrote. After it, she wrote, "he gloated that he had succeeded in his mission."
He was never apologetic, she wrote.
"In fact, he maintained his right to be disrespectful," she wrote.
Howard Seufer and Ashley Hardesty, of Bowles Rice in Morgantown, represented the board along with Bailey.