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Quigg v. Georgia Professional Standards Commission

Court of Appeals of Georgia, First Division

December 27, 2017

QUIGG
v.
GEORGIA PROFESSIONAL STANDARDS COMMISSION.

          BARNES, P. J., MCMILLIAN and MERCIER, JJ.

          Barnes, Presiding Judge.

         Following the grant of her application for discretionary appeal, Linda Jean Quigg, former superintendent of the Thomas County School District ("School District"), appeals the superior court's order affirming the final decision of the Georgia Professional Standards Commission ("Commission") to suspend her educator's certificate for 60 days. Quigg argues that the Commission's initial investigation of her three alleged ethical violations was conducted in a procedurally improper manner and that the Commission's decision to suspend her educator's license therefore was made in excess of statutory authority, upon unlawful procedure, and in violation of her due process rights. Quigg also contends that the Commission's decision to sanction her for three alleged ethical violations was clearly erroneous because it was unsupported by the evidence on the whole administrative record.

          For the reasons discussed more fully below, the Commission's decision to sanction Quigg for dishonesty under Standard 4 of the Code of Ethics for Educators ("Ethics Code") for her involvement in a revision made to her daughter's high school transcript to include a personal fitness credit was clearly erroneous in view of the whole record, given that Quigg was no longer serving as superintendent and had retired from the School District when the incident occurred and thus was not acting "in the course of professional practice." We therefore reverse the superior court's order to the extent that it affirmed the Commission's decision to sanction Quigg for that alleged ethical violation and remand for further action consistent with this opinion. We affirm the superior court's order in all other respects.

         On appeal, we view the evidence presented at the administrative hearing in the light most favorable to the agency's decision. Bowman v. Palmour, 209 Ga. App. 270, 270 (1) (433 SE2d 380) (1993). So viewed, the evidence showed that Quigg held a teaching certificate in Georgia at all times relevant to the present case. Quigg started her career in the School District as an elementary school teacher. Quigg subsequently left the School District and worked elsewhere for several years, but she later returned to the School District and was promoted to the position of assistant principal and then to the position of assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction. In 2007,Quigg was promoted to the position of School District superintendent and served in that position until the School District chose not to renew her contract in June 2011.[1]

         Quigg had two daughters who attended the Thomas County High School during her tenure as superintendent. The ethical violations alleged against Quigg arise out of a temporary change in the School District's policy regarding dual enrollment students in the 2009-2010 school year that benefitted Quigg's oldest daughter; the removal of confidential student files from Quigg's work computer; and the inclusion of course credit for personal fitness on the high school transcript of Quigg's younger daughter even though she had not taken that course.

         Dual Enrollment Policy.

         When Quigg served as superintendent, Georgia's Accel Program administered by the Georgia Student Finance Commission offered high school students the opportunity to enroll in college courses and earn credit hours toward a college degree while simultaneously meeting their high school graduation requirements. The Accel Program was funded by the Georgia Lottery and provided financial assistance for the cost of the college courses taken by high school students enrolled in approved dual enrollment programs. A State regulation issued by the Georgia Department of Education ("DOE") required that the grades earned by dual enrollment students in college courses be placed on the students' high school transcripts and be used in computing their high school grade point averages (the "Dual Enrollment Regulation").[2]

         Before and after the 2009-2010 school year, all grades of dual enrollment students in the School District were posted on students' transcripts in compliance with the State's Dual Enrollment Regulation. But, for the 2009-2010 school year only, the School District adopted a new policy of posting the college class grades of some, but not all, dual enrollment students on their high school transcripts, which violated the Dual Enrollment Regulation. Under the School District's new policy, whether college course grades were included on a dual enrollment student's high school transcript depended on the student's SAT score and whether the student needed the credit from the college class to graduate.

         Quigg participated in meetings where the change in the dual enrollment policy was discussed and saw emails questioning the validity of the change for the 2009-2010 school year. One result of this change in policy was that the grades earned by Quigg's oldest daughter in her dual enrollment classes, including a "D" in one college class, were not posted on her high school transcript. If the grades had been posted on the daughter's transcript, they would have lowered her grade point average. Additionally, the School District reported students, including Quigg's older daughter, as dual enrollment students to the Georgia Student Finance Commission for funding purposes under the Accel Program, even though the students' college course grades were not posted on their transcripts as required by the Dual Enrollment Regulation.

         The Confidential Student Files.

         The non-renewal of Quigg's contract as superintendent was effective June 30, 2011. Before she left the School District, Quigg downloaded all of the electronic files from her work computer onto external flash drives and deleted all of the information on the hard drive. The files included confidential student information, such as test scores and student identification numbers.

         Personal Fitness Course Credit.

         The School District had a longstanding practice of allowing students to meet the State graduation requirement of taking a personal fitness class by instead taking marching band. However, a State regulation issued by the DOE permitted only Junior ROTC to be substituted for personal fitness credit (the "Personal Fitness Regulation").[3]

         After her tenure as superintendent ended, Quigg retired from the School District and moved with her family to Oconee County, where her younger daughter enrolled in high school for the 2011-2012 academic year. Her daughter had taken marching band at her high school in Thomas County, but not personal fitness. Before school started, when an Oconee County School District counselor informed Quigg that her daughter did not have a personal fitness credit as required for graduation, Quigg contacted the principal at her daughter's former school and asked him to check on her daughter's transcript in light of the School District's longstanding policy of allowing personal fitness credit for marching band. After speaking with Quigg, the principal contacted the clerk of student records at the daughter's former school, who revised the daughter's transcript to substitute a personal fitness credit for marching band. The clerk then sent the revised transcript to Oconee County.

         The Investigation.

         George Kornegay succeeded Quigg as superintendent of the School District in July 2011. Quigg and Kornegay had a strained working relationship dating back several years. After becoming the new superintendent, Kornegay learned that Quigg had removed all of the electronic files from the hard drive of her work computer. Counsel for the School District requested that Quigg return the electronic files, and she complied with the request. Based on the information contained in the electronic files and upon learning of the School District's policies during Quigg's tenure that violated the Dual Enrollment Regulation and Personal Fitness Regulation, Kornegay became concerned that further investigation was needed to determine whether Quigg had violated any ethical rules. Kornegay took steps to have the School District rescind the dual enrollment and personal fitness policies that had been in effect during Quigg's tenure as superintendent and to enact a new dual enrollment policy consistent with the State's Dual Enrollment Regulation. Kornegay also had the personal fitness credit removed from the high school transcript of Quigg's younger daughter and a new transcript sent to Oconee County reflecting that she had taken band rather than a personal fitness class.

         In February 2012, Kornegay emailed John Grant, the Commission's chief investigator for ethics violations, and requested help in determining whether any of the "irregular" practices he had identified in the School District rose to the level of reportable ethics violations. Later that month, before a formal written request for an investigation had been filed with and approved by the Commission, Grant traveled to Thomas County, where he reviewed documents, interviewed some of the School District's staff, and met with Kornegay.

         Following Grant's initial investigation and after receiving input from him, Kornegay submitted a written request for an investigation of Quigg to the Commission in March 2012. The request alleged that Quigg had violated the Code of Ethics for Educators issued by the Commission ("Ethics Code") based on her conduct relating to the School District's dual enrollment policy and the personal fitness policy and her removal of confidential student files from her work computer.

         In April 2012, the Commission's Educator Ethics Review Committee reviewed the written request submitted by Kornegay and recommended an investigation of Quigg to the Commission, and the Commission authorized the investigation of Quigg for the aforementioned alleged ethical violations. In July 2012, after some additional investigation by Grant, the Commission notified Quigg that it had found probable cause to recommend disciplinary action against her. Following the Commission's finding of probable cause, Quigg requested a full evidentiary hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ") with the Office of State Administrative Hearings.

         Prior to the administrative hearing, the Commission filed a Statement of Matters Asserted that detailed the ethics charges against Quigg relating to the School District's dual enrollment and personal fitness policies and the removal of confidential student files from her work computer. The Commission alleged that Quigg's conduct violated Ethics Code Standard 4, "Honesty," and Standard 10, "Professional Conduct." See Ga. Comp. R. & Regs., r. 505-6-01 (3) (d) (2), (j). Based on Quigg's alleged ethical violations, the Commission sought the suspension of Quigg's educator's certificate for 90 contract days. Quigg filed an answer to the Commission's Statement of Matters Asserted, denying any violation of the Ethics Code.

         The ALJ conducted the requested hearing at which the Commission and Quigg introduced documentary evidence and multiple witnesses testified, including Kornegay, Grant, and Quigg. After the hearing, the Commission and Quigg both submitted proposed orders containing findings of fact and conclusions of law. In her proposed order, Quigg asserted that there was insufficient evidence to support a finding that she had committed any ethics violations relating to the dual enrollment and personal fitness policies and the removal of confidential student files. Quigg further asserted that Commission had violated the applicable statutory framework and her due process rights based on procedural irregularities in the manner in which Grant conducted the investigation.

         Following the hearing and receipt of the parties' proposed orders, the ALJ entered a detailed order containing findings of fact and conclusions of law. The ALJ noted that while it had "concerns about the procedures that were followed" in the investigation of the case, the Commission had substantially complied with the statutory framework for investigating ethics violations and Quigg had failed to show that she suffered any prejudice resulting from the manner in which the investigation had been conducted.

         As to the factual allegations raised by the Commission, the ALJ found that there was insufficient evidence that Quigg was the "mastermind" who orchestrated the one-time change to the School District's dual enrollment policy for the 2009-2010 school year and the policy of allowing students to receive personal fitness credit for taking marching band. The ALJ concluded, however, that the evidence still supported a finding that Quigg had violated Ethics Code Standards 4 and 10 through her inaction in response to the change in the dual enrollment policy that she was aware violated the State's Dual Enrollment Regulation; her unjustified removal of the confidential student files from her computer; and her efforts to have her daughter's transcript changed to substitute a personal fitness credit for band when she knew that the School District's personal fitness policy violated the State's Personal Fitness Regulation. But, the ALJ declined to suspend Quigg's educator's certificate for 90 contract days as recommended by the Commission and instead concluded that a suspension of 60 days was "more suitable to the proven allegations."

         The decision of the ALJ was made the final decision of the Commission. Quigg filed a petition for judicial review in the superior court, challenging the sufficiency of the evidence and the alleged procedural irregularities in the manner in which the Commission's investigation was conducted. The superior court held a hearing on the petition and entered an order affirming the final decision of the Commission. Quigg filed an application for discretionary appeal with this Court, which we granted, resulting in the present appeal.

         Under the Georgia Administrative Procedure Act, OCGA § 50-13-1 et seq. (the "APA"), the administrative agency "is the finder of fact and weighs the credibility of the evidence," Ga. Public Svc. Comm. v. Southern Bell, 254 Ga. 244, 246 (327 SE2d 726) (1985), and in reviewing the agency's decision, the superior court "shall not substitute its judgment for that of the agency as to the weight of the evidence on questions of fact." OCGA § 50-13-19 (h). See Ga. Public Svc. Comm. v. Alltel Ga. Communications Corp., 244 Ga. App. 645, 647 (536 SE2d 542) (2000). But, the agency's decision may be reversed or modified by the court

if substantial rights of the appellant have been prejudiced because the administrative findings, inferences, conclusions, or decisions are: (1) In violation of constitutional or statutory provisions; (2) In excess of the statutory authority of the agency; (3) Made upon unlawful procedure; (4) Affected by other error of law; (5) Clearly erroneous in view of the reliable, probative, and substantial evidence on the whole record; or (6) Arbitrary or capricious or characterized by abuse of discretion or clearly unwarranted exercise of discretion.

OCGA ยง 50-13-19 (h). "Upon further discretionary appeal to this Court, our duty is not to review whether the record supports the superior court's decision but whether the record supports the final decision of the [administrative agency]." (Citation and punctuation ...


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