Under Florida law, everyone involved in the justice system (civil or criminal) is entitled to due process of law. In general, due process entails the right to know the charges or allegations against you, an opportunity to know the evidence that will be used in the proceeding, the right to testify and question witnesses, and to have your case judged by a fair and impartial decision-maker. These basic tenants of due process are common in all civil court proceedings. However, are administrative hearings conducted by local and state agencies, such as school boards, cities, and counties subject to these same due process requirements?
In the recent case of Seiden v. Adams, as Superintendent of Schools, Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal held that in administrative hearings “due process is flexible and calls for such procedural protections as the particular situation demands.” The Seiden case was handled by Gould Cooksey Fennell’s Labor and Employment Group on behalf of the School Board of Indian River County. The case involved a teacher who was terminated from his employment with the School Board because of his improper physical handling of a special needs student during a field trip. The superintendent recommended to the School Board that Mr. Seiden’s employment be terminated, and as a result, an administrative hearing was scheduled before the School Board.
During the administrative hearing before the School Board, Mr. Seiden was made aware of the charges against him, represented by counsel, and given an opportunity to question the superintendent’s witnesses and call witnesses on his own behalf. At the close of the hearing, the School Board voted unanimously to terminate Mr. Seiden’s employment. While the School Board members were deliberating, certain board members made comments about their “personal experience” with special needs students and the exceptional student education program in general. Mr. Seiden took exception to these comments and filed an appeal alleging that the School Board was biased and he was denied due process of law.
The Seiden Court held that the School Board was within its right under Florida employment law to conduct the hearing itself, even though the charges were brought by the superintendent of schools, who is an employee of the School Board. The Court then addressed the specific bias claim alleged by Mr. Seiden and explained why it did not amount to a denial of due process. As to the comments made by individual Board members, the Court held that “like many elected officials in a public forum, the Board members were inclined to think out loud…School Board procedures did not provide for secret deliberations like a jury in a court of law, and elected officials can be expected to explain their votes to deflect political pushback.” The Court then held that none of the statements by Board members as to their personal experiences with special needs students meant that they were biased or prejudiced against Mr. Seiden or had prejudged the facts at issue in the hearing.
In conclusion, the Seiden case makes it clear that while due process certainly applies in administrative hearings, the extent of due process is not as great as that afforded to a party in a full judicial proceeding.