“Mind Your Own Business”- The Connecticut Supreme Court Limits Challenges to Licensing and Certification Decisions by Public Agencies in Lopez v. Bridgeport Board of Education.

abcIn a much ballyhooed case, certain residents and taxpayers of the City of Bridgeport brought a “quo warranto” action in the courts, challenging the qualifications of the City’s Superintendent of Schools (Paul Vallas) to hold his position, due to a failure to have the appropriate certification for a Connecticut school superintendent.  Vallas came to the Bridgeport Public School District without the necessary certification to serve as a superintendent of schools in Connecticut.  Ostensibly, Vallas (in the eyes of the State’s Commissioner of Education) qualified for a statutory exception to the usual requirements for superintendent certification by a completing a “school leadership program” via an independent study program through the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education.

The trial court disagreed with the Commissioner of Education and found that Vallas had not completed a valid school leadership program (since the independent study course was not viewed by the trial court to be a valid “program”) and Vallas  thus was not entitled to the waiver of the certification requirements that he received from the Commissioner of Education.  The trial court ordered the removal of Vallas from his position.  On appeal, the Connecticut Supreme Court reversed the trial court by holding that the courts should not be used to attack a state administrative agency’s decision to issue a license certification or waiver the renders a public officer qualified to hold his or her position; specifically, the Commissioner’s determination to issue a waiver during the vetting process was owed discretion.  In addition, the Supreme Court noted that the taxpayers bringing this lawsuit should have exhausted the administrative remedies available to challenge Vallas’ qualifications, namely, the right to seek a declaratory ruling from the State of Connecticut Board of Education under Connecticut General Statutes §10-4b.

This decision should be viewed with some relief by public agencies concerned that licensing decisions concerning a public officer’s qualifications could be challenged willy-nilly in the courts.  In addition, this decision again reminds everyone that courts prefer that administrative agency procedures be exhausted before resort to the courts.