Judge rejects DPS bid for restraining order on sickouts

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News
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A judge refused Monday to issue a temporary restraining order against the Detroit Federation of Teachers, interim president Ivy Bailey or ousted president Steve Conn in a lawsuit filed by Detroit Public Schools over repeated teacher sickouts in the state’s largest district.

Judge Cynthia Diane Stephens of the Michigan Court of Claims said “there is no proof ... to find either Ivy Bailey or the DFT encouraged sickouts in violation of (the Public Employment Relations Act), or that Steve Conn has breached his duty as a public employee under PERA.”

The judge set another hearing for Feb. 16 on DPS’ request for a preliminary injunction. DPS’ complaint argues that the sickouts are essentially teacher strikes, which are illegal in Michigan.

The complaint originally named 23 teachers as defendants; all but Bailey and Conn have been dropped from the case.

Stephens also dismissed the activist group By Any Means Necessary and two teachers groups, Detroit Strike to Win and DPS Teachers Fight Back, from the lawsuit filed last week by the district.

In one of the most dramatic moments of the hearing, which lasted over two hours, the lawyer for Bailey and the DFT discussed some of the teachers named in the lawsuit as having participated in sickouts.

Marshall J. Widick of Sachs Waldman explained that one teacher has been out on workers’ compensation for three months, while another has been on leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act after being diagnosed with breast cancer.

Gasps were heard throughout the courtroom.

“They should not have the threat of a lawsuit while they are battling various sicknesses,” Widick said.

He also said the Diann Banks Williamson school was incorrectly listed Monday as one of two DPS schools closed because of sickouts.

“The school only has eight teachers and they all appeared in court,” he said. “This affidavit should be completely thrown out. The threat of an injunction is an overreach.”

Conn, who teaches social studies and computer studies at Western International High School, was not required to speak during the proceedings, sat calmly in the courtroom and expressed his relief afterward.

“They (lawyers for the district) are no better at lawyering than running schools,” he said. “We’ll keep fighting. This is their whole effort at trying to drive the district down in flames. Their whole case is going nowhere. It crashed at takeoff.”

Asked if the teacher sickouts will continue, Conn replied, “Teachers will continue to stand up for the young people of Detroit.”

Bailey said she was most relieved that the other teachers were no longer part of the suit.

“I’m really glad the whole thing was dropped with the other teachers because I don’t feel they should have been dragged into it in the first place.”

Asked how she feels about the fact that she still is a part of the proceedings, she said, “I don’t mind. It comes with the territory.”

George P. Butler III of the Dickinson Wright law firm, representing DPS, declined an interview following the proceedings held on the 14th floor of Cadillac Place.

“I don’t comment on litigation,” he said. “The judge speaks through her order.”

In a statement Thursday afternoon, DPS Emergency Manager Darnell Earley said the district “looks forward to the evidentiary proceeding” Feb. 16.

“The court proceeding today, although unfortunate in that it did not result in any immediate relief, was a necessary step the district had to take to emphasize to those who have participated in the sickouts the importance of our students being in class each and every day,” he said.

Conn’s lawyer, Shanta Driver, called the case, “harassing and frivolous on the part of the district.”

“I think the judge was completely right not to grant a temporary restraining order,” she said. “And by dismissing the teachers named and the organizations, it is clear that this is strictly a Steve Conn witch hunt and that DPS is beside themselves. If (DPS emergency manager Darnell) Earley leaves, then at least one of Steve Conn’s demands will be met.”

She said the district has no legal basis to seek a temporary injunction. “They are simply seeking to shut him up, which is patently illegal and unconstitutional.”

Driver said that during the Feb. 16 hearing, the district will have to come in with witnesses to prove their case and define under what law they are demanding that Steve Conn, Ivy Bailey and the DFT be enjoined.

“The fact that she dismissed the other teachers and organizations was a step in stopping the harassment and intimidation,” Driver said. “The judge made it clear that she won’t accept hearsay evidence to serve as the basis for any action.”

The district’s complaint alleges that more than 31,000 of 46,000 DPS students have missed at least one day of school as a result of the sickouts, which began in November. Last Wednesday, a sickout forced DPS to close 88 of its 97 schools.

Teachers participating in the sickouts have said they want action to correct health and safety problems in many DPS buildings. They’re also upset about large class sizes and pay and benefit cuts.

As Monday’s hearing began, nearly 200 teachers and supporters rallied outside the state office building, while students at Cass Technical High School conducted a noontime walkout in support of the teachers.

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