Manatee County School District wins contract lawsuit

BRADENTON -- A former Manatee County School District employee, who took a two-year leave of absence to work as head of human resources in another county, has lost a lawsuit filed against the district after she was not allowed to come back from leave.

Janet Hernandez, former teacher and assistant principal in Manatee County, wanted to be reinstated after taking what she and her lawyers said were approved leaves of absence for the 2009-10 and 2010-11 school years.

After taking leave, Hernandez was told her annual contract was not renewed.

She claimed she had an ongoing professional contract that could only be terminated for cause.

She filed a lawsuit in 2013 demanding to be reinstated as a teacher with a professional, ongoing contract. She also asked for back pay, benefits and to have all legal costs covered. Hernandez also took issue with what she called poor record keeping by the district, which delayed and confused the case.

"The district intentionally refused to cooperate with Hernandez and consistently delayed getting information to her," wrote Melissa Mihok,

a Tampa-based lawyer representing Hernandez.

Erin Jackson, outside counsel for the school district, said Hernandez's most recent signed contract was an annual pact and the district had a right of nonrenewal.

During the leave of absence from Manatee County, Hernandez worked as director of human resources for Pinellas County schools, according to the Manatee County School Board lawyers.

While in Pinellas County, Hernandez was investigated on claims she hired her daughter's boyfriend, which is contrary to policy.

The Pinellas County superintendent recommended Hernandez be fired after the investigation concluded.

In January 2011, Hernandez resigned from Pinellas County, and declared her intent to return to Manatee County. She was informed her contract was not renewed.

In a final judgment order signed Friday, Circuit Court Judge Gilbert Smith ruled in favor of the school district.

"The issues have been tried and the court has returned a verdict in favor of the school board on both accounts," Smith wrote.

The order leaves the district the option to file for reimbursement of legal costs.

Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter @MeghinDelaney.