Court rules for community college in grievance case

By Lawrence Smith | Sep 29, 2011

CHARLESTON – The state Supreme Court has sided with New River Community and Technical College in an employment dispute with one of its former instructors, a Wood County attorney.

The Court on Sept. 23 affirmed the decision of a Kanawha Circuit judge upholding an administrative law judge's 2009 decision denying her grievance against New River with the state Public Employee's Grievance Board. In a memorandum opinion, the Court ruled 4-0 New River did not abuse its discretion in declining to renew her contract in 2008.

Memorandum opinions are issued by the Court in cases that would not be significantly aided by oral arguments, and present no new or significant questions of law.

Let go for low enrollment

According to court records, Mollie B. Jarrell was hired by New River to teach legal studies at its Nicholas County campus in Summersville. The contract was for the 2007-08 school year.

On Dec. 3, 2007, the dean of the Nicholas County campus, John Mullens, wrote a letter of reference for Jarrell as part of her application for a home mortgage. In his letter, Mullens noted while Jarrell was employed by New River on a non-tenure track, one-year contract, "it is my intent to continue her employment in the years to come."

Later in April 2008, Jarrell participated in a faculty senate meeting discussing its displeasure with a decision Harry Faulk, New River's vice-president, and chief academic officer made in allowing a student to drop a course after the deadline. According to court records, after Faulk was allowed to speak to the faculty senate, Jarrell asked him to leave the room and voted with the faculty to formally express its displeasure with Faulk's decision to both Faulk and Ted Spring, New River's president.

On May 18, 2008, Jarrell received a letter from New River informing her of its decision not renew her contract for another year. The letter said the reasons were due to low enrollment in the legal studies program, and the ability to cover her position by the Internet and video conferencing, and adjunct faculty.

In the grievance she subsequently filed, Jarrell alleged, among other things, the real reason for New River letting her go was in retaliation for questioning Faulk's decision on allowing the student to drop the class. Also, she maintained the low enrollment excuse was shaky given that Mullens, prior to the end of the Spring 2008 semester, asked her assistance in selecting new textbooks for the 2008-09 school year.

Argument unpersuasive

In its decision, the Court said Jarrell could not establish a "preponderance of the evidence" to any of her claims. It cited the ALJ's finding that New River offered plenty of evidence of low enrollment in the legal studies program, and her involvement in the faculty senate decision on Faulk was minimal.

On the latter issue it cited the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit's decision in Chitwood v. Fester finding that "'bickering and running disputes with the department heads' does not come within First Amendment protection."

Also, despite the statement in Mullins' mortgage recommendation letter, the Court said Jarrell was well aware New River could opt to not renew her contract at the end of the school year. Since they held up their end of the bargain, the Court said Jarrell had no case against New River.

"Furthermore," the Court said in its decision," the Grievance Board found that [Jarrell] did not establish that she had more than a unilateral expectation in her continued employment. The circuit court agreed with the Board's conclusion, finding that NRCTC's decision not to reappoint [her] to a visiting instructor position was a day-to-day personnel decision that NRCTC's president could make without violating whatever contract rights [she] had.

"[Jarrell] did not have a reasonable expectation of continued employment when she was hired as a non-tenure track visiting instructor with a one-year contract," the Court added.

According to the state Bar's Web site, Jarrell, 40, lives in Williamstown, and was admitted to the Bar on Oct. 13, 1998. However, her license is currently inactive. No reason is given for her inactive status.

Following her departure from New River, Jarrell worked as a law clerk for Fayette Circuit Judge John W. Hatcher Jr. Currently, she is the program coordinator, and department chairwoman for the social and behavioral sciences program at Washington State Community College in Marietta, Ohio.

Throughout the appeal of her grievance, Jarrell represented herself. New River was represented by Assistant Attorney General Jake Wegman.

Chief Justice Margaret Workman recused herself from the case. No reason is given for her recusal.

West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals case number 101403

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