“GAE is the best professional investment I’ve ever made,” said an elated Chayka Bettis. Ms. Bettis and GAE member Leslie Hein served as plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed against DeKalb Schools after the district took $750 from their final paycheck in 2014 as liquidated damages.
The lawsuit arose out of a breach of contract claim brought by Ms. Bettis and Ms. Hein against DeKalb County Schools. They both signed one-year employment contracts for the 2014-2015 school year. The contract contained a liquidated damages provision, which provided that each employee would pay the school system $750 if she breached the contract. Before June 1, 2014 both Ms. Bettis and Ms. Hein submitted a letter of resignation and accepted job offers with other school districts without first being released from the DeKalb contract. “We only had one week to sign the contract or find another job. That can’t be done in a week. No hiring process works that fast,” said Ms. Hein. The liquidated damages clause, added Ms. Bettis, “is a way for the county to hold our jobs over our head.”
DeKalb State Court Judge Dax Lopez ruled in August 2016 that a jury must decide whether the liquidated damages provision in educator contracts is valid and enforceable, clearing the way for the settlement.
According to Judge Lopez,“[g]iven the fact that DCSD cannot provide any documentation created or relied upon in calculating the $750 liquidated damage, there is certainly a question as to whether DCSD sufficiently endeavored to meet the pre-estimation requirement prior to the execution of the contracts at issue or whether the $750 amount is to some degree arbitrary. Accordingly, this is a question best left to a jury.”
Under the terms of the settlement, the school district will pay $160,000 to a court-administered account to reimburse each educator that had $750 deducted from their final paycheck in 2014. The district will send out a letter to each educator instructing them on how to obtain reimbursement through the DeKalb County Superior Court. The district agreed to a moratorium on liquidated damages in their teacher contracts for the 2017-2018 school year. The district also agreed to reimburse $50,000 in attorney fees expended by GAE on behalf of association members Ms. Bettis and Ms. Hein. Network attorney Julie Oinonen stated that “we filed the lawsuit hoping to establish a state-wide precedent for all Georgia educators. We hope that DeKalb will uphold the moratorium and other school districts will follow their lead.”
“I had good reason to break my contract,” said Ms. Hein. “There is no other job that I know of that punishes you for bettering yourself or your career.”
Chayka Bettis and Leslie Hein at GAE Headquarters
GAE Legal Services Director Mike McGonigle and GAE Network Attorney Julie Oinonen