Teacher pay suit partly settled

A circuit judge in Honolulu on Friday approved a $14 million partial settlement to thousands of substitute teachers in a class-action lawsuit filed against the state Department of Education over back pay accrued in the early 2000s.

The case was originally filed 11 years ago by then-substitute teacher David Garner of Maui. The settlement approved by Judge Karl Sakamoto covers per diem or daily wages for the years 2000-2005 and covers 10,000 substitute teachers, according to Garner and court documents.

This is only a partial settlement because the plaintiffs plan to appeal for interest, hourly wages and attorney fees, said Garner from Oahu on Friday.

“It feels good to get this part out of the way,” said Garner. “It is still going to be a struggle, and I’m not going to give up to get justice for the 10,000 people.”

The plaintiffs noted in court documents that the state Legislature approved $15 million for the settlement of the Garner class-action lawsuit. That appropriation led to the partial settlement, court documents said.

Garner said that the substitute teachers could begin receiving their settlement payments in March. He noted that the payments will vary based on the individual’s work record.

Attempts to obtain comment from the state Department of Education were unsuccessful.

The genesis of the case lies in a pay raise negotiated between the teachers union and the DOE, said Garner. Union teachers got pay raises, but substitute teachers did not.

Garner and other substitute teachers filed a lawsuit in 2002, claiming that by state law their pay was tied to the level paid to class II teachers, who received a pay raise in the contract.

The case went up to the state Intermediate Court of Appeals, where the court ruled in favor of Garner and substitute teachers in November 2009, said Eric Ferrer, Garner’s attorney.

Ferrer said that the state is continuing to contest hourly back pay and interest payments.

He emphasized that the length of time it took to reach a partial payment in this case is unusual. Many other attorneys declined to take Garner’s case because of the work and time they thought it would take to litigate, Ferrer said.

When Garner showed him the statute and the Web page with his pay rate, Ferrer thought: “Well, this is kind of a no-brainer. It is pretty clear the DOE has not complied with the law.”

Ferrer “naively” thought he could write a few letters and the case would be resolved.

“I was sadly mistaken,” he said, now 11 years later.

Through the years, Ferrer said that the “tenacity and passion for justice” by Garner and other substitute teachers helped fuel the attorneys. They are going to fight this to the end, he said.

Because of the number of years that have passed since the lawsuit’s filing, it appears that some members of the class have moved or died, Garner said. The DOE has reported that several hundred letters mailed to substitute teachers have been returned. Garner encouraged members in the class-action suit or their survivors to go to the website www.hawaiiclassaction.com to update their information.

After he filed the lawsuit, Garner said his number of days of substitute teaching dropped from 170 days a year to 140 days. After moving to Florida, he and his family returned to Maui recently. He is no longer substitute teaching.

“I’m happy and have a job and (am) able to take care of my family,” said Garner.

The two cases are David Garner v. state Department of Education and Allan Kliternick v. Kathryn S. Matayoshi.

* Lee Imada can be reached at leeimada@mauinews.com.