Hearing Officer Can't Substitute His Judgment for the President of the College

Navigating office politics is always tricky, whether you’re working in true politics or your job is considerably “lower stakes,” such as working at a community college. But what do you do when you think you’re right but your boss thinks something different? And then what when the case isn’t even heard by a judge, but someone called a “hearing officer?”

I represent teachers, Pharmacist, and other licensed professional before licensing boards all the time. These administrative hearings are important to protect your professional license. It is important to hire a lawyer to protect your professional license.

In Lawson State Community College v. Mitchell, the court addressed whether a hearing officer properly addressed the decision to terminate an employee. Helen Mitchell was hired in 2004 as an administrative assistant in the athletic department at Lawson State Community College. Part of Mitchell’s job duties was to coordinate the insurance payments and claims for the student athletes.

In 2016 Mitchell received an insurance claim from a student athlete but she had not yet filed the claim. Sharon Crews, the vice president for administrative services, told Mitchell to file the claim but Mitchell refused. Mitchell refused because the student had not a physical exam. Mitchell believed this made him an “eligible player” and unable to be covered by the school’s insurance policy.

Crews and Mitchell went back and forth several times about whether Mitchell would file the claim, but Mitchell ultimately held fast to her refusal. Crews recommended Mitchell be fired from Lawson State and the president of Lawson State agreed. Mitchell appealed the decision.

This case was heard before a hearing officer, which is also known as an administrative law judge. Hearing officers work within the government to decide cases through different agencies. Because Lawson State was a public, government-funded school and Mitchell pursued her appeal through an agency, a hearing officer was appropriate. The hearing officer concluded that the decision to fire Mitchell was unreasonable and deserved consideration of a lesser penalty than Mitchell losing her job.

Lawson State appealed, and the Court determined that the hearing officer exceed his authority. The hearing officer disagreed with the facts upon which the president of Lawson State based his decision to fire Mitchell; that is an incorrect standard.

The hearing officer would have been able to reverse Lawson State’s ruling had it provided no reasons for firing Mitchell. However, the president gave several reasons. Disagreement is not enough, and the hearing officer could not substitute his judgment for the president’s judgment. The Court reversed the hearing officer’s decision, reinstating the decision to fire Mitchell from her position at Lawson State.

The important issue here under an administrative scheme, the hearing officer could not overturn the ruling of the community college merely by asserting what he considered “better” reasoning. Because the school president had laid out its reasoning before firing Mitchell, that was enough to keep the termination from being unreasonable.

If you believe you have a professional license issue before an administrative board, you should hire a lawyer to protect your professional license. Contact INGRAM LAW LLC at (205) 236-3997, my office represent licensed professionals. We will protect your livelihood.

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