Category Personnel/Employment
Title Teacher Fired for Lying on Employment Application
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Preview Teacher Fired for Lying on Employment Application
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Teacher Fired for Lying on Employment Application

Stephanie LaCross filled out an employment application to be a middle school teacher at Cornerstone Christian Academy. She answered no to the section that asked, "Do you used alcoholic beverages? yes or no?" The application continued with the question, "If yes, to what extent?" It then ended with the statement, "To the best of my knowledge, the foregoing statements are complete and correct and no fact has been withheld that would adversely affect a decision to employ. (Falsification may be cause for dismissal.)"

After signing the two-year contract that was offered to her, but before the start of the school year, LaCross went to a bar with several friends and drank four to five beers. The next day at a local law firm, where she continued to work before fall classes began, LaCross was overheard laughing and discussing the details of her previous evening of drinking. As it turned out, the grandmother of some children enrolled at Cornerstone also worked at the law firm. She called Cornerstone and reported that LaCross cursed, drank alcohol to the point of making a public spectacle, went out drinking with a man who was not her husband, and then boasted about her drunkenness the next day.

When Cornerstone's administrator met with LaCross, she admitted that she had been out drinking, and she confirmed the essential elements of the report. Following the meeting, the administrator concluded that LaCross had clearly lied on her employment application and had violated the ministry's standard of personal holiness. LaCross was informed that her contract was terminated. As a result, LaCross sued the school for wrongful termination. The state trial court agreed and awarded LaCross more than $50,000. The school then appealed the verdict to the Louisiana Court of Appeal.

The Louisiana Court of Appeal reversed the lower court's decision. It also ruled that LaCross had to pay all court expenses, including those incurred by the school at the trial court level. The appeals court concluded:

Stephanie (LaCross) induced school officials into believing that she possessed principles she really lacked. Moreover, she compounded her situation. Namely, there is a provision within her application which explicitly provides that falsification of the application is a ground for dismissal. However, not only did she lies about her consumption of alcohol, a material fact that induced an error, but additionally, her signature, indicating that her answers and statements on the application were complete and correct when at least one was not, in and of itself, induced error. The fact is that the school felt strongly that its employees possess certain principles, one of which concerned consumption of alcohol. But more importantly, it sought honest employees. It had a right to select its employees according to these standards and to dismiss them for failing to meet them.

Stephanie LaCross v. Cornerstone Christian Academy of Lafayette, Inc.,
Court of Appeal of Louisiana, 3rd Cir., 04-341

Bottom line: (1) It is shocking to read that the lower court didn't honor the clear wording of the application and the contract when it ruled against the school. Here is an important legal lesson: don't wait until it's too late to get a good attorney! You need the best attorney you can find for your first court hearing because you can't add new material or new legal theories to the record if you have to appeal the case to a higher court. Your best shot at ultimately winning your court case is in laying a good legal foundation in the first court where the case is heard. If you win there, fine, but if you have to appeal the verdict, at least you will have a decent change at winning in the next court if a good foundation is in place. Apparently this school had a good attorney, because there was enough information in the lower court's record for the justices of the appeals court to overturn the bad initial verdict.

(2) When stating their decision, the judges made special note of the disclaimer in the job application—"To the best of my knowledge, the foregoing statements are complete and correct and no fact has been withheld that would adversely affect a decision to employ. (Falsification may be cause for dismissal.)" Do all of your job applications, not just teacher applications, have similar wording?

(3) It is probably wiser to offer teachers who are new to your school a one-year contract instead of an extended contract. Rememver, it is easy to hire people, but it's difficult to terminate them without risking a wrongful termination lawsuit. If this teacher had not clearly violated her contract, it might have been difficult for the school to dismiss her later if the administration then realized that she was not a good fit or not a team player. Breaking a contract begs for litigation unless the school has strong evidence, such as a good paper trail of evaluations and discipline notices that would justify its action. To lessen the changes of being faced with a wrongful termination lawsuit, the school might have had to let this teacher fulfill her contract before notifying her that the contract was not going to be renewed. Do you really want to be under that kind of pressure for an entire school year? However, once a teacher or administrator has a proven track record, it might be all right to consider a longer-term contract.

(4) Although it is not known in this case whether the school contacted an attorney before breaking its contract, we strongly advise you to do so. Consider spending a few hundred dollars up front to find out your school's options as well as the pros and cons of those options. The attorney can also recommend termination procedures that are least likely to generate a wrongful-termination lawsuit. If you are not sure who to contact locally, consider getting in touch with attorney John L. Cooley.

LLU 18.2

Notice: This article is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It has been provided to member schools with the understandng that ACSI is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, tax, or other professional services. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional should be sought. Laws vary by jurisdiction, and the specific application of laws to particular facts requires the advice of an attorney.

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