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Victor Federation of Teachers Local 3494 v. Victor School District No. 7

Supreme Court of Montana

April 3, 2018

VICTOR FEDERATION OF TEACHERS LOCAL 3494, MEA-MFT, and JULIANA ARECHAGA, Applicants and Appellants,
v.
VICTOR SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 7, RAVALLI COUNTY, MONTANA, and its trustees PAUL ROSEN, MARCI SMITH, MARY ALLRED, ROY PERRY, and STEVE WILSON, Respondents and Appellees.

          Submitted on Briefs: January 31, 2018

          APPEAL FROM: District Court of the Twenty-First Judicial District, In and For the County of Ravalli, Cause No. DV 17-275 Honorable Jeffrey H. Langton, Presiding Judge.

          For Appellants: Karl J. Englund, Karl J. Englund, P.C., Missoula, Montana, Jonathan McDonald, McDonald Law Office, PLLC, Helena, Montana.

          For Appellees: Kris Goss, Debra A. Silk, Tony C. Koenig, Montana School Boards Association, Helena, Montana.

          OPINION

          BETH BAKER JUSTICE.

         ¶1 Juliana Arechaga was a non-tenured teacher for Victor School District No. 7 (School District) when, on May 23, 2017, the School District's Board of Trustees (Board) voted to not renew her employment contract for the 2017-2018 school year. Arechaga was present at that meeting but did not receive written notice of the School District's decision until June 7. Arechaga applied for a writ of mandamus in the Twenty-First Judicial District Court, arguing that because she did not receive the written notice by June 1, the School District was statutorily obligated to renew her contract for the ensuing school year. The District Court denied her application. We reverse and remand for issuance of the writ.

         PROCEDURAL AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         ¶2 Arechaga worked as a social studies teacher for the School District from 2014 to 2017. As a non-tenured teacher, Arechaga was subject to the School District's annual decision to renew or not renew her contract. The School District had renewed her employment contract for both the 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 school years.

         ¶3 When the School District hired Arechaga in 2014, she lived on Foothills Drive in Missoula. In March 2016, Arechaga moved. She did not notify the School District of her new address. The School District rarely communicated with Arechaga by mail, and it had no policy-in its faculty handbook or otherwise-obligating teachers to inform it of any change to their mailing addresses. The School District typically communicated with Arechaga in person, by telephone, or by e-mail.

         ¶4 Arechaga went on maternity leave on March 31, 2017, through the end of the school year. On May 16, while Arechaga was present at the school to sign up for health insurance, the School District hand-delivered her written notice that the Board was going to discuss her contract at a meeting on May 23. At the meeting-with Arechaga present-the Board voted to not renew Arechaga's contract for the 2017-2018 school year.

         ¶5 The next day, the School District drafted a letter to Arechaga notifying her that her employment contract for the ensuing school year had not been renewed. The School District sent this letter via certified U.S. mail to the address it had on file-Arechaga's outdated Foothills Drive address. Arechaga never received the letter; it was returned to the School District as "unclaimed" on June 18. Arechaga did not receive written notice of the School District's decision until June 7, when the School District Clerk hand-delivered her a copy while she was present at the school.

         ¶6 Arechaga and the Victor Federation of Teachers Local 3494 (Federation)-the collective bargaining unit representing her-filed an application for a writ of mandamus in the District Court. Arechaga and the Federation asserted that because Arechaga had not received the School District's written notice by June 1, the School District was statutorily obligated to renew her contract for the 2017-2018 school year.

         ¶7 The court held a show cause hearing at which Arechaga testified. Arechaga asserted that she did not "in any way attempt to avoid receiving the written notice" and that, given the School District's history of communicating with her in person, by telephone, and by email, it "didn't even occur" to her to notify the School District of her updated mailing address.

         ¶8 After the hearing, the District Court denied the application. The court agreed with Arechaga that under § 20-4-206(1), MCA-which obligates a school district to "provide" written notice by June 1 of its decision to not renew a teaching contract for the ensuing school year-written notice becomes effective only upon receipt by the teacher. But the court noted that "constructive receipt and notice are chargeable to one who willfully avoids or frustrates written notice." The court found as a matter of fact that Arechaga "did not take active steps, per se, to avoid notice." It concluded nonetheless that "her neglect and lack of diligence in maintaining a current address on file with the school district were the sole cause of her failure to receive timely notice of the non-renewal of her contract." The court held that this excused the School District's "mandatory duty to provide her ...


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