The Illinois Supreme Court issued one opinion on December 17. In Barrall v. The Board of Trustees of John A. Logan Community College, the court interpreted a provision in the Public Community College Act governing the “bumping rights” of laid-off tenured faculty members.

Barrall v. The Board of Trustees of John A. Logan Community College, No. 2020 IL 125535

By Karen Kies DeGrand, Donohue Brown Mathewson & Smyth LLC

This appeal required the Illinois Supreme Court to interpret a provision in the Public Community College Act governing the “bumping rights” of laid-off tenured faculty members. Under certain circumstances, the Act, which provides a degree of job security for qualified teachers, permits a tenured faculty member with greater seniority to displace, or “bump,” a less senior employee. 110 ILCS 805/3B-5 (West 2016). With one justice dissenting, the court held that, in this instance, the defendant’s board of trustees ran afoul of the statute.

In March 2016, Logan Community College’s Board decided to reduce its full-time faculty for the 2016-2017 academic year; 27 tenured teachers received lay off notices. The board’s hiring for the upcoming academic year of adjunct instructors to teach courses the laid-off faculty had taught prompted seven faculty members, alleging violation of section 3B-5 of the Act, to petition the Williamson County circuit court for relief. By the fall of 2017, six of the seven plaintiffs were recalled to their positions; the plaintiffs proceeded, seeking an order restoring the remaining plaintiff to the faculty and seeking other relief, including a permanent injunction to stop the board from laying off tenured faculty members and, during the two-year recall period mandated by the statute, employing “non-teaching staff” to “render services” in the purview of laid-off faculty.

The dispute required interpretation of the last sentence in section 3B-5, which provides:

“For the period of 24 months from the beginning of the school year for which the faculty member was dismissed, any faculty member shall have the preferred right to reappointment to a position entailing services he is competent to render prior to the appointment of any new faculty member; provided that no nontenure faculty member or other employee with less seniority shall be employed to render a service which a tenured faculty member is competent to render.” Id.

Focusing on the final clause, Justice Theis, writing for the majority, analyzed whether the adjunct instructors, who did not accrue seniority and were hired on a semester-by-semester basis, 1) constituted “employee[s]”; 2) had less seniority than the laid-off, tenured faculty members; and 3) were “employed to render a service.” Aided by dictionary definitions of the undefined, relevant terms and grammatical principles to construe the pertinent clauses, the court categorized the adjunct instructors as “employees” with zero seniority, and thus less seniority, than the furloughed teachers who had accrued tenure. The court also construed the phrase “render a service” to include teaching a course. Because the plaintiffs were competent to render the service for which the adjunct instructors were hired, the majority found that the board’s hiring of the instructors within the recall period violated the letter and spirit of the statute.

Chief Justice Anne Burke, the lone dissenter, wrote that the majority failed to read the salient statutory terms in the context of the statute as a whole. She disagreed with the majority’s plain language and grammatical analysis, beginning with—but not limited to—the phrase “other employee with less seniority,” which, in Chief Justice Burke’s view, implicated only employees in a position to accrue seniority. Rather, tenured faculty have the right to bump only employees hired for a full-time position. The Chief Justice concluded by expressing her concern that the majority’s decision would, in effect, make impossible a community college’s ability to address a budget crisis when financial constraints call for layoffs.